Judge: Government Punished Attorney For Trying To Expose Pollution Problem

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - A Labor Department judge has ruled that the Justice Department illegally retaliated against a U.S. attorney who was trying to expose environmental contamination at Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

The judge said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Sasse's five-day suspension by the Justice Department in 2000 was clearly in retaliation for Sasse's contacts with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, concerning the contamination.

The order requires the Justice Department to pay Sasse $200,000 in punitive damages, in addition to back pay for a five-day suspension he served. The government may appeal the decision to a higher authority within the Labor Department.

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said the department has no comment on the case, but officials there are reviewing the government's options for a response. The department can appeal to a Labor Department review panel.

"This is the first time the Justice Department has been found to have retaliated against one of its own attorneys," said Dan Meyer, general counsel of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based group that defends whistleblowers.

Sasse has been an assistant U.S. attorney in Cleveland since 1983. From 1991 through 1999, he led the office's environmental crimes task force.

Sasse has alleged since the mid-1990s that National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials failed to disclose hazardous waste contamination on "the south forty" -- federal land in suburban Cleveland that the airport is taking over to expand its runways.

Sasse recommended that the Justice Department pursue a criminal investigation of NASA, which his superiors declined to do.

Shortly after Sasse discussed his concerns with Kucinich in February 2000, the Justice Department suspended him for using a government computer in 1997 to draft a personal letter to NASA proposing that he be hired to oversee the agency's environmental compliance.

Administrative Law Judge Gerald Tierney ruled Wednesday that "Complainant's (Sasse's) business proposal to NASA was drafted in 1997. It is important that the adverse employment action was not taken until after his contact with the congressman in 2000. This raises an inference of retaliation."

Tierney said "The retaliation took the form of an arbitrary enforcement of a petty government regulation" -- the regulation governing personal use of a government computer. He wrote that the real purpose of the suspension was retaliation for Sasse's "well-known interest in the south forty."

The judge rejected Sasse's broader claims -- first filed in 1996 -- that his superiors repeatedly have attempted to limit his enforcement of environmental crimes.

Kucinich said Thursday, "We have to protect people who are the truth-bearers in our society. This decision should be encouraging to everyone inside government who wants to do the right thing."

Sasse's attorney, Steven Bell, said, "Employees of the Department of Justice have to be free from unlawful discrimination when they are attempting to protect the public from environmental risks."

Mark Vilem, chief engineer at Hopkins Airport, said the airport is working with NASA and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to develop a cleanup plan for the land to be used for the runway expansion.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)