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Probe: Air Force illegally punished Dover whistleblowers

An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Jeremiah T. Sancho Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011 at Dover Air Force Base, Del.

Air Force officials violated whistleblower laws when they retaliated against four civilian workers who reported the mishandling of war remains at the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., independent federal  prosecutors said on Tuesday.

The Office of Special Counsel concluded that in 2009 and 2010, three Dover mortuary officials retaliated against the employees for reporting the misconduct and must be disciplined. The employees alleged that they faced job termination, indefinite administrative leave and five-day suspensions.

 “We applaud the whistleblowers for their courage in coming forward,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a news release. “We expect the Air Force will now take appropriate steps to discipline the wrongdoers and deter future acts of retaliation.”

In a written statement, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said “there is no place for reprisal in the Air Force.”  He said he has appointed a two-star general to review the findings and take "appropriate action."

“Throughout this process, the Air Force remains committed to this mission as a solemn obligation,” Donley said in the statement. “We continue to care for America’s fallen with dignity, honor and respect and provide care and support for their families.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the Air Force to review its handling of a major scandal at Dover Air Force Base, where the remains of deceased soldiers were lost of buried in landfills. Stan McDowell, whose son's remains went missing, talks to msnbc's Craig Melvin.

In an earlier investigation report released last November, the Office of Special Counsel said it had found "gross mismanagement" at the Dover facility, where small body parts of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan were lost on two occasions. The Air Force said at the time that it took disciplinary action — but did not fire — three senior supervisors there for their role in the mismanagement. The reprisal accusations were a separate matter and were investigated by the Special Counsel under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

According to The Associated Press the three disciplined in connection with the earlier Special Counsel included Air Force Col. Robert Edmondson, who commanded the Dover mortuary at the time of the incidents, and two civilian supervisors — Trevor Dean and Quinton Keel.

Edmondson was given a letter of reprimand, denied a job commanding a unit at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., and barred from future command assignments, The Associated Press reported. Dean and Keel took a cut in pay and were moved to non-supervisory jobs at Dover. All three have declined to comment publicly on the matter.

Although the Special Counsel did not identify the three accused of retaliating against the whistleblowers, two officials told The Associated Press that they are Edmondson, Dean and Keel. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of privacy restrictions.

Report: Air Force dumped remains of 274 troops in landfill

The four whistleblowers had alleged that they suffered retaliation for their disclosures, including job termination, indefinite administrative leave and five-day suspensions.

James Parsons, one of the whistleblowers, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he had not seen the investigators' report but was told Monday that its conclusions support his and the others' claims of retaliation.

Parsons is an embalming/autopsy technician. Two of the other whistleblowers are Mary Ellen Spera, a mortuary inspector, and William Zwicharowski, a senior mortuary inspector. Those three told The Associated Press last November, after the scandal broke, that the Air Force had retaliated against them. Parsons said he was fired in 2010 but reinstated almost immediately. Spera and Zwicharowski said they received letters of reprimand.

Zwicharowski also said he was put on administrative leave for eight months and at one point was labeled "mentally unstable."

Spera and Zwicharowski both said in interviews Tuesday that they had not seen the Special Counsel report.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed deep disappointment in the Dover revelations last fall, and he ordered Donley, the Air Force secretary, to report back to him on the adequacy of the disciplinary actions he had taken.

Panetta also appointed a retired Army general, John Abizaid, to lead an independent assessment of actions taken to improve mortuary operations at Dover. That review is due to be completed by the end of February.

Air Force officials have 30 days to review the OSC’s findings and recommendations, according to the Air Force Times. If they do not sufficiently respond, the OSC can can pursue disciplinary action through the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

An investigation found "gross mismanagement" at the mortuary of the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Three of its officials have been reprimanded for losing or mishandling body parts of dead service members. NBC’s Brian Williams reports.


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