Retaliating against an employee for reporting safety violations, the U.S. Postal Service asserted baseless terrorism charges against him. As a result, the employee was dismissed from his job, arrested, detained, harassed, criminally charged with committing acts of terrorism, and subjected to an extended campaign of public disparagement. That sounds like the exaggerated ranting of a would-be whistleblower seeking to cash in on a big pay day. But it’s not. These are the allegations made by the U.S. Department of Labor in a lawsuit it filed against its sister agency, the U.S. Postal Service, in an action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division, Case No. 4:14-cv-1233.
Thomas Purviance had been a maintenance employee for 35 years at the Postal Service’s St. Louis Network Distribution Center. In 2009, he repeatedly complained to his supervisors and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about an unsafe condition. He suspected a carbon monoxide leak, and was concerned about a fuel leak and the accumulation of oil soaked rags in a room adjacent to the boiler.
Despite his complaints, neither USPS nor OSHA sought to measure carbon monoxide levels nor properly dispose of the oil soaked rags. When OSHA conducted an on-site inspection, postal managers escorted the inspector through a back stairway so he would not see the improperly stored oil soaked rages.
Not giving up, Purviance attempted to contact the local Fire Marshall via its non-emergency telephone number. After repeated failed attempts over several hours, Purviance called 9-1-1 and requested a test for carbon monoxide. He did not claim there was an active emergency. When the 9-1-1 dispatched response arrived, USPS managers disparaged Purviance as a “disgruntled employee.” They said he was a threat to sabotage the building, despite any factual basis that he was a threat in any way.
For the next four months, postal managers pressured the county’s prosecutor’s office to criminally prosecute Purviance. They referred to him as a drug user, dangerous, unstable, and “a terrorist” – all without any factual basis. The Postal Service eventually suspended his employment, which prompted Purviance to file a complaint with OSHA alleging harassment. Soon thereafter, Purviance was arrested and jailed on charges of making a terrorist threat and false report.
The USPS Office of Inspector General later cleared Purviance of the sabotage allegations, but the Postal Service doubled-down on its harassment and removed him permanently. In its notice of removal, the Postal Service again alleged that Purviance had made a terrorist threat and filed a false report. The Postal Service also contended that Purviance should have disposed of the oil soak rages himself, even though under OSHA and Postal Service rules he was not qualified to do so. Eventually, sanity prevailed and the criminal charges against Purviance were dismissed. The Postal Service reinstated Purviance but did not restore all of his lost pay.
In its complaint, DOL contends that that the Postal Service unlawfully and intentionally discriminated against Purviance by suspending him, publicly disparaging him, and pursuing a baseless criminal complaint against him because he reported safety hazards. DOL asks the Court for an order permanently enjoining the Postal Service from punishing employees for reporting safety hazards and seeks all appropriate relief to Purviance. We will be watching to see if any individuals at the Postal Service are held accountable for what happened in this case.
This action provides rare insight into how agency officials sometimes trump up charges against individuals. In other cases, postal officials have trumped up charges against postal contractors they don’t care for. Contractors must be particularly careful not to give a postal official the slightest grounds on which to base a charge of threatening violence – an allegation taken very serious in the Postal Service environment. Such an accusation can be based on any kind of touching, off-the-cuff remarks, and even dirty looks. When such accusations are made, the OIG is much more likely to take the side of the postal official than the contractor. And as this case demonstrates, some postal officials will even go as low as playing the terrorist card to get back at an individual.