23. Censorship Through Bribery
The Progressive, 409 E. Main Street Madison, Wl 53703, Date: August 1992, Title:
"Buying Silence," Author: Geoffrey Aronson
SSU Censored Researcher:
SYNOPSIS: Many companies, especially within the nuclear power
industry, frequently attempt to muzzle whistle-blowers with so-called
"money-for-silence" agreements. Some would-be whistle-blowers,
in fear of jeopardizing their job security, pledge not to reveal safety
violations in return for token cash settlements.
Investigative reporter Geoffrey Aronson warned how tragic such agreements
could be: "A confidential report, titled 'Secret Money for Silence
Agreements in the Nuclear Industry,' compiled in May 1989 by the staff
of the U.S. Senate's subcommittee on nuclear regulation, warned, 'If
management hadn't suppressed safety information from Morton-Thiokol's
engineers, the Challenger disaster could have been avoided. It is frightening
to think that we may be dealing with multiple nuclear equivalents of
the Challenger disaster."'
Joe Macktal, a worker at the Comanche
Peak nuclear power plant in Texas, settled with his employers, Brown & Root,
Inc., for $35,000 (of which $20,000 went to legal fees). Macktal had been fired
after he discovered potential construction problems at the plant. The company
promised not to blacklist him (in an industry where news of "trouble-makers"
travels fast), in exchange for a pledge not to appear voluntarily in any administrative
or judicial proceedings regarding the safe operation of Comanche Peak. Grudgingly,
he agreed to this and also to taking reasonable steps to resist any subpoena requiring
his testimony at such proceedings.
Macktal later revealed the agreement anyway, but the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) ruled that the restrictions imposed on Macktal's ability
to communicate with federal agencies did not constitute "a violation
of Federal law or NRC regulation." Later, bowing to pressure, the
NRC reversed its position. "Yet whether through ignorance or guile,
corporate attorneys representing the nuclear power industry are still
attempting to peddle hush money settlement agreements," Aronson
reports. "One draft settlement written in January 1992, for example,
would require the whistle-blower 'not to cooperate in any investigation
of the company by the NRC. "'
the NRC and the Secretary of Labor have decided to outlaw future attempts to muzzle
nuclear whistle-blowers with "money-for-silence" agreements, no such
protection for prospective informers and the public exists outside the nuclear
industry. According to Aronson, the Toxic Substances Act; the Occupational Safety
and Health Act, Superfund and laws regulating mine safety, clean air and clean
water, can all be undermined by money for-silence agreements.
1991, the National Whistle-Blower Center petitioned the EPA to adopt regulations
that would explicitly outlaw restrictive agreements. The EPA declined. "Without
EPA action," explains Steven M. Kohn, an attorney who chairs the Whistle-Blower
Center, "environmental whistle-blowers will remain without protection. Many
will be gagged by outrageous hush-money restrictions."
COMMENTS: Author Geoffrey Aronson feels that the subject of
secret settlement agreements to squelch further inquiry or publicity
has rarely been a topic of media inquiry. Instead, Aronson said, "Concern
has centered on the issue of public access to court proceedings generally,
and the desire to unseal court-ordered sealed documents used in specific
cases; Agent Orange and auto liability cases come to mind.
actions against the Comanche Peak nuclear plant were settled in the summer of
1988, there was coverage in the Texas press and an article that I wrote for the
Nation in late 1989. Subsequent hearings on Capitol Hill were episodically covered
in the Washington Post. To my knowledge, however, there has been no inquiry into
the use of these types of settlement agreements in the other environmental arena
which I discussed in my Progressive article.
"The public should be aware of the tension that exists, and the
conflicts that arise in the nuclear power and other environmentally
related areas when issues of public health and safety compete with corporate
and private interests. Public safety may well be compromised by a legal
and bureaucratic system that `privatizes' disputes relating to violations
of statutes aimed at protecting the public good. I feel it is also important
to illuminate the conflicts that arise when 'public interest' lawyers
serve masters whose interests are not necessarily coincident -- the
`public' and their individual client whistle-blowers. "Those best
served by current practices (such as secret settlements) are corporate
interests and government regulatory bodies with a stake in minimizing
the public impact of health and safety concerns raised by whistle-blowers."
Aronson also wanted to acknowledge his appreciation to the Fund for
Investigative Journalism for supporting both The Nation and The Progressive