Mark Twain derided “lies, damn lies and statistics.” A former federal number-cruncher explains why.
Since I became a daily newspaper reporter in the fall of 1992 I’ve always always tried to do the big picture story. And the best way to tell such stories is to get the 30,000 foot-high version by gathering the statistics and then coming down to ground level to find the anecdotes or the faces to bring the story alive. So I can remember back in the day relying heavily on a gentlemen named Sam Hirabayashi, since retired, who was the regional statistician for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal agency which I have always considered second only to the Postal Service in terms of its useful in my life and career. For instance, the BLS, as it is called, calculates the unemployment rate and the inflation rate, vital data upon which the entire economy turn. (Click here for BLS mission statement and here for a Wikipedia entry on BLS.)
So I was blown right out of my blogger’s bathrobe this morning when I got a note from Charlotte Yee, who had been Hirabayashi’s replacement for the last several years until she left the agency in the spring, saying:
“I’m finally coming out about my past. Four years ago, I was a non-frivolous whistleblower assaulted while at the Department of Labor. And I’ve got news for you. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, whistleblowers are not protected from much.”
I called Yee’s assistance many, many times during 2004 and 2005, when I was covering economics for the San Francisco Chronicle. I don’t know and didn’t look to see how often I quoted her as opposed to asking her to create special spreadsheets for me, because I didn’t trust my own number-crunching capabilities. I used Yee less in 2006 and up through her departure in the spring of 2007 after I had moved from the econ beat back to covering Silicon Valley. I think I met Yee in person just twice, once early in my tenure on the econ beat and the second time when she emailed me one day at the Chronicle to say she would be leaving the agency and inviting me to visit her over at the new federal building, which I did, both to say goodbye to a valued source and to walk though what was then a newly-opened building.
And I can only hope you will believe me when I tell you that, until about 5:30 a.m. this morning, when I started reviewing my personal email account as I do before I blog each day, I had no idea that Yee had any complaint or grievance against the BLS. And now I wonder, as I want you to ask yourself as well, whether an organization with the culture of intimidation that she describes, has the BLS cooked the nation’s books?
I have distilled some of what Yee wrote in a comment appended to my Monday blog posting about a new whistleblower protection act introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a member of Congress from the Bay Area. I have assembled these clips from the blog that Yee started on Friday, Nov 2, FedHallofShame.com, in order to provide a summary of Yee’s tale:
“For ten years, I worked for the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a coterie of total eggheads who . . . were trying to figure out the 1,000th digit of pi. At work, however, they were . . . individuals with no sense of purpose, no meaning to their work, and humiliated by superiors at every opportunity . . .”
When I hear stuff like that, my reporter’s skepticsm kicks in: was Yee a whiner and a malcontent? After all she never let on to me she had a gripe. Anticipating this, I suppose, Yee posted a link to her job evaluation. It seems OK to me. So let me continue from her whistleblower blog:
“I too was a non-frivolous whistleblower (the offender was given a golden handshake prior to the release of OIG’s report), assaulted while 3 1/2 months pregnant. Although I don’t want to advertise the fact that federal managers can flog whistleblowers . . . Administrative Judge Ellison ruled that whistleblowers have no legal recourse from assault, false imprisonment and even torture . . .
“Once I started management, according to my superiors, my job was to do whatever they asked — and that included harassing my own employees . . . since no sane manager stays, employees have no one to protect them. Now that I’m not there, I don’t know what happens to employees who accidentally burn pizzas. (Really — I was asked from an extremely high level to take action against this atrocity . . . “
Let me also share Yee’s pointer to Salon’s recent article on whistleblowers. There’s more to say and think about here but I am out of time. And I am still somewhat stunnned. I’ve communicated with Yee by email since her departure from BLS and she has commented on MiniMediaGuy several times. But I need to get about my day and must set this aside for now.