IG: Secret Service Retaliated Against Whistleblower Who Accused Managers of Abusing Authority

DHS IG finds in favor of agent, recommends full reinstatement and back-pay

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The Secret Service retaliated against a whistleblower who waged a five-year battle with the agency, accusing senior managers of abusing their authority and fabricating charges against him because he spoke out against their alleged mismanagement, according to the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general.

After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, the DHS OIG issued a report Tuesday concluding that the Secret Service retaliated against Robert MacQueen, a 24-year veteran agent who had served in several prestigious assignments, multiple times by revoking his security clearance and keeping him on unpaid leave for more than three years while he fought the false charges.

The Washington Free Beacon in early September reported on MacQueen's case, including his allegation that the Secret Service tried to offer him "fast-track" disability retirement in return for dropping his complaints even though he is able-bodied and never sought any type of disability compensation.

Knowingly helping to defraud the government by offering to help file a false disability claim is criminal behavior and could constitute a felony, according to lawyers who specialize in federal-employment law.

The inspector general report, which is final but has yet to be publicly released, found that MacQueen's protected whistleblower disclosures were at least "a contributing factor" to the agency's decision to revoke his security clearance and put him on unpaid leave.

"In sum, the weaknesses in the Secret Service's case for the security clearance actions, coupled with motive to retaliate, as well as comparisons with similarly situated employees that showed complainant was treated differently, demonstrate that the agency failed in its burden of showing that it would have taken these actions absent complainant's protected [whistleblower] disclosures," the inspector general said in its report.

The report recommends that the Secret Service reinstate his security clearance and return him to a paid-duty status, provide back pay for his time on unpaid leave, as well as attorney fees.

The IG report did not address the disability-retirement allegations.

"We are currently reviewing the OIG's recommendations, and determining next steps in this matter," Secret Service press secretary Cathy L. Milhoan said in a statement.

MacQueen previously told the Free Beacon that he and his family were crushed financially as he spent years on unpaid leave fighting the charges.

MacQueen's attorney Sean Bigley said on Thursday that he expects the Secret Service to "promptly" follow the inspector general's recommendations and ensure that MacQueen's security clearance is reinstated and he receives back pay for his time on unpaid leave.

"The conduct of the Secret Service officials in this matter was appalling and only further perpetuates the agency's reputation as an ‘old boys' club,'" he told the Free Beacon. "Nonetheless, the system worked here and justice prevailed."

"Special Agent MacQueen is grateful to the men and women of the DHS OIG for their courage in vigorously seeking out the truth. We expect the Secret Service will now promptly comply with their moral and legal obligations to make MacQueen whole."

"In line with the inspector general's recommendations, we are requesting back pay, immediate reinstatement, and compensatory damages," he said.

Taking the often-irreversible step of formally denying someone's security clearance can be a career-ending move because the action often not only ends their government job, it prevents the person from seeking work in the private-sector in which a security-clearance is required.

The DHS OIG in its report said MacQueen's case is the first time that it has substantiated an "instance of retaliation" related to an agency wrongfully overturning or suspending an employee's security clearance under a five-year-old presidential policy directive aimed at protecting whistleblowers with access to classified information.

Whistleblowers and other employees who have accused government officials of wrongdoing often complain that their security clearances are revoked in retaliation and that they have no way to fight back and try to keep their clearances.

MacQueen said he was set to be promoted to the assistant special agent in charge of the Buffalo field office, a GS-14-level post, in the fall of 2012 when the agency falsely accused him of misusing his government vehicle multiple times and wrongly claiming overtime work on the weekends.

He says he never faced a formal disciplinary investigation until the agency leveled these charges, suspended his promotion, and began taking additional disciplinary action against him.

MacQueen said senior Secret Service managers trumped up multiple government vehicle misuse allegations against him and added accusations that he grossly overstated his overtime.

They only did so, he said, after he filed a complaint with the Secret Service ombudsman and the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal prosecutorial agency, a few months before.

MacQueen said in his complaints that agency officials and a U.S. attorney were pursuing an alleged Ponzi scheme case in Minneapolis too aggressively and had seized $26 million in the company's assets before finding any victims of the alleged scheme. He had previously reported his concerns about the $26 million seizure to supervisors in his chain of command.

The DHS OIG investigation found "favorable evidence" to support MacQueen's argument about the handing of the Ponzi scheme case when a source, whose identity was redacted in the IG report, said the "Secret Service had ‘jumped the gun' and seized Inter-Mark's assets too soon before identifying victims."

"This squarely supports [MacQueen's] reasonable belief that the seizure warrant was based on insufficient evidence and before the government had identified sufficient victims."

The source, which the IG refers to as a "disinterested observer with knowledge of the essential facts" of the case, said "there should have been much, much more investigation prior to the seizure of funds."

The IG investigation also found that the decision to revoke MacQueen's security clearance and place him on indefinite leave without pay over allegations that he misused his government vehicle was far harsher disciplinary action than other Secret Service employees had received for similar allegations of misconduct.

The probe found that the agency did not consider evidence that MacQueen said clearly demonstrates that he hadn't misused his government vehicle nor claimed more overtime work than he performed.

MacQueen additionally had alleged that Secret Service managers retaliated against him after he complained to senior agents and a top agency attorney about harsh interrogation tactics that he said both he and a colleague experienced during agency investigations into their alleged misconduct.

MacQueen said the other agent committed suicide within days of his interrogation session and wasn't given DHS-required counseling sessions even though interrogators were so worried about his mental state after the interrogation that they took away his gun.

The IG found that MacQueen did not have "personal knowledge" or "reasonable basis" to conclude that the agency had denied his colleague required counseling services so that point was not a protected whistleblower disclosure.