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Anatomy of a whistleblower: ‘If I was to uphold my vow and my oath of office, I had to do it’

‘I have PTSD from my experience. It’s just brutal. I don’t know how any other way to put it. It’s brutal,. said FBI whistleblower Jane Turner

SHARE Anatomy of a whistleblower: ‘If I was to uphold my vow and my oath of office, I had to do it’
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A portrait of Jane Turner, a former FBI agent and whistleblower, in Minneapolis, Minn., on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

Jenn Ackerman, For the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When President Donald Trump declares on Twitter, as he did again Monday, that he wants to know the name of the whistleblower whose complaint launched an impeachment inquiry, Jane Turner can’t help but notice.

“It affects me,” said Turner, a two-time FBI whistleblower. “I have PTSD from my experience. It’s just brutal. I don’t know any other way to put it. It’s brutal.”

She says the retaliation she experienced after reporting wrongdoing in the FBI is common among hundreds of government whistleblowers. She fears the same will happen to the individual whose complaint that Trump pressured a foreign government to investigate a political rival is now at the heart of a House impeachment inquiry.

Retaliation wasn’t on Turner’s mind in 1998 when she first reported wrongdoing to her supervisor. “I went down there with the idea that he would right a wrong,” she said.

In her work as the senior resident agent — the first woman in the FBI to hold that position — over a 25,000-square-mile region in North Dakota, Turner had learned of a violent rape on an Indian reservation that another agent had closed as a car accident. She reopened the case, which led to a conviction, and found in her investigation that the same agent had closed a number of child abuse cases, some ending in death, in similar fashion.

Turner traveled from Minot, North Dakota, to the Minneapolis field office and shared her findings with the special agent in charge. His response was not what she expected. “You have a kid of your own to worry about,” she recalls him saying. She took it as coded advice to ignore the situation, but his words troubled her on the return flight.

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A portrait of Jane Turner, a former FBI agent and whistleblower, in Minneapolis, Minn., on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

Jenn Ackerman, For the Deseret News

Working for the FBI was Turner’s dream job. She had risen quickly through the ranks. She played a role in the arrests of Soviet spy Christopher Boyce and “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway. She became a criminal profiler — the first woman to do so — and helped to solve abortion clinic bombings and the 1986 Central Park Preppy murder. Assigned to the remote midwest in 1987, she became an expert at investigating crimes against children, dealing with a high number of abuse cases on the Fort Berthold and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations.

Now she faced a decision that would leave her integrity intact and her law enforcement career in tatters.

“I came home, I looked at my kid and I thought if I don’t do something then shame on me,” she said. “So, I kicked it up to headquarters and that’s when things just went terribly bad for me.”

Sometimes retaliation is subtle.

A year after her report, Turner was transferred to Minneapolis, to oversee the crimes against children program, but she said she wasn’t given a desk or chair. She felt ostracized and found the only agents who would talk to her were other women when they were in the bathroom. She was eventually removed from service for a year and subjected to a fitness for duty review, a process she said compels most agents to quit.

“They thought I would leave, but when I didn’t they had to take me back,” she said.

She hired an attorney who specialized in representing whistleblowers, but he counseled her that she would have better chances in court, suing for sexual discrimination, than in the administrative morass of a whistleblower complaint. Her lawsuit alleged unfair treatment in performance reviews compared to male counterparts. These allegations were eventually dismissed, but after an appeal, a jury found in 2007 that the agency had indeed retaliated against her for filing the complaint and awarded her $565,000 in damages.

Turner returned to work at the Minneapolis field office in October 2001. She was handed a tip that a local disaster cleanup company had taken a fire truck door from the rubble of 9/11, which was still a crime scene. A broader investigation involving U.S. Customs agents and confidential sources within the company found that FBI agents had also squirreled away bits and pieces of history from the tragedy.

This time, Turner filed a formal whistleblower complaint, reporting her allegations to the Inspector General of the Department of Justice.

“That ended my career,” she said.

The FBI tried to fire her for “embarrassing the bureau,” Turner says. Instead, she resigned to salvage her pension. She is still fighting for seven years of backpay that she didn’t receive while her whistleblower complaint languished at the Justice Department, which finally ruled in her favor in 2013.

Her case is detailed in a 2015 Government Accountability Office report that blasts the FBI for not addressing whistleblower complaints in a timely way.

The FBI had no comment on Turner’s cases, referring instead to a former director’s statements in favor of whistleblowers.

Turner, now 68, spends her days practicing yoga, meditating and volunteering at her local church. She is also chairwoman of the National Whistleblowers Center’s leadership council.

In a phone interview from her home in Bloomington, Minnesota, Turner shared her story and her views about the role of a whistleblower in government. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What was your reaction when your first heard about the whistleblower complaint that launched the impeachment inquiry?

Jane Turner: The first thing I thought was, “Good for him or her. They’re heroes.” They are heroes because they’re following their oath of office to protect the Constitution. The second thing was they’re going to destroy this person and their family. You have no comprehension of how far people will go to destroy you. They questioned my integrity, mental ability, financial situation. They go after everything and get to the soul of the person, and that’s what’s going to happen to this person.

DN: Is there any reassurance this person will have it better than you did because administration officials have said the whistleblower followed protocol and he will be protected?

JT: No, because he is in a much worse spot than I was. I had to deal with just bureau people. He will have a whole range of political operatives and enemies. I don’t know if he went into this thinking he would get total anonymity, but somebody is going to leak his identity and that would be totally unfair, a sad thing.

DN: President Trump has lashed out at the whistleblower saying “you know what we used to do in old says, when we were smart, right, the spies and treason?” How did you react to that?

JT: That would be an arrow through the heart. Once you get to the president of the United States you can’t go any higher. I am astounded the president would go out and do something like that and threaten the safety of a whistleblower.

DN: When you thought through the decision of reporting wrongdoing, did you consider the impact it would have on you professionally?

JT: No. I thought I would go in and they would fix it. I loved the bureau. I loved every single minute of it. I wanted to make it a better place. I had no idea they were going to try to cover it up. But if you have a moral compass, there is nothing else you can do. I felt if I was to uphold my vow and my oath of office, I had to do it. I had no choice.

DN: When you were transferred to Minneapolis to take charge of the crimes against children section, why did you feel ostracized and feel that was retaliation for raising a concern?

JT: I reported like any good duty agent does to Minneapolis and I found out I didn’t even have a chair or a desk. And I had no cases. It was very punitive and humiliating to go from being in charge of 25,000 square miles to this. They put out the word to other agents to avoid me and the only time people were willing to talk to me was I was in the bathroom with other women agents. They started lowering my performance reports and then they had me go through a fitness for duty process. That is the death knell for agents. Most will quit before they have to go through that. It took a whole year and they make you surrender your weapon. But because of my psychology background, I survived it and they had to take me back.

DN: After what you went through the first time you blew the whistle, what compelled you to do it again after discovering the thefts from ground zero when no lives were at stake?

JT: The second time I already knew what they had done to me the first time, but I just lived up to my code and my FBI vow of fidelity, bravery, integrity. The second time, I was working with Customs agents, they had told their head guy and we discussed it and they expected me to do the right thing, and I did. The bureau had an indictment ready to announce against a company that had taken artifacts but they couldn’t when they became aware some of our own agents had taken stuff. I thought the reputation of the bureau was at stake. Little did I know that in order to protect their reputation, they’d get rid of the whistleblower.

DN: As a whistleblower and a board member of the National Whistleblowers Center, what do you want the public to understand about their role in government and society?

JT: Every whistleblower I’ve talked to has had that same desire. They just simply want to make things right, and how can you have a better agency if you don’t address those things? They have a real strong sense of justice. They all thought they were doing the right thing, the good thing to make their agency better, their country better.