PHOENIX — On her 71st workday in the basement, Paula Pedene had something fun to look forward to. She had an errand to run, up on the first floor.
“Today, I get to go get the papers. Exciting!” she said. “I get to go upstairs and, you know, see people.”
The task itself was no thrill: Retrieve the morning’s newspapers and bring them back to the library of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital. The pleasure was in the journey. Down a long sun-lit hallway. Back again, seeing friends in the bustle of the hospital’s main floor.
Then, Pedene got back in the elevator and hit “B.” The day’s big excitement was over. It was 7:40 a.m.
A DESK IN THE BASEMENT
“I will not be able to do this forever,” Pedene said later that day.
Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokesperson for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned – indefinitely – to a desk in the basement.
In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she was, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy – workers sent to a cubicle in exile.
In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.
The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.
“I was down there in that office for 16 months. Nothing. They gave me no meaningful work,” said Walter Tamosaitis, a former contract worker at an Energy Department installation in Washington state.
Four years ago, he raised concerns about the processing of radioactive waste. Then he was transferred to a windowless room in the building’s basement.
“It was so lonely,” he said. One day, there was a big snowstorm outside. In the basement, the phone rang. It was his wife, who’d seen a TV report that his workplace had been shut down. He went upstairs: lights out. Doors locked. Nobody told him.
“I thought the Rapture had occurred,” Tamosaitis said. “And I said, ‘Well, (expletive). I’m the good guy, it can’t be the Rapture. I should be gone, and they should be here.’ ”
DOING ‘THE RIGHT THING’ BACKFIRES
In Phoenix, Pedene believes she is stuck in the basement now because of something she did four years ago.
At the time, she was a 20-year employee at the hospital who oversaw everything from news releases to the hospital newsletter to the annual Veterans Day parade. In 2010, Pedene joined a group that complained to VA’s upper management about the Phoenix hospital’s director. They alleged that the director had allowed budget shortfalls and berated subordinates.
And it seemed to work. The VA’s inspector general investigated, and found an $11 million shortfall in the hospital’s budget. The director retired voluntarily. “I felt we had actually done the right thing,” Pedene said. But that turned out to be the beginning of her troubles, not the end.
Pedene said she is staying on in the basement because she thinks someday, the VA will let her out. “My goal is to be an awesome PR person for VA again,” she says.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said the committee is looking into Pedene’s case.