- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Madeline Fletcher, an epidemiologist, knew that she might nose into stenchy circumstances as public health adviser for the D.C. Department of Health (DOH). But she never suspected that she would be sucked into something so rotten that it endangered the health of D.C. school children and the life of a civil servant.

Nor did she suspect that she, too, would become one of its victims.

It started with a telephone call. In November 1999, a nurse at the Mamie D. Lee School for special education called Mrs. Fletcher with the alarming news that one of her students had just consumed moldy grape jelly. After notifying her supervisors, Mrs. Fletcher made a personal visit to the school, where, to her shock she discovered that a great number of condiments being served to the students were outdated.

Something even worse was lurking at the central warehouse. Hundreds of tons of food were rotting, and insects were gorging themselves on the decaying feast, some of which dated back to 1992. The refrigeration had apparently broken down long ago, and there was no air conditioning. Smelling something even worse than the putrid mass surrounding her, Mrs. Fletcher followed her nose to a dead, decaying rat.

Mrs. Fletcher's guide was Alfred Jacobs, the well-thought-of operations manager in the school system's Division of Food and Nutrition Services. Mr. Jacobs was all too familiar with the problem. For years he had watched powerlessly as the problems persisted despite his repeated protests.

Mrs. Fletcher and several associates from the Food Protection Branch of the Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) paid several subsequent visits to the warehouse to catalogue the decay, some of which was being delivered to schools daily.

Almost a month after the initial phone call, Mrs. Fletcher sent a written report to both her supervisors and the USDA's Inspector General (IG). Notifying the IG in such a way went well beyond her duties, but Mrs. Fletcher was determined to do something after all, the rotting food was a chronic threat to the health of D.C. students, and she had two sons in the school system. As she said later, "Since the problem had been there for a long time, obviously, the top people had to get involved."

The top people did but not in the way Mrs. Fletcher expected. About a week after she posted her report, Mrs. Fletcher was called into a meeting with Dr. Ivan Walks, the director of the D.C. Department of Health. She was informed that her work had embarrassed the administration, and that someone could lose his or her job over it.

Someone did. That same week, Mr. Jacobs was placed on administrative leave, which became a permanent firing the following February. To the best of Mrs. Fletcher's knowledge, no one else was fired, or even disciplined. Nor was anything done about the rancid situation.

Mrs. Fletcher's report suffered the same fate as the food: She was assigned to other cases, and her report festered in the darkness.

Yet as the months waned, the mold waxed. The following April, Mrs. Fletcher received another telephone call, this time from the concerned parent of a student at Spingarn Senior High School, whose child had been given a carton of moldy apple juice.

Mrs. Fletcher immediately notified her supervisors, hoping to arrest the rot growing throughout the system. The next day, she testified before the D.C. Council and followed it up with written testimony.

Dr. Walks also appeared at the council hearing, and he allegedly made several false statements in rebutting Mrs. Fletcher. That was management's only response, even though the District was again descending into another putrid summer.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Fletcher, a third case was about to open, one that would put the final nail in the coffin of her career. This time, though, it wasn't a phone call … it was a hospital report.

The report concerned an unfortunate Alan Lucas, a D.C. corrections officer, who had recently been released from a month-long stay in intensive care after an encounter with Legionnaire's Disease. Legionnaire's Disease is essentially pneumonia with an evil intent, and the bacteria that causes it grows best in dark, stagnant waters, such as air-conditioning cooling towers and humidifiers.

To discover why Mr. Lucas came so close to a fatal encounter, Mrs. Fletcher did a site investigation at the D.C. Jail. She found conditions that were almost ideal for the growth of the Legionnaire's bacteria foul conditions that had probably persisted for some time.

Fielding a call about the cell conditions from concerned federal regulators, she urged them to investigate further. She had no idea that that was one of the last recommendations she would make as the District's public health adviser.

That same day, she was notified that her 13-month term had been reduced to six months. No explanation was given. Then it was reduced even further. Again no explanation. Her supervisor's pleas for her retention fell into the same darkness.

Within a month after making her recommendation in the case of Mr. Lucas, Mrs. Fletcher had been effectively terminated.

With no other recourse, Mrs. Fletcher sued the District under its tough Whistleblower Reinforcement Act of 1998. The statute is thought to be one of the tightest in the nation, and Mrs. Fletcher may well become a living test of it.

Mrs. Fletcher hopes to be both compensated and reinstated, even though the warehouse problems have allegedly been fixed. She explained, "I'm basically a public servant at heart." She should be granted both requests for the sake of whistle-blowers across the country.

As Martin Edwin Andersen, media director for the Government Accountability Project, explained, "This is a very important test case because the District's law is the state of the art for the United States. Her case is so strong that if her request is not granted, it will prove that the law is nothing more than an empty shell there's a credibilty issue for the District."

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer and a Commentary editor for The Washington Times.

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