ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Federal prosecutors who look into the treatment of whistleblowers are reopening the case of an Alaska wildlife biologist who successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service and died of a heart attack days after his job was eliminated.
Glen Ith sued the Forest Service in 2006 over road repairs and bridge building in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska — work that was being done before timber sales were approved and environmental impact work conducted.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency tasked with enforcing the Whistleblower Protection Act, said Friday in a letter that it is taking a second look at Ith’s case and whether he was a victim of retaliation.
The case was closed in 2008 when the 48-year-old Petersburg man died four days after finding out that he no longer had a job.
The Forest Service’s Alaska region office declined comment Friday.
“This is an active investigation of Forest Service employees and we cannot comment on the investigation,” spokesman Ray Massey said.
The Forest Service maintained that the road and bridge work was routine and did not need to go through an environmental and public review. U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick, however, disagreed and ordered the Forest Service to stop the work that cut through old-growth stands in the Tongass.
Over an 18-month period, Ith was reassigned and put on leave, only to have his job eliminated in a downsizing.
The push for the investigation is being led by Ith’s widow, Marketa Ith, and Eugene, Ore.-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a nonprofit group that Ith turned to for help in 2005 about the road-building in the Tongass.
The nonprofit received a letter Friday informing it that Ith’s case was being reopened.
In the letter, Senior Associate Special Counsel Leonard Dribinsky said he had reviewed e-mails and letters and other exhibits provided by the group and had determined the case should be reopened.
The nonprofit on Dec. 3 requested that the U.S. Office of Special Counsel look at the case again and provided supporting materials.
Andy Stahl, the nonprofit’s executive director, said Ith’s widow sued to obtain files that the Forest Service had gathered on her husband.
He said that after Ith sued, Tongass Supervisor Forrest Cole reassigned him to a lesser job reviewing literature on migratory birds. According to Stahl, the e-mails reveal that Cole justified the reassignment on the grounds that Ith was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Forest Service and had created a conflict of interest concerning the work he was hired to do.
Stahl said Cole immediately launched a misconduct investigation into Ith to support his intention to fire him and he considered issuing a formal reprimand.
Two months after Ith’s court victory, he was placed on administrative leave. When Ith’s job was eliminate, budget cuts were cited as the reason for eliminating the career Forest Service employee’s job.
Ith died on March 3, 2008, 16 months after being suspended from his job.