by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Dr. Coleman-Adebayo, a heroine of the whistleblower movement, tells her story in the book No Fear: A Whistleblowers Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She is also an editor and columnist for Black Agenda Report, and has graciously allowed us to serialize her book. This is the latest installment.
Ultimatum to Public Service - Chapter 3
by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“I will not participate in anything that will have an adverse effect on South Africa or its people.”
A burst of waterfront air. Fish. A sense of the sea. I walked across a lawn toward the bay and then past the boat vendors with steamed shrimp, the oceanfront boats, and the restaurants with waterfront windows. It was not common practice for the assistant administrator, the president’s eyes and ears at the EPA, to do lunch with a member of his staff. This must have something to do with how they had treated me after the Women’s Conference in Beijing I thought. I’ll bet he’s going to weigh in on the complaint.
The Yacht restaurant was actually a converted boat. It sat moored in the river and moved with the waves. It was a favorite for many in the office, but I never liked crossing the gangplank, which was only wide enough for one person at a time. I didn’t like the feel of the ropes, the sway. Looking down, I could see the iridescence on the water slapping against the wood, the dark buildup on the hull, bobbing up and down with all of that strangeness. The interior design consisted of paneling with nautical clocks, compasses, and spools of rope to capture the feel of a yacht, but to me the restaurant felt closed in. The blue napkins and blue tablecloths were too confining. I felt a little queasy.
Bill Nitze served under Carol Browner. He ran my office. But saying that he worked under Browner would be like saying Genghis Khan was involved in a few skirmishes. Nitze hailed from Washington, DC and Colorado political royalty. A landmark building in Washington and a battleship bear his family name. Given the flying elbows I had caught in the agency after the [UN women’s conference in] Beijing, I thought at the very least he would be conciliatory, even if the flak had come from much further down the food chain. I was by then beginning to believe I could expect elbows from a certain caliber of career civil servant—but not at the upper levels, and certainly not at EPA. Administrator Browner herself had been nothing but respectful and supportive of me. She’d gone to the mat for me against some of these same people. Bill Nitze knew what I had done for Administrator Browner. He knew what I had taken for it. And everyone had heard about it when I’d filed my complaint.
“I was by then beginning to believe I could expect elbows from a certain caliber of career civil servant—but not at the upper levels.”
Nitze was the face of the Clinton administration on international environmental issues and the agency I was still dedicated to. It was going to take some order of magnitude to resurrect the agency in my eyes after being called uppity by senior management, but I still wanted to believe that EPA was the good agency.
“I did the work of three people for Beijing, Bill. And when I got back, what did I get for it? Nothing! No raise, no promotion. Except for harassment, I got nothing,” I said to Bill.
After the humiliation of that experience, I was going to control this conversation with the assistant administrator for a while. If he wanted something from me, he was going to have to work for it.
“Against my better judgment, I’m going to order the bisque,” Nitze said. “Yes, yes . . . eighteen-hour workdays, daughter on the floor beside you, Chinese in paper bags and cardboard boxes. I know, I know.”
“Come on, Bill! I’ve had it. I won’t stand for this.”
Nitze had heard just about enough. “Look, Marsha, I know you’ve had problems in your branch. Forget about them.”
“You just don’t get it, Bill.”
“Marsha.” He leaned forward. “You are the perfect candidate. We’ve all seen what you have done and what you can do. Eighteen-hour days, and you’re still productive. The administrator has noticed. I have noticed. You are really quite gifted.” He sat back in his seat as the waiter brought our lunch. “You did a magnificent job in Beijing. Carol couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be happier.”
He lowered his face toward the bisque, closing his eyes and wafted the steam rising from the bowl toward his face as he breathed in deeply. “This smells wonderful. I’m very excited about what I have to tell you. The vice president himself wants the best person we’ve got for a commission we’re heading up in South Africa. It will be fashioned after the model we established with Gorbachev and the implementation of glasnost.
“This isn’t some Sunday brunch at the Smithsonian, Marsha. This is the big leagues. I need someone to make me and the agency look good, and that someone is you.”
He took a first taste of the bisque, closing his eyes and breathing in through his nose. “Oh, this is really quite impressive. Almost Nantucket.”
“I still wanted to believe that EPA was the good agency.”
I was trying to clear my head from the jet lag and anger and insults. But I was listening.
“The transition of power in South Africa from the apartheid regime to the government of Nelson Mandela is under way. His deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, and Al Gore are going to head the Gore-Mbeki Commission to look at ways the United States can assist them in that transition. I am going to make you liaison to the White House. You will be coordinating policy between Washington and Johannesburg. There is no one else with credentials even close to yours. The person we have there now can’t touch your Africa background. You went to MIT. And Barnard, for Chrissake!” The way he buttered me up, I worried there wouldn’t be any left for the bisque.
“…The agency is committed to doing serious investigative work into environmentally related illness in women – that’s huge. And the work is just getting started. I made commitments to the women I worked with in Beijing, Bill. I’ve never seen such courage. I feel very strongly about the work we’ve begun.”
“Think about the connections you’ll make in the White House, Marsha. I’m giving you your stepping-stone. All of those marches you were in for Mandela, your dissertation on Steve Biko, your previous work on the continent . . .” He looked up from his soup. “You will be in the room at a pivotal moment in history.”
“I was treated like dirt when I got back, Bill.”
“Forget that stuff, Marsha. I’m offering you the career opportunity of a lifetime. Think about it. …In two years you’ll know every important person in government.” He leaned forward. “How do you think it will feel to be sitting in the room as a senior policy analyst for the United States while Nelson Mandela hammers out a new government?”
Nitze knew where to land his punches. I had marched against apartheid in front of the South African embassy every day for over one year until Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. But for the time being, I stuck to my guns
“No. I’ve heard promises before, Bill. You know what I hear now? I hear a six-hour time difference between Washington and Pretoria. I hear getting up at four in the morning to make phone calls to South Africa before their offices close. Why me?”
“Because it’s right up your alley. Because you’re perfect for it. This is a new day in South Africa, Marsha. You could take an active role in that. What better face for a new American relationship with South Africa than Dr. Coleman-Adebayo?”
“Think about it. …In two years you’ll know every important person in government.”
No matter how deeply I looked into Nitze’s eyes, I could not see Nelson and Winnie Mandela pumping their firsts triumphantly through the streets of Cape Town after Mandela’s release. I saw oil rigs. I saw a family fortune that owed a lot to its coziness with a succession of US government administrations. I saw invisible doors magically opened by pedigree.
“I don’t know, Bill. I’m really invested professionally with the Women’s Task Force, to say nothing about emotionally. Plus, I just spent the better part of a year away from my kids. There’s a part of me that’s thinking that I may just want a J-O-B like everyone else around here. Especially after the way I was treated.”
Nitze stiffened. He patted his mouth with his napkin while leaning in so close I could smell the bisque on his teeth.
“Let me put it this way, Marsha. There is one job and one job only that you can do for me that will make me happy, and that is taking on the assignment as the executive secretary for the Environment Working Group.” He looked over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. “You”—he paused and looked around the restaurant—“will do it with the same enthusiasm that you brought to Beijing, and you will make me look as good in South Africa as you made Carol Browner look in China.” I realized that Nitze was authorized to speak for the administration.
He sat back in his chair, glutted.
I sat chastened. “So, has this conversation been authorized by the president and the vice president?”
“Take a couple days.” His attention was strictly on his lunch now. “I’m sure the proportions of this will occur to you when you come to your senses.”
…“Bill, I’m calling to let you know that I will accept your offer and work on South Africa. But I must be very direct with you. As an Africanist, I am well versed in US policy in Africa. We have been on the wrong side of history for a very long time, Bill. I will not participate in anything that will have an adverse effect on South Africa or its people.”
“Marsha,” Nitze said without hesitation, “don’t worry. This project has been painstakingly designed to support the new Mandela administration. I’ll get a letter over to Agriculture Secretary Glickman in the morning . Welcome aboard.”
See Marsha on C-Span Book/TV at:www.marshacoleman-adebayo.org.
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA is available through amazon.com and the National Whistleblower Center. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit lead to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR.)