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For Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, it boils down to accountability. An employee of the Environmental Protection Agency, Coleman-Adebayo made headlines last year when a jury awarded her $600,000 for enduring years of race and sex discrimination at the hands of her bosses. Now, she is leading the charge for legislation she hopes will reduce discrimination and harassment within the government by literally making the agencies pay. “Agencies are finally going to be held responsible for discriminating against their own employees,” says Coleman-Adebayo, whose award was ultimately reduced to $300,000. Along with a coalition of minority groups and aggrieved federal employees, Coleman-Adebayo is pushing a bill, expected to go to the floor of the House of Representatives within a few weeks, that would force agencies to take a financial hit for each successful discrimination, harassment, and related whistleblower suit brought against them. Currently, agencies pay when they settle claims that don’t end up in court. But once in litigation, any courtroom losses or settlements are covered by a special fund in the federal budget to pay claims against the government. Even big judgments end up being relatively painless for the offending agencies, since the money comes from outside their budgets. Under the proposed law, agencies themselves would be responsible for paying for any losses in suits filed by their employees. The legislation also requires each agency to report to Congress on any discrimination and harassment problems. “If this had been around during my case, it would have never seen the walls of a courtroom,” Coleman-Adebayo says. “The evidence was so overwhelming, but it was not in the interest of the EPA to settle with me.” The bill’s two leading co-sponsors, Reps. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, are not typical allies. But they have joined to ensure that agencies feel the impact — both by a financial hit and a public accounting — for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation that goes on within their walls. The bill is doing well in the House. Federal employee unions originally balked at the legislation, worrying about the impact on employee benefits and salaries if agencies had to pay for their legal losses. Sensenbrenner’s staff has added report language that has assuaged their concerns. Neither the individual agencies nor the Office of Management and Budget have voiced any official objections to the bill. On the eve of a House floor vote, there is, in fact, only one group organizing any opposition: The Senior Executives Association, which represents career executives. “We think it will, in some cases, encourage the settlement of frivolous complaints and result in the unnecessary scapegoating of federal executives,” says William Bransford, a partner at Washington, D.C.’s Shaw, Bransford, Veilleux & Roth, which serves as the SEA’s general counsel. TAKEN FOR A RIDE The legislation was proposed last year by Reps. Sensenbrenner, Jackson Lee, and Constance Morella, R-Md. It grew out of hearings by the House Science Committee, which Sensenbrenner chaired last session, on discrimination at the Environmental Protection Agency. The panel unearthed tales of verbal harassment, firings, and lost promotions. The committee heard testimony that black employees, but never white employees, were roped into driving EPA Administrator Carol Browner on trips. Members grilled Browner at an emotional hearing last October. Sensenbrenner introduced the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act, dubbed the No FEAR bill by its supporters, soon after the Browner hearing. But it didn’t go far. Both the Senate and House versions of the legislation were introduced in January. The House Judiciary Committee, which Sensenbrenner now chairs, held a hearing on May 9. Groups ranging from the National Taxpayers Union to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the National Whistleblowers Center all publicly backed the legislation. The committee reported the bill out on May 23, and Sensenbrenner’s staff is working to get it on the floor as soon as possible. In the Senate, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who is shepherding the bill, has only attracted one co-sponsor, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. But advocates are focusing their lobbying on the Senate and are hopeful they can gain more support. Much of the proposal is focused on reporting abuses. The agencies would disclose to Congress the number and status of discrimination and whistleblower cases; settlements or judgments they pay out of their own budgets; and disciplinary actions taken against discriminators or harassers. Agencies and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would also have to publish on their Web sites even more-detailed statistics about the type of discrimination complaints filed against them. The bill also requires the General Accounting Office to conduct a study on the effectiveness of internal procedures for resolving harassment disputes without resorting to courts. And it requires agencies to inform employees of their legal protections against discrimination or whistleblower harassment. PAYDAY But what gives the bill real teeth is the payment provision. Normally, a discrimination or harassment charge by a federal employee first goes through an internal review. If the agency finds merit in it and chooses to settle with the employee while the claim is still at the agency level, the agency pays. Complaints at the administrative level tend to be settled for smaller amounts than court cases. Unresolved disputes go to court. At that point, any settlements or court judgments are paid for out of the Federal Judgment Fund. The bill in Congress requires agencies to reimburse the judgment fund. In 2000, federal agencies paid $26.1 million to settle discrimination cases before lawsuits were filed, and the federal judgment fund paid out another $42.7 million for discrimination cases in the courts. Although the GAO says data on the amount and outcome of complaints are lacking, the agency reports that federal employees filed 24,524 discrimination complaints through the EEOC in 2000. Most of the allegations were dismissed, withdrawn, or closed without a finding of discrimination. The GAO also reports that 21 percent, or 5,794 of those cases, were settled. Many plaintiffs’ attorneys are cheering the bill, saying it will cut down on lengthy discrimination suits, resulting in fewer lawsuits and more administrative settlements. “In the private sector, businesses worry about being accused of discrimination because the money paid in those cases comes out of their bottom line,” says Joseph Sellers, a partner at Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll in Washington, D.C., specializing in civil rights cases. “The federal government has long been somewhat immune to those processes in part because the moneys that are paid out in settlements or judgments come from the judgment fund. … [The legislation] might cause the agencies to think twice about whether they want a case that ought not to go to trial to actually go to trial.” While there is little formal opposition to the bill, several previous government officials worried about the costs of agencies paying for legal settlements. “Perhaps Congress should be thinking of providing additional funding for agencies that get their discrimination numbers down,” says Shirley Wilcher, the former head of the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which monitors civil rights compliance by government contractors. She says she supports the intentions of the bill, but worries about potential consequences. “The money will have to be found somewhere — it will be taken away from other programs. It may be that the mission of the agency itself will suffer.” The proposed House version would limit how an agency covered the cost of judgments and settlements. Funding for enforcement of civil rights, employment rights, labor relations, consumer protection, or environmental laws would be off-limits. And Sensenbrenner recently added language reaffirming that employee wages and benefits are protected, after complaints by the two biggest federal sector unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union. “We are pretty happy with the way Sensenbrenner worked with us on that concern,” says Joseph Lopes, legislative representative for the AFGE. The legislation is backed by the NAACP and other minority groups, such as Blacks in Government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coalition of Minority Employees. Two weeks ago, the Agriculture coalition was lobbying Congress and the Bush administration to support the legislation. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Jon Corzine, D-N.J., were among the members they met with. “[The bill] demands that the agencies penalize and punish these people who are guilty of discriminatory acts,” says Lawrence Lucas, a retired Agriculture Department employee and president of the Agriculture coalition. “I have never had such bipartisan acceptance of our concerns.”

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