Holding the Government Accountable

Seven-Year Contractor Whistleblower Case Meets a Sad End

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

Michael Sandknop has two reports from two different inspectors general: one substantiating his initial whistleblowing, and a second substantiating subsequent reprisal against him. Sandknop, an Army veteran who worked as a video production contractor with the Missouri National Guard, fought for seven years to prove his superiors improperly fired and defamed him. The Army inspector general substantiated his complaint that he could not do his job with the equipment the Missouri National Guard provided, and the Department of Defense inspector general substantiated his complaint that he was then retaliated against for filing the first. But in August, a jury in a Jefferson City courtroom ruled in favor of the two former officers accused of retaliation, ending Sandknop’s legal battle. It’s a cautionary tale for whistleblowers: The struggle to be heard, even when an inspector general substantiates your claims, is not always followed up with restitution or any admission or action whatsoever.

The Missouri National Guard had contracted with Bio-Medical Personnel Services Incorporated (BPSI) to make a 30-minute TV piece about the Guard’s work. Sandknop and others on his production team who were assigned to make the special alleged that they had difficulties producing the show given the equipment the Guard provided — specifically, the computers the Guard owned were too unreliable to edit video — and that the Guard’s public affairs office assigned the team work that was outside the scope of their contract.

When the contractors voiced their concerns to their superiors in the Guard, the superiors responded “with ‘derision, silence and dismissiveness,’” and “they had been ‘yelled at, lectured to and talked to’ but not listened to,” according to one colleague’s statement in the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General report, which was published after Sandknop’s reprisal complaint.

Sandknop filed his complaint to the Missouri National Guard Joint Force Headquarters Inspector General on Monday, January 27, 2014. By Friday, he was placed on administrative leave. Four days later he was fired, and he began what turned into a seven-year fight to prove the Guard and BPSI had retaliated against him for his whistleblowing.

Six months after his firing, the Army inspector general’s office sent Sandknop a one-page memo summarizing the Missouri National Guard inspector general’s investigation into his claims of being provided improper equipment. The memo informed Sandknop that the Missouri National Guard inspector general substantiated his original claims, stating that Sandknop was “working within [his] contract” and that “proper video equipment was not provided.” Furthermore, the Army inspector general stated that “appropriate action will be taken to address these issues.” The Missouri National Guard did not take action.

Because the Army inspector general’s office did not release the full investigative report to Sandknop, he was forced to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain it. The Army inspector general first denied expedited processing of the request, then shuffled Sandknop to the Missouri National Guard, which then passed him to the National Guard Bureau in Washington, DC.

While he waited for the full investigation to be released (he finally received a redacted copy in May 2016), Sandknop learned that if he wanted to complain about the reprisal he faced at the Missouri National Guard, he had to go to an entirely different inspector general.

The struggle to be heard, even when an inspector general substantiates your claims, is not always followed up with restitution or any admission or action whatsoever.

Although 10 U.S. Code § 2409 sets guidelines for protection from reprisals and the proper avenues for complaints and investigation into reprisals, requiring that “The Secretary of Defense ... shall ensure that contractors and subcontractors of the Department of Defense … inform their employees in writing of the rights and remedies provided under this section,” Sandknop asserts that the Guard and the contractor never informed him about his options as a whistleblower.

“You go back and you look at 10 U.S.C. § 2409, they keep talking about [going] ‘to the IG,’” Sandknop said. “Well, I'd been to the IG, so it’s really easy to misunderstand that you need to get not to your local IG, but you need to go up, you need to go to the big IG in the sky and file a new and separate complaint.”

It turns out Sandknop should have gone to the Department of Defense inspector general in order to file a reprisal complaint. And, according to Sandknop, he would have done that much earlier had he known he was supposed to, but he didn’t receive the proper training on whistleblower reprisal. As it was, he and a colleague filed a complaint with the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General for whistleblower reprisal on May 7, 2015, more than 15 months after the retaliation for blowing the whistle.

The Defense Department inspector general first dismissed Sandknop’s claims of reprisal and closed the investigation because the claims “did not convey information that evidenced a violation of law, rule, or regulation related to the contract,” according to the inspector general report. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who had been following Sandknop’s case after Sandknop sent a request for assistance to their offices in the summer of 2015, sent a letter to acting Department of Defense Inspector General Glenn Fine in February 2016 asking him to reopen the whistleblower reprisal investigation. Four months later, Fine responded and agreed, an admittance of fault from an office that had substantiated just one contractor whistleblower reprisal case in the previous decade.

In June 2017, the Department Of Defense inspector general completed its investigation and reversed its previous finding, stating that the contractor “discharged him in reprisal for [his] protected disclosures.” It recommended that the contractor reinstate Sandknop to his previous position, expunge his termination from his employment records, and award damages and employment benefits he would have received had he not been fired. Several organizations, including the Project On Government Oversight, also pressed the Army and National Guard to remedy the situation.

But substantiation by an independent office and being made whole for the lost work and wages do not always go hand in hand. In the case of Sandknop, neither the National Guard nor the contractor chose to take any of the actions recommended by the inspectors general.

Despite the substantiation that he did his job as agreed upon, Sandknop almost certainly will never get a dollar from the contract.

During the process of seeking remedy for his firing, Sandknop filed a lawsuit without a lawyer in 2015 against his contractor and two Missouri National Guard superiors. Although Sandknop eventually found legal representation, the lawsuit dragged on as the Missouri National Guard took more than two and a half years in discovery and changed attorneys six times. By the time the suit went to trial in 2021, Sandknop’s contractor had gone out of business and the two superiors he was suing no longer worked for the Guard.

In the end, both inspector general reports were blocked from evidence for being “highly prejudicial,” as argued by Missouri Assistant Attorney General Chuck Adamson. The judge agreed, and the two documents Sandknop fought for years to get released never got introduced in a courtroom.

It’s a bitter end to a hard-fought battle for the most basic of remedies. Despite the substantiation that he did his job as agreed upon, Sandknop almost certainly will never get a dollar from the contract.

Sandknop fought for seven years to get a remedy for his whistleblower reprisal and walked away with little to show for it. His story serves as a clear-cut example of the convoluted system that Department of Defense whistleblowers face to get substantiation and reinstatement should they be retaliated against. To prevent more drawn-out situations like Sandknop's, the Defense Department must ensure contractors get adequate training in their options as whistleblowers, and it must make clear the route for whistleblowers to take for redress should they be forced to speak out.