RENO, Nev. (AP) - A federal agency has been ordered to rehire an
ex-worker until an appeals board can hold a hearing on his whistleblower claim that he was fired in retaliation for telling his boss two co-workers illegally shot mountain lions from a government airplane in Nevada.
An administrative law judge granted Gary Strader's motion for reinstatement because Strader presented enough evidence to suggest
there is a "substantial likelihood" he will prevail in his case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, where he worked as a professional hunter in northeast Nevada until his firing in April.
The judge, Craig A. Berg, also noted the government has made no
effort to contest Strader's claim or resist his motion for reinstatement.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group for government workers based in Washington D.C., is assisting Strader and Salt Lake City-based lawyer April Hollingsworth in the appeal to the board. A hearing has not been scheduled but is expected sometime this summer.
"This is welcome news for Gary, who will be getting a paycheck while he fights to be permanently restored," said Christine Erickson, a lawyer for the group.
USDA's Animal, Plant, Health Inspection Service, which oversees
Wildlife Services, investigated Strader's allegations but determined they were "unfounded or there wasn't any substance to it," USDA spokeswoman Carol Bannerman told AP when Strader filed his complaint last month. Agency officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Strader claims that two aerial gunners - who were working under a federal contract to help the Nevada Department of Wildlife control predators that attack livestock - shot the two lions from a government-owned plane in Elko County in October 2006.
Strader, who lives in Wells and worked out of the agency's office in Ely, said he reported the incident to his district supervisor in the fall of 2007 when he learned that while it is legal to shoot coyotes from the air, big game animals like mountain lions cannot be killed that way.
Strader said his supervisor reacted angrily at the time and accused him of making up the story.
In March, Strader said his supervisor informed him he would lose his job at the end of June because of budget shortfalls and subsequently moved his last day on the job up to April. Strader said when he asked if he would still have his job if he had not reported the shootings, his supervisor nodded his head "yes."
"We shouldn't go around as government employees committing felonies in government airplanes," Strader told The Associated Press. "It's the old cliche - kill the messenger. They are bending over backward to make me the bad guy."
Violation of the federal Airborne Hunting Act is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Erickson said the Whistleblower Protection Act forbids discharging a federal employee for disclosing crimes or other waste, fraud or abuse. She said an employer who breaks the law could be fired.
She said he was making about $34,000 a year at the time of his firing.