Miss. Guard whistleblower lawsuit scheduled for trial

Published 4:12 pm Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A retired Air National Guard officer’s federal whistleblower lawsuit against the Mississippi Military Department and various Guard personnel is scheduled for trial July 21 in federal court in Jackson.

Retired Col. Joe H. “Jody” Bryant Jr., a former officer in the 186th Air Refueling Wing at Key Field in Meridian, filed the lawsuit in 2005, saying his rights were violated under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.

The federal act outlaws retaliation against whistleblowers.

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Bryant was the whistleblower in what became a large-scale investigation of alleged racial bigotry, fraud and favoritism at the 186th.

Bryant claimed in his lawsuit that the investigation created animosity between himself and some of his former colleagues in the unit and at the Military Department.

Bryant claimed that harassment by the defendants included efforts to get him to resign from the Guard and to get him fired from his civilian job with FedEx. Bryant said he was assigned to menial duties at the 186th that were below his rank.

The defendants have denied the allegations and have asked U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee to dismiss the lawsuit. They claim Bryant has provided no proof of the alleged harassment or threats of job action.

Lee has not yet ruled on the motions to dismiss the lawsuit.

In October 2004, an investigation by the military verified a nest of corruption existed at the 186th at the time Bryant blew the whistle on the problems.

The allegations, which Bryant said he first brought to the attention of Guard officials in 1998 and detailed in a letter signed by dozens of officers in 2000, included racism, records falsification, misuse of funds and other accusations of corruption.

Among the military findings was that the 186th leaders misrepresented training levels in order to qualify for an overseas mission to Afghanistan for which it was not qualified.

Air National Guard officials said disciplinary actions were taken depending on the severity of the substantiated allegations. Citing personnel rules, officials would not identify by name any of the personnel involved. They said among disciplinary actions would include letters of reprimand, counseling and dismissal.

The 186th is based at Key Field in Meridian. It employs nearly 1,200 people, more than 1,100 of them in military jobs.

The investigation also spawned several lawsuits.

In April, the state Court of Appeals refused to reconsider its decision that upheld dismissal of a slander lawsuit against Bryant.

Circuit Judge Clarence Morgan in 2005 dismissed the lawsuit against Bryant and retired Col. David Bertholf.

The lawsuit was filed by 12 current and former members of the 186th who alleged Bryant and Bertholf, who also assisted in the investigation, discussed the 186th investigation on Meridian’s WMOX Radio’s morning talk show.

The broadcast aired on May 27, 2003.

Morgan said the plaintiffs failed to show that name-specific and damaging remarks were made.

The plaintiffs in that case now have the option of asking the Mississippi Supreme Court for a hearing on the case.

In a related decision in April, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a former 186th officer who alleged the military violated his privacy rights by releasing a report on Bryant’s allegations.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007 ruled against Robert Pierce, a former colonel who sued the U.S. Air Force for allegedly disclosing information that linked him to the investigation.

A federal judge in Mississippi threw out Pierce’s lawsuit in 2006.

The investigative report on Bryant’s allegations only listed Pierce’s title and didn’t mention him by name. Newspaper reports on the investigation identified Pierce as one of the officers accused of wrongdoing.

After receiving the report, Bryant or his wife allegedly informed reporters that Pierce was one of the officers who was a target of the probe, according to court document. Pierce blamed military officials for the disclosure, but the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans disagreed.

The 5th Circuit said the fact that the newspapers made the connection to Pierce and identified him does not establish a Privacy Act violation. The appeals court said the Air Force properly released information it was required to release and can’t be held accountable for Bryant’s actions.