When Theresa Chambers was fired from her job as Chief of the U.S. Park Police, the story made headlines across the country. After a legal battle that dragged on for 7 years, Chambers got her job back. Now back on the job for 18 months, Chambers shares the details of that dark time in her life. For this story, she talked to COPS Office Assistant Director Katherine McQuay about what actually happened in December 2003. This is the third of a 3-part series in the Dispatch.
As the head of the U.S. Park Police, being fired may have spelled the end for many individuals; for Chambers, it was just the beginning. Chambers and her husband would go on to fight that decision for the next 7 years.
William Wiley is an attorney in private practice who specializes in federal employment law and was once the chief counsel to the chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Wiley does a lot of teaching and training of federal employees and has included the Chambers case in his classes from its beginning. Wiley says that, on Chambers side, her defense was along the lines of 1) “No one ever told me I wasn’t supposed to talk to the press about the budget,” and 2) “I talked to the press all the time!” He says that second point was a good one to make, because the federal rules say that if there has been a pattern of a certain type of behavior, a person can’t suddenly get in trouble for it.
But Wiley says the counter argument to all of the above is basically the 'common sense' argument—that if you are a high-level employee of a federal agency, common sense should dictate that you don’t publicly blast the budget that has been given to you by lawmakers.
Wiley also says he wasn’t at all surprised that her bosses moved to fire her after the article appeared. He says the article was embarrassing—to the Secretary of the Interior, and to members of Congress and their staff, who had put the budget together. “Basically,” Wiley says, “to use a ‘legal’ term—she pissed off everyone in town.”
The next 7 years were brutal for Chambers, in many ways. Most people couldn’t have maintained a fight like that—financially or emotionally. And the Chambers’ lost a lot—their retirement, their savings, and any idea of a comfortable old age. They did have a monthly check (Chambers’ husband Jeff is a retired police officer), which Chambers says they lived on month-to-month.
There were a few work opportunities along the way. Chambers did some teaching at Hopkins, taught at a community college, and led training at the police academy. But mostly, at least in the beginning, she just wanted to hide.
So how did she get through?
“A day at a time,” she says. One thing that helped was the website her husband created early on—www.honestchief.com. He posted every article about the case, every document, and received a flood of emails (40,000, to be exact).
The case ended up having twists and turns that are almost never seen in a case like this. Two different times, the Merit Systems Protection Board found against her. Two different times, the Court of Appeals ruled in her favor and sent it back to the Board. The case dragged on and expenses mounted.
So why stay with it—year after year? Why not give up and move on? Part of it was financial. Chambers said they had lost so much, they HAD to keep fighting, in the hope they would recoup some of what they’d lost. The other part was emotional: there was no-way Chambers wasn’t going to see this through to the bitter end and stand up to people she believed were bullies who ruined her career.
Chambers credits her mother with teaching her how to stand up to bullies. She says when she was in seventh grade, “I was scrawny, asthmatic, a late-bloomer, and ripe for being picked on.” And every day when she went to her locker, the girl next to her would knock her books out of her hand. When she told her mother, her mom had some unexpected advice. She told Chambers that the next time it happened, she should make a fist, stick out a knuckle, pull her arm back, close her eyes, and swing for all she was worth.
The next day, she did. And she missed. But—the other girl never knocked her books out of her hands again.
Four years into the fight, Chambers finally got a job as Chief of the Riverdale Police Department in Prince George’s County. Still, the work on the trial continued. Then with the election of President Obama, the make-up of the MSPB changed—there were now three new members who took on the case.
On January 11, 2011, Chambers was at her desk in Riverdale Park when her blackberry rang. It was a Google Alert showing her name in an article. The headline read: “NPS Reversed, Teresa Chambers Returns.”
She thought it was a mistake—she didn’t think the Board was anywhere near making a ruling. But then there was a link to the MSPB website, and she learned that it was true. And as a believer in symbols, she felt this was a big one: it was 1/11/11. On one-one-one-one-one, she had won.
In a state of shock, she called her husband.
“We won!” she screamed.
“Won what?” he asked.
“Everything!” she said.
And they had. When this new MSPB took the case, they decided to re-open it and look at all six Administrative charges. They found each one to be without merit.
So when Chambers told her husband they had won “everything,” she meant it. She not only got her job back, she also got: back pay (with interest); contributions to her retirement plan restored; annual leave restored; legal fees paid; and every single expense she had incurred that related to the case over the last 7 years reimbursed.
The Department of Interior still had the opportunity to appeal, but decided not to. And on January 31, 2011, Chambers went back to work.
The losses during that 7 year period were huge—Chambers’ mother, father, and brother all passed away; and it kills her that they never got to see her win. But she feels that with their deaths, she was “lining up angels” in heaven.
Now that she is back at her job, Chambers says she frequently gets small glimpses of what the “lesson” might have been in all this—what she was supposed to have learned. But ultimately she is still searching for the actual moral of the story.
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