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W.Va. Retreat Is Haven For Whistleblowers

March 25, 1989 GMT

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) _ Michial Patric Thompson lost his job, his home, his friends and his confidence after he told Pentagon officials that his former employer was cheating on a Defense Department contract.

Two years later, he has found peace and hope for a new life at an isolated retreat for whistle-blowers tucked into the mountains of southeastern West Virginia.

″I still wake up nights wondering how I’m going to afford to get the kids new shoes or a new pair of pants,″ said the unemployed 35-year-old father of four.

″Here, at least, I can stoke up the wood stove while I wonder and not have to worry about my family’s safety or look over my shoulder every time I go out.″

Thompson’s haven lies at the end of a steep, winding dirt road, best driven in low gear, that just happens to be near The Greenbrier, an elegant old resort for the wealthy and well-connected.

The pine-shaded, 50-acre retreat, dubbed ″The Whistle Stop″ by owner Donald R. Soeken, a Maryland psychiatric social worker, provides a respite for those exhausted by the retaliation, financial loss and stress from revealing fraud or waste in government or private industry.

″Every so often, people would call and they were desperate,″ said Soeken, a former whistle-blower himself, who runs a counseling service for whistle- blowers in Laurel, Md., a Washington suburb. ″They had no place to go.″

He started taking them to his country place here early last year.

Thompson was working at the AM General plant in Mishawaka, Ind., in January 1987 when he told government inspectors that documents on the military’s Hummer general purpose vehicle were being falsified to allow the vehicles to move faster along the assembly line. He claimed workers made it appear that the vehicles’ wheels had been aligned when, in fact, they had not.

Spokesmen for AM General, a division of LTV Aerospace, of Dallas, denied the allegations after a company investigation.

Thompson said he was fired a short time later. The company maintains he quit by refusing to accept other job assignments after he made his allegations.

No criminal charges have been brought against AM General, but a Defense Department investigation of Thompson’s allegations continues.

″I consider myself to be a patriot,″ Thompson said. ″I didn’t want those boys to be driving defective vehicles and I wanted to make sure the taxpayers were getting their money’s worth.″

Soeken says Thompson’s experience is representative of the ordeal faced by most whistle-blowers, or ″ethical resisters,″ as Soeken prefers to call them.

″It can go on for years and sometimes you feel like it’s never going to end,″ said Soeken, who has a doctorate in human development and has counseled well over 100 whistle-blowers.

″He was caught in a fear network up there. First you lose your job, then your friends stop talking to you, then you begin to ask yourself whether you did the right thing.

″You begin to ask yourself ’Was it worth it?‴

Most whistle-blowers think it was, according to research done by Soeken and his wife, Karen, a statistician and a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

The couple’s survey of 90 whistle-blowers found that most win little more than a boost in their self-respect. But many, the Soekens said, would do it again.

More than half of those surveyed said they had been harassed by co-workers, 20 percent lost their jobs, 10 percent attempted suicide, 17 percent lost their homes and 15 percent had been divorced.

″These people are acting out of their consciences,″ Soeken said. ″But society sees them as tattletales and it carries the same stigma as it did when we were kids.

″People say ‘We can’t trust you. We don’t want you as a friend.’ People use four-letter words to describe them. They become outsiders, they’re no longer company men who can be controlled.″

Thompson, his wife Robyn, and their children have been at the Whistle Stop since January, living on a $413 monthly public assistance check and contributions from friends, family and strangers. He does odd jobs around the retreat to help pay for his stay.

Thompson was paid about $25,000 annually, counting overtime, while working at AM General. He has averaged $7,000 a year or less since he went public with his allegations.

″I sure wouldn’t do it again the way I did it,″ Thompson said. ″I’d try and stay anonymous next time.″