Peace Corps Whistleblower Pays Price in Albania
Bonnie Scott believes she lost her job because she reported sexual harassment allegations against the former country director to Washington HQ.
When Bonnie Scott left Seattle for Albania in March 2014 to join the Peace Corps as a volunteer, she never imagined the strange twists that her path in the country would take.
Back in Seattle, she had sold her house and car and quit a lucrative job and had departed for a new life in a country that she did not know much about.
“I applied to the Peace Corps to see if my skills could be used somewhere. I was originally supposed to go in Ukraine, but [the actions in Ukraine of Russian President Vladimir] Putin changed that, so they said that if I could leave in seven days I could go to Albania,” she recalled.
“I said: ‘Albania, what? Ok, whatever,’” she told BIRN in an interview in a bar in Tirana.
Pogradec, a lakeside town in eastern Albania, was her first base. She started working there as a volunteer, first for the municipality on tourism and ecotourism and then for the Girls Leading our World program, GLOW, which aims to train high school girls into becoming leaders.
After the experience of working with local girls, which she considered “hugely successful,” she left Pogradec for Tirana.
After six months of living and working in Tirana as a volunteer, she had an encounter that turned her experience in the Peace Corps upside down.
In August 2015, an Albanian contacted her and told her a disturbing story of events that had reportedly occurred in Peace Corps in the summer of 2013 in Tirana.
“I was told that the Peace Corps country director assaulted two Albanian women … and was asked if there was any way we could stop this from happening again,” she recalls.
Immediately after receiving this information, she reported it to the Peace Corps office in Tirana.
“The person I contacted made a phone call about the case to the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington,” she recalled.
“They reacted and conducted an investigations into the case within two weeks. They [investigators] jumped all over it, and came to Albania around August 29 for further investigations,” she added.
On September 3, the country director sent a resignation letter to the Peace Corps Albania staff, saying that he was leaving the country for personal reasons.
“After I saw his letter, I told everybody that I knew the real motive behind his resignation,” Scott said.
“I did this because I didn’t want him to go and get a job somewhere else. He still looked like a pretty good manager on paper,” she explained.
Scott says the assault allegations are recorded in the report of the Office of Inspector General, OIG, of the Peace Corps to the US Congress.
Page 40 page of the report reads: “OIG received an allegation that a country director groped a host country national while intoxicated.
“Following the investigation, the country director resigned. The victim declined to seek criminal prosecution of the matter.”
Kicked out the Peace Corps:
Soon after the now former country director left, Scott says her problems with the Peace Corps started.
“The [new] acting country director, Cale Wagner, started immediately targeting me in retaliation for my report against the former director,” she said.
“In the end, he fired me from the Peace Corps on September 13, claiming I had failed to complete a proper leave request to attend a Durres conference,” she added.
The official reason for sacking her was failure to duly request leave to attend a Peace Corps conference in the port of Durres on September 7-9.
Scott says she emailed her immediate supervisor on August 7 with a request for leave to attend the Durres conference, but “attached the wrong file in it.”
“My supervisor never said anything, so I thought nothing was wrong with it,” she said.
She believes the reason for sacking her is suspicious. “It never happened before that someone was kicked out from the Peace Corps for paperwork,” she maintained.
“Another woman at the [same] conference also did not fill out the paperwork and the … only gave her a written reprimand.
“There was another woman in the conference who filled out her paperwork wrong and they never even noticed. It was just me!” she continued.
Between September 7 and 13, she said she had numerous exchanges with the office director that were tense and upsetting.
After this, on September 13, she found herself out of the Peace Corps with her service passport taken and her bank account closed.
“I cried a lot, it has been really… so sad,” she said.
“I gave up everything to come and do this. I reported a crime and have been treated like a criminal. But I didn’t commit a crime,” she added.
She has not left without a fight, however.
“I filed a whistle-blower complaint and the Office of Inspector General said ‘We take this complaint seriously’, and they got back to me to tell me that they have been moving the case forward to Office of Civil Rights Diversity,” she recalled.
BIRN meanwhile contacted Peace Corps Albania’s acting director, Cale Wagner, and asked whether Scott’s sacking had any connection to her reporting the former country director for wrongdoing.
“The Peace Corps takes all allegations of misconduct extremely seriously. Under US law and Peace Corps policy, retaliation against whistleblowers is strictly prohibited,” the reply from the press service of Peace Corps Albania said.
“Staff and Volunteers leave Peace Corps service for a variety of reasons, and due to legal and policy considerations, including the obligation to comply with US laws, including the Privacy Act, we cannot comment on any specific case,” the reply added.
Scott is still in Albania, still working as a volunteer for the GLOW project in Tirana and still enjoying helping women raise their leadership skills.
She also works with another NGO, the Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment, PPNEA, in Albania, which is campaigning to save the rare Balkan lynx from extinction.
She is totally convinced that she did the right thing and does not regret it, or her decision to remain in Albania. “If I had to do it over again, I would absolutely do it again,” she said.