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Two officials face discipline in war dead controversy

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two supervisors at the Delaware mortuary for U.S. war dead are facing disciplinary action for engaging in a "campaign of retaliation" against whistle-blowers whose revelations of wrongdoing caused a major scandal at the Air Force facility, officials said on Friday.

A third supervisor involved in the case - former mortuary director Quinton Randall Keel - resigned from the Air Force this month in the wake of a scandal over the mishandling of some war dead remains, including some that were disposed of in a landfill.

"Disciplinary proceedings have been initiated and we expect to have all decisions complete by mid- to late-April," Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said in a statement. "The Air Force will not tolerate wrongdoing, especially prohibited personnel practices, by employees."

An investigation report released last year found gross mismanagement at the mortuary located at Dover Air Force Base, including losing body parts on two occasions and sending partial remains of at least 274 troops to a Virginia dump. That policy was abandoned in 2008 and partial remains are now buried at sea.

Earlier this year, a separate investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that three supervisors at the Dover Port Mortuary had wrongfully punished four suspected whistle-blowers who helped bring to light mishandling of remains.

"OSC's investigation uncovered willful, concerted acts of retaliation that necessitate disciplinary action," the office said in an investigative report released on Friday.

"Holding management accountable for engaging in prohibited personnel practices is essential to assuring employees that they can blow the whistle or engage in other protected activity without fear of reprisal," the report said.

In addition to action against Keel, the Office of Special Counsel also recommended disciplinary proceedings against Colonel Robert Edmondson, commander of the mortuary affairs operations, and Trevor Dean, the former deputy director, for their role in punishing whistle-blowers.

The report said supervisors took a variety of punitive actions against the suspected whistle-blowers, from passing them over for permanent jobs or overtime, to putting disciplinary records containing personal information on a shared computer drive in violation of privacy rights.

In one instance, after a shooting rampage by a U.S. Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people, supervisory embalmer William Zwicharowski sought permission for a group of employees to work overtime on a weekend to assist with the dead.

Keel authorized overtime for a group of workers, some of them newly hired, but told Zwicharowski not to come in. Zwicharowski came in for an hour anyway, intending to work without pay to help the new hires, but Keel ordered him to leave and called security forces to remove him.

About 10 days later, Zwicharowski was notified that he was being suspended for five days for insubordination. The day after that, he was removed from his primary duties as an embalmer and placed in a position that mainly required him to do mainly administrative office work.

In interviews with investigators, Edmondson labeled Zwicharowski a "non-conformist," an "agitator," and an "antagonist," the report said.

But it found that before the revelations of improper handling of remains at the mortuary, none of the suspected whistle-blowers had ever been subject to formal disciplinary action.

(Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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