George Sarris was proud of his job maintaining sophisticated, top-secret reconnaissance planes at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. Nowadays, he spends his time there painting bleachers at the baseball field, scrubbing tennis courts and spraying weeds.

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OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — George Sarris was proud of his job maintaining sophisticated, top-secret reconnaissance planes at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.

Nowadays, he spends his time there painting bleachers at the baseball field, scrubbing tennis courts and spraying weeds.

For more than 18 months, the Air Force has paid Sarris — a highly trained senior aircraft mechanic — $47,000 a year to do odd jobs because they’ve suspended his access to classified information and restricted areas.

The “whistle-blower” isn’t trusted, they said, to work on the RC-135 reconnaissance planes he once helped keep in the air.

Sarris, 52, an Air Force veteran, insists he’s a patriot who would never knowingly compromise U.S. security. The real reason for his pulled security access, he said, is to punish him for pointing out life-threatening maintenance problems with the planes, based at the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base.

“Offutt is mad at me for embarrassing them,” Sarris said.

His predicament illustrates a loophole in the nation’s whistle-blower-protection laws, said Tom Devine, Government Accountability Project legal director and an advocate for Sarris and others like him.

Whistle-blowers have nowhere to turn to challenge retaliatory suspensions of security clearances, he said. Devine and others are trying to change that.

“The Air Force has the potential to keep me in a state of limbo forever,” Sarris said. “I am an example of what happens to federal employees who expose wrongdoing.”

The Air Force denies that. “There is nothing I am more concerned about than the safety of the aircrews flying the wing’s airplanes and the people working on them,” said Brig. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan, 55th Wing commander at Offutt. “The wing’s dedication to safety is evidenced by two major flying-safety awards and a ground-safety award received within the last year alone.

“Leaders at every level throughout the wing continuously emphasize the need for honest and open dialogue on all safety concerns.”

The Air Force suspended Sarris’ access two months after he openly criticized plane maintenance in an article in The Kansas City Star.

At the time, Sarris’ complaints were called unfounded. But internal reports obtained recently by The Star show the 55th Wing corrected many problems he pointed out.

Whistle-blower history

Blowing the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse — the law requires federal employees to report such problems — can be risky. Whistle-blowers have been harassed, fired, indicted, jailed and, as in Sarris’ case, accused of being mentally unstable.

But whistle-blowers also have saved taxpayers billions of dollars, protected the public from unsafe and deadly products, and exposed government malfeasance and cover-ups.

As long ago as the Civil War, whistle-blowers tipped off the Lincoln administration about contractors selling bad gunpowder and broken-down horses to the Union Army. More recently, a Food and Drug Administration scientist helped expose potential dangers of such painkillers as Vioxx, suspected of causing thousands of heart attacks in the United States.

Employers often retaliate against such national-security whistle-blowers by suspending their security clearance, as was the case with Sarris. Whistle-blower-protection bills pending in the House and Senate differ over whether Sarris and the others could seek an independent review of retaliatory security-clearance suspensions.

Stellar career

Sarris once enjoyed a stellar career as an aircraft mechanic.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics, won the Kansas Air National Guard’s meritorious-service award, was lauded for “critical skills” and “keen attention to detail.”

At Offutt, to which he transferred in 2002, he was rated “far above successful” and given bonuses. Reviews called Sarris “the employee all supervisors desire,” and said his “dedication and commitment to excellence are hallmarks of his work.”

Then Sarris spoke out about parts going without inspection, faulty repairs and outdated technical manuals for the 50-year-old RC-135s, and all that changed.

Indeed, Sarris believed the issues were serious enough to risk lives of crews and the state-of-the-art secret gear aboard.

Sarris said some supervisors and co-workers took his criticism personally and circled the wagons. Other co-workers, however, said they shared his concerns and respected his abilities. But those at Offutt express fear of retaliation if they speak publicly.

Eventually, Sarris broke ranks and began complaining to members of Congress and others. His performance reviews deteriorated.

Air Force officials initially discounted those concerns. One supervisor insisted complaints from a few “cranky pants” should not reflect poorly on Offutt’s entire maintenance facility.

Access suspended

Two months later, Offutt’s commanders suspended Sarris’ security access. After reviewing his complaints, they characterized him as “irresponsible, aggressive, emotionally unstable and untrustworthy.”

The internal reviews, however, substantiated many of Sarris’ original claims, one in February 2009 calling them “helpful in bringing many concerns to light.”

Another report concluded his supervisors had allowed reconnaissance planes to fly with outdated, dangerous parts or faulty repairs, the very things Sarris had warned about.

Ultimately, however, the investigators said the Air Force had provided “clear and convincing evidence” that it would have suspended Sarris’ security access anyway, citing in part the unauthorized photographs and the hoses taken from the trash.

But both acts were part of his whistle-blowing, Sarris maintains.

In Senate testimony on amending whistle-blower protections, advocates used Sarris’ case to show the law’s loopholes.

“Because Mr. Sarris spoke out, many of his concerns have been validated and corrected,” Devine said. “But he has paid a severe price to date — his career. The Air Force inspector general made him the primary target of its investigation, rather than his allegations.”