Blowing the whistle

by Dave Kewley

The Spectator, September 15 & 17, 1990

[Part 1, Saturday, Sept. 15, 1990]

HIS LAWYER calls him a "god-damned hero," but to some former co-workers at Fleet Industries Ltd. in Fort Erie he's persona non grata - the man whose charges led to three investigations of the plant by Canadian and U.S. officials and cast aspersions on the safety of everything from the F-18 fighter jet to Canadian Navy components. Still, no matter what people think of Bob Norburn, one fact is undeniably true. He faced the sad realities of blowing the whistle in Canada.

It's been four and a half years since Bob Norburn was personally escorted to Fleet Industries' parking lot and told never to return.

The former Quality Assurance Supervisor had just been fired by the firm that made aircraft and ship components for customers such as Boeing, De Havilland, Lockheed and the Canadian Navy.

For several weeks before that, the fair-haired native of Lancashire - who'd spent his entire career in the British aircraft industry - had struggled with Fleet officials over problems he saw in the plant's production and quality control systems.

Near the end, Mr. Norburn, then 38, said he was offered a promotion and raise if he'd just agree to certify welders who kept failing tests - tests given after Mr. Norburn discovered Fleet was working to specs seven years out of date. Eventually these problems led to a shutdown of the welders' production line.

Earlier in his year at Fleet, he'd come across an April 1985 appraisal of Fleet by Transport Canada that cited "major housekeeping" problems. And shortly before his firing, he learned of doors made for the controversial F-18 Hornet that lacked quality control documents to show they'd been inspected.

Mr. Norburn alleged the doors, made of 16 layers of kevlar, might delaminate since they hadn't been built under dust-free conditions. If this happened in flight, debris would be sucked into the jet engines and cause an explosion, he charged.

With mounting concerns, he could see just one path. He turned down the promotion and started gathering documents, including the government report, several internal memos that suggested Fleet had been ignoring recommendations from its own staff for years and 28 X-rays of defective welds by Fleet's welders.

He arranged a meeting with George Dragone, then president of Fleet Aerospace Inc., Fleet's parent company, believing that once the president saw the mess, he'd order immediate remedies. But these hopes were dashed when Mr. Dragone cancelled the meeting.

Mr. Norburn says he was then fired and told he'd get a modest severance package and references in return for his silence.

When he refused to accept the company's terms, he was hustled to his car. Under his arm was the briefcase full of documents he'd planned to show Mr. Dragone.

The years that followed have been a nightmare for Mr. Norburn and his family - a nightmare observers of the whistle-blowing phenomenon believe is par for the course in Canada today.

Andrew McIntosh, an investigative reporter for the Montreal Gazette, has devoted a chapter to Mr. Norburn in a book he's writing about Canadian whistle blowers.

He says Mr. Norburn's story is a classic in that he worked his way up the ladder within the company, all the way to the president, trying to get people to listen:

"He and his family suffered for the act of courage. He stood on his principles ... and he was made to pay for that. The reprisals in his case were swift and harsh."

Mr. Norburn, who got no severance, learned that though he'd been fired, the Unemployment Insurance Commission was told he quit.

That left him ineligible for unemployment insurance for eight weeks. Thus began a time of hardship that included nine months of unemployment the first year and 18 months of temporary jobs and layoffs.

But he did find he had friends. When they learned he had no UIC, some Fleet workers took up a collection and sent him more than $2,000.

That first year he did a lot of odd jobs such as picking fruit and shoveling snow. One day he shoveled snow from dawn to dusk to earn enough money to buy a prescription for his 14-year-old son, Matthew.

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Mr. McIntosh says he's found a pattern among employers who "try to screw the worker out of UIC benefits" by reporting he quit, when in fact he was fired.

Says Mr. McIntosh: "They try to wear you down and grind your brain out and destroy your will and pride. In some cases they do a lot more damage to people that way."

But since he was, says Mr. McIntosh, extraordinarily strong willed, he persisted in his crusade to shed light on his fears about Fleet's products and to gain personal vindication.

He appealed to two Niagara area MPs, Girve Fretz and Allan Pietz, but the government backbenchers showed only token interest in what threatened to become political dynamite. This was, after all, the biggest employer in town.

Finally, former Welland-Thorold MPP Mel Swart offered a sympathetic ear. The feisty consumer critic for the Ontario New Democratic Party put him in touch with Iain Angus, MP for Thunder Bay and the NDP's transport critic. Mr. Angus eventually took it to the House of Commons, questioning then Deputy Defence Minister Harvie Andre about defence contracts held by Fleet.

"None of us will ever know what it cost Bob Norburn ... certainly his entire life was disrupted. His employment, income and personal privacy were all disrupted because he decided that safety was paramount, as opposed to an income or a job and blew the whistle on problems at Fleet that's something every whistle blower risks because there is no protection in law," Mr. Angus said.

Mr. Norburn recalls the dark days which saw him send hundreds of resumes from coast to coast. "I believe I was blackballed throughout the industry. No one wanted to employ someone who was perceived as a loose cannon on deck."

In the second year he got a job at Oneida's Niagara Falls plant, but says he'd gone from "making parts for the highly sophisticated F-18 fighter, to making knives and forks."

Two years ago, after layoffs at Oneida, he found a job in Quality Control with St. John Shipping, which is producing Patrol Frigates for the Canadian Navy. This meant moving to a small town northeast of Montreal and a daily 145-kilometre (90-mile) round trip for his son Matthew to the only English-speaking high school in the area.

In the first two months after his firing, Mr. Norburn peppered the media with calls, hoping to focus public attention on the story. There were a few nibbles but nothing was published until a Spectator reporter attended an award ceremony in February at the plant.

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A vice-president of McDonnell Douglas had come from St. Louis, Mo., to present a plaque recognizing Fleet's excellence of workmanship in building the avionics and gun loader doors for the F-18.

It was during an interview after the ceremony that George Dragone and some of Fleet's top executives, while attempting to discredit Mr. Norburn and accuse him of sour grapes, admitted there'd been some production problems.

These included:

* A set of 20 wing skin units made for the Dash 8 commuter aircraft that had to be scrapped - at a cost to Fleet of $100,000 - because they were improperly assembled.

* Wing flaps and ailerons for McDonnell Douglas' popular DC-9, passed by a quality assurance inspector, but later found to have metal fittings not tempered and strengthened through heat treatment, which might have failed in flight.

* A tail assembly for a Boeing 707 damaged in a collision with the Peace Bridge because it had been improperly packed.

Transport Canada officials confirmed they were investigating Mr. Norburn’s charges that the company's slipshod inspection could lead to production of defective aircraft parts. Then Canada's Department of National Defence decided to audit the Fort Erie plant, too.

Meanwhile, Mr. Norburn says, Fleet began upping the ante. Originally his severance pay had been pegged at $6,000, then increased to $10,000 and then $20,000, each time with the proviso he sign a non-disclosure document.

In a letter to his lawyer, the company said it would help him provided he "discontinue his ill-considered adventure to damage the company's reputation in the aerospace industry."

A meeting was set between the company and his lawyer, but right after The Spectator published the first story about the department of transport investigation, the meeting was cancelled.

But the darkest hours for Mr. Norburn were still to come. Threatening phone calls were made against him and his family.

Mr. McIntosh says such anonymous threats are another common thread in whistle-blowing cases. "But in terms of physical threats, the stuff Bob experienced is probably some of the scariest."

The first came a few weeks after he'd been fired when an anonymous male voice said, "Take the money and keep quiet, or you'll see the rest of Canada from the bottom of Lake Ontario."

Mr. Norburn believed because of the caller's inside knowledge, it had to be someone from Fleet, so he shrugged it off. But after his allegations hit the press nationwide, calls intensified.

"Is this the Norburn funeral home?" one caller asked. "Well, it soon may be"!

Another caller claimed he knew what school Matthew attended in Thorold and the route he walked each day.

Mr. Norburn called police and the next day Niagara police, with RCMP help, installed a private listening station in his basement to monitor all incoming calls.

It was around this time that Matthew's arm was broken in a scuffle at school started by children of Fleet employees.

Since Fleet had withdrawn its offer of settlement, Mr. Norburn filed a wrongful dismissal suit for $250,000 plus legal fees. Fleet countered with a $6-million defamation suit.

Then Fleet made public allegations that Mr. Norburn was fired for incompetence and was guilty of a fraud attempt involving Fleet stock, though he had never owned any company stock. Over more than four years, Fleet never presented one shred of evidence in court documents to back this up.

Mr. Norburn said he often felt alone and deserted. He admits suicide crossed his mind more than once, but again it was friends who helped pull him through - friends who invited the family over to dinner when the cupboard was bare and who got them involved in the fellowship of the Bretheren in Christ Church in Welland.

One day, a stranger driving a Cadillac pulled up in front of his house and handed him a brown envelope, telling him he hoped it would help him with his legal costs. When the man left, Mr. Norburn opened it and found $5,000 in $100 bills.

Meanwhile, a small group inside Fleet from time to time gave him confidential documents to back up his charges during ongoing investigations by the Department of National Defence, the Department of Transport and the U.S. Defense Department, which was concerned about components made by Fleet for U.S. Defence contracts.

During these investigations, Defence Department officials admitted Fleet's welding department was out of control and its welders could not meet specifications. DOT officials suspended the welders until they successfully passed their tests after taking refresher courses at Niagara College.

Pressed by Iain Angus in the House Of Commons, then Deputy Defence Minister Harvie Andre admitted - after being shown photos and X-ray numbers on file at Fleet - that what could "perhaps be termed welding defects" were found in a sonar deployment boom manufactured for the navy.

From the U.S. investigation came information that at least two of the suspect F-18 doors had, in fact, delaminated.

Companies such as General Electric, Gould Electronics and Sikorsky temporarily suspended Fleet as a subcontractor until problems were corrected.

Near the end of 1986, The Spectator obtained copies of the investigation reports for the DOT and DND through the Freedom of Information Act. Though the reports were heavily censored with pages missing, they revealed a litany of problems at Fleet.

The DND report alone cited 88 non-conformances to Quality Control requirements and the DOT reported a number of shortcomings, including the fact that some work was being stamped for approval before final inspections were actually carried out. The DOT report recommended government surveillance of Fleet be increased until the Quality Control system was back in order.

Still, government officials like Mr. Andre continued to insist it was just "poor bookkeeping" and "no faulty parts had been produced".

Mr. Norburn remains cynical about the investigations because of what he perceives as self-serving interests.

For example, at one point it was learned that although DOT officials had claimed they audited Fleet every two years, yet no audits had actually been done since 1977.

"What would have helped me was if the technicians had called it like it was and not responded in a manner which I believe was an attempt to cover up their own embarrassment.

"If they did audits every two years, how did things become so unstuck? Why, if they said there was no big problem with the welding at Fleet, that it was just a matter of documentation, why did they disqualify Fleet's welding department?"

The most sensational chapter in the Fleet story exploded onto front pages across Canada in July 1989, when Harry Meneian, Fleet's former vice-president of operations, alleged in a statement of claim to the Supreme Court of Ontario that he'd been ordered by Fleet officials "to arrange an assassination".

Because the scheme was said to have been hatched in a Toronto hotel, Metro Toronto Police investigated. But after several weeks they announced "no charges would be laid due to a lack of evidence".

It's curious to note, however, that police did not lay mischief charges against Mr. Meneian. Nor did Fleet take any legal action against its former vice-president who said he had quit under duress.

Finally after four years of legal battles, in February of this year, Mr. Norburn won an appeal to force Fleet to produce documents he had demanded for his defence of the lawsuit.

The requested documents included the uncensored version of the 1986 Defence audit and uncensored copies of private investigations done by customers such as McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing. Also requested were welding certification records for Fleet employees for the years 1984 to 1986.

Suddenly, a few weeks later in a letter to Mr. Norburn's lawyer, Fleet's lawyers announced the defamation suit had been dropped.

In June of this year Fleet's lawyers confirmed an undisclosed settlement had been reached in Mr. Norburn's $250,000 wrongful dismissal suit. Mr. Norburn and his lawyer refused to comment on the amount of the settlement, but a year earlier he told The Spectator he would have to receive at least $100,000 plus legal expenses, which he then estimated at $50,000, before he would accept a settlement.

On Aug. 9, president George Dragone announced he was retiring as president and chief executive officer of Fleet Aerospace Inc. after three disappointing years of financial performance by the company.

Monday - Part 2: Was it worth it?

The Spectator's Dave Kewley has been following the Fleet story since he broke it in 1986. This two-part series looks at what may be the final chapters in the saga of whistle-blower Bob Norburn. | Monday: Would Norburn do it again?

 

Was it worth it?

by Dave Kewley

The Spectator, Monday, Sept. 17, 1990

Bob Norburn fought the good fight for more than four years, but his belief in Quality Control cost him dearly.

When he blew the whistle on Fleet Industries Ltd. of Fort Erie with charges that slipshod inspection procedures could lead to production of faulty aircraft components, he sparked investigations by Canada's Department of National Defence, the Department of Transport and the Inspector General's office of the U.S. Defense Department.

But standing alone against powerful foes - which at times included the DND, DOT and Fleet - cost him his job, left him without UIC benefits and severance pay and made him and his family targets of anonymous death threats.

Later, when he tried to find similar work as a Quality Control Engineer in Ontario, it appeared he'd been blackballed and he was forced to move to Quebec for a job.

During this time, besides losing almost two years of income, his legal fees amounted to more than $50,000.

It was only in February of this year that Mr. Norburn's bulldog tenacity finally paid off.

The Supreme Court of Ontario ordered Fleet Aerospace Inc. to give Mr. Norburn's lawyer confidential reports of Government and private investigations of the company, so he could defend himself against a $6-million defamation suit.

Shortly after the court ruling, Fleet dropped its lawsuit and a few months later, it quietly made a settlement for an undisclosed amount of Mr. Norburn's $250,000 wrongful dismissal suit.

Last month, Mr. Norburn's prime opponent in the struggle, Fleet's chief executive officer, George Dragone, announced his resignation, citing three years of disappointing financial performance by the company.

Recently, Mr. Norburn moved his family to the Halifax, N.S. area where his employer, St. John Shipping, is preparing to conduct sea trials of Canada's new patrol frigates.

For the first time in his life, using money from the settlement, he has bought his own home, just a few miles from Canadian Forces Base Shearwater, where, ironically, CF-18s built with Fleet components scream overhead almost daily in low-level flights.

The following is an interview in which the whistle blower considers two questions: Was the long struggle worth it? and, Would he do it again?

BOB NORBURN: Was it worth it? "If you believe my intention was to make Fleet recognize the delinquency of its systems, then it has not been worth it because they never gave any credibility to my concerns. They never wished to believe in the legitimacy of my concerns. So if you believe that that was my intention, then it was a total and abject failure".

"However, if my objective was purely to fight a vendetta against a man (George Dragone) who had attempted to break me, then I don't believe I failed in that".

"But no matter which way I tell it, there will be some who prefer to believe it was a vendetta and there will be those who believe I had legitimate concerns. So I don't believe David beat Goliath, but David and Goliath fought each other to a standstill, to neither the advantage of David or Goliath".

"Certainly from a financial standpoint it wasn't worthwhile. There's no amount of dollars that could compensate my family for what we've been through. During this time we lost three members - my mother and my wife's mother and father died from strokes and heart attacks. They were not well advanced in age, but they shared with us, and they knew what we were going through".

"Now that I've got back into the Canadian Defence Industry, it has re-established my belief that other engineering companies in Canada are equal to qualified companies in the United States and Britain. It isn't par for the course to be negligent or delinquent in Quality Assurance. I have visited many companies in the past two years in different provinces and I have not seen lower standards of Quality Assurance or lack of integrity of product within these companies.

"All that I tried to do at Fleet was to bring to them the commitment to Quality Control that I'd seen at the first engineering company I worked for in Canada, Fabris Industrial in Stoney Creek. This is a company only one-tenth the size of Fleet, but their commitment to Quality Assurance was total".

"If I could have instilled the same commitment at Fleet Aerospace, I believe the value of the company and its shares would be 10 times what the miserable stance is right now."

"Would I do it again?

"Even though it's the worst thing I could ever expect anybody to go through and the last thing I'd want to do again, the answer is yes. I'd do it again".

"That's the only reason I go to work. That's what Quality Assurance is all about. It's not to take home a wage packet. It's not so I can buy a nice car and a nice house and not give a damn about other people".

"The whole reason for me to go to work, whether I work at Canadian Tire or General Motors is to make sure that the product that is manufactured for the public is safe to use, you don't have an alternative. If I want to go grape picking, fine, but as long as I want to work in Quality Assurance, I must be prepared to do this everytime the occasion presents itself, you don't have a choice."

THINK TWICE!

It may be the honorable thing to do, but an employee should think twice before blowing the whistle on incompetence or neglect of product safety standards in Canada today.

Bob Norburn was strong enough to survive the nightmare and though he says he'd do it again, his advice to others is to forget it, even if public safety and lives may be at stake.

That's based on the fact that there is no protection offered the conscientious whistle blower under Canadian law, he says.

"It's a personal decision. Some people can tolerate the stress that you go through and others can't," he warns.

"But for the average guy without the support of a union, without the support of a sympathetic news media, without the support of members of Parliament, it is most unfortunate, but I would have to say that without these things in place and without protective legislation in place, I'd advise the average guy not to even think about it".

"If he can't tolerate what he believes to be of grave concern, he should leave the job and attempt to wash his hands of it.

"Whether his conscience will let him do that is another thing, but without legislation, it's just not worthwhile. It can and will have a disastrous effect on your career and your family."

Iain Angus, the Thunder Bay MP who carried Mr. Norburn's concerns into the House of Commons, believes the Federal Government should pass legislation to create a confidential reporting system similar to the Department of Transport's aviation hotline, which allows pilots, technicians and mechanics to pass along concerns about safety issues and practices.

That might have allowed someone like Mr. Norburn to pass on his concerns confidentially.

The NDP's transport critic says the DOT hotline appears to be working well, but it doesn't provide the same opportunity for the Military nor does it deal with Government contracts.

"I think the same kind of law should be drafted to ensure that anybody who questions the quality of materials purchased by the government, should have their job protected ... so they don't have to go through what Norburn did," Mr. Angus said.

He added the individual's identity must be protected until he or she is required to become a witness in a legal proceeding.

During public hearings this summer by the Commons Defence Committee into the 13 crashes of CF-18 fighters, Mr. Angus suggested mechanics and technicians be allowed to testify without fear of recrimination - the same as pilots - because he'd received information out of Winnipeg that technicians there who maintain the CF-18s were concerned about the delamination of doors - the same doors manufactured by Fleet Ltd. in Fort Erie.

However, he said the anonymous calls dried up and the allegations remained unconfirmed after one last caller stated, "The RCMP is sniffing around and you're not going to get any more calls from us."

Andrew McIntosh, the Montreal Gazette reporter who is dedicating a chapter to Mr. Norburn in his soon-to-be-published book on Canadian whistle blowers, agrees there should be some system to cover aircraft manufacture, so someone like Mr. Norburn can have his concerns investigated.

He says there is no law for whistle blowers because the federal government isn't interested in having a person expose government waste and mismanagement.

"Basically, what the message from the government has been is that you can go ahead and expose it, but you should be prepared to lose your job for doing it." Mr McIntosh said.

Mr. Norburn's lawyer, Gord Wiggins of St. Catharines, says the lack of legislation leaves a wrongful dismissal suit as the sole avenue for financial compensation for a whistle blower and that is limited to severance pay.

"That's his only remedy, but first he has to prove he was wrongfully dismissed."

On the other side of the coin, he says the employer has a whole battery of weapons to use.

"As in Mr. Norburn's case, the employer can file a suit for libel and slander against the employee, who in most cases doesn't have the resources to defend himself," Mr. Wiggins said.

He said when he took on Mr. Norburn's case, his fee was secondary to the idea of making lawmakers see the need for help for whistle blowers.

"We didn't expect any miracles, but we thought this could be the first step in a very long journey to getting some help."

"However, so far the government has done nothing", he said.

"We can look over our shoulder to the American experience and see that it was only recently that the U.S. developed some relatively effective legislation. That particular legislation, the False Claims Act, does offer some expanded redress for the whistle blower in an appropriate situation."

He added, however, that legislation could not simply be lifted and imposed in Canada because in this country lawyers are not permitted to take cases on a no-fee contingency basis.

"Generally, an employee isn't out to get rich by making these allegations, I would like to think they are motivated by public-spirited concern for the welfare of the community," he said.

NEW BOSS NEW STYLE

Throughout his four-and-a-half-year struggle for vindication with Fleet Aerospace Inc., Bob Norburn was frustrated by what he saw as the company's failure to recognize the legitimacy of his concerns about quality control and production systems.

But that doesn't appear to be the case, at least not now, after the appointment of a new president and CEO.

Cecil Cline, a former employee of Rockwell International in Columbus, Ohio, with 33 years experience in the U.S. aerospace industry, was recruited by Fleet in November 1989, and was appointed president last month after George Dragone announced his resignation.

Mr. Cline believes the company has benefited and become much stronger because of the investigations sparked by Mr. Norburn's allegations.

"First of all, let me say that where there's smoke, there's fire and ... in a lot of cases we have gone in and made a lot of changes in the way we do business internally with Fleet to either correct a perceived problem or to reinforce the procedures that we currently have".

"That type of situation makes you stronger internally. So I think from that standpoint Fleet has benefited. You always learn something, no matter how smart you are, and when somebody challenges you, you get a better understanding of what your systems are and what your products are. So from that standpoint Fleet has gained," he said.

In reference to problems identified by Mr. Norburn, he said he strongly believes in laying the cards on the table.

"If you address the problem, nine times out of 10 you can fix the problem with a minimum of effort," Mr. Cline said.

"If you try to cover the problem, you end up suffering 10 times the agony and embarrassment later on - more so than if you had taken your licks up front and fixed it like you should have in the beginning, because you've got to fix it sooner or later."

The new president said his door is open to all employees and suggested had Mr. Norburn been allowed to meet with the former president to make his concerns known, "a lot of these problems would never have gotten so visible like they were and could have been fixed very easily."

Mr. Cline said he is confident that Fleet's internal quality control systems are now good enough to catch any defects in the plant's production.

He added that although two of the doors produced for the F-18 were found to have delaminated, as Mr. Norburn warned in 1986, "we know of no products right at the moment that we've had problems (with) in the field associated with the F-18 or the other products we build.

"In fact, if you look at our customer returns, they're less than one-tenth of 1 per cent on all of the products that we ship out of here, and that's quite a hefty number. That is good high-quality product."

 


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