Service to America Medals 2002: recognizing the story of two FBI employees in Birmingham, AL and their groundbreaking a…

The Partnership for Public Service and the Atlantic Media Group, co-founders of the annual Service to America medals, recently honored the first slate of Service to America Medals recipients at a gala ceremony in Washington, DC. Special guests for the evening included Andrew Card, President Bush’s chief of staff; John Spencer, the actor who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry on NBC’s “The West Wing;” Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta; Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge; Senator George Voinovich; Representative Connie Morella; CNN anchor Judy Woodruff; and Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James.

The Service to America medals were created in early 2002 to pay tribute to the groundbreaking achievements of federal civil servants. This year’s recipients were chosen from 26 finalists, who were selected from a pool of over 300 nominations. To view a list of the 26 Service to America medals finalists, visit www.govexec.com/pps.

The 2002 winners were chosen by a committee of distinguished national leaders with a strong commitment to public service: Representative John Lewis; Kay Coles James; C. Boyden Gray, chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy and former counsel to President George H.W. Bush; the Honorable Louis Caldera, vice chancellor for University Advancement, California State University; M. Peter McPherson, president, Michigan State University; Colleen Kelley, president, National Treasury Employees Union; Bernard Marcus, co-founder and chairman of the board, The Home Depot, Inc.; Jeffrey Swartz, chief executive officer (CEO), Timberland Company; Judy Woodruff; Senator Voinovich; Timothy B. Clark, editor and president, Government Executive; and Max Stier, president and CEO, Partnership for Public Service.

Federal Employees of the Year

Following is the story of the Federal Employees of the Year-William Fleming and Ben Herren, special agent and investigative special agent respectively with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Birmingham, AL. Fleming and Herren will split a $ 10,000 cash prize for their noble achievements in federal service.

It was one of the most horrific events in the long struggle for African-American civil rights. Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins were preparing for Sunday services in the basement dressing room of the 16th Street Baptist Church when a dynamite bomb planted outside exploded, killing all four girls and blinding another in one eye. Two of their killers remained beyond the grasp of the law for nearly 40 years. FBI Special Agent William Fleming and FBI Investigative Research Specialist Ben Herren took the lead in bringing them to justice.

Ground Zero

Birmingham, AL was ground zero for the civil rights movement in September 1963. Its epicenter was the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., and hundreds of other African-Americans met and planned sitins and demonstrations for equal rights. They were met with massive resistance from the white state and local officials and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The city–known as “Bombingham” because there were so many bombings of black homes there–was infamous for the water hoses and dogs its police department unleashed on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators earlier that year.

Yet no one was prepared for what happened on Sunday morning, September 15. “No other incident had such a dramatic effect on those of us in the civil rights movement than the bombing of this church,” recalled Representative John Lewis, a veteran of the campaign for civil rights. The tragedy galvanized the civil rights movement and helped lead to enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The wheels of justice would prove to move slower than the dismantling of segregation. It wasn’t until 1977 that Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was found guilty for his role in the bombing and sentenced to life in prison, where he later died. Another two decades would pass before two other perpetrators were held accountable.

Reopening a Decades-Old Case

In 1996, the special agent in charge of the Birmingham FBI office reopened the case to address the concern that the men responsible would never be brought to justice. The case was assigned to William Fleming and Ben Herren, then a Birmingham police sergeant. Despite long odds that had thwarted the success of two previous investigations in 1965 and 1977, Fleming and Herren went to work.

During the course of their investigation, they learned that over 130 witnesses had since died, with more passing away each year. This limited access to valuable evidence and information, but they found new avenues of investigation and developed new evidence.

Fleming and Herren tenaciously employed numerous sophisticated investigative techniques and federal grand jury testimony to develop proof that suspects Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cheny were also involved in the bombing. They also relied on solid, old-fashioned investigative skills, such as re-interviewing witnesses who had not talked about the case in decades, and interviewing additional witnesses, including family and local 1960s-era KKK members, who offered never-before-revealed information. In fact, several witnesses indicated that they specifically heard Cherry make statements regarding his involvement in the crime.

They carefully combed through 90 volumes of previous investigative activity, adding an additional 35 volumes of new work. They conducted an extensive, detailed review of approximately 8,000 investigative documents and created timelines that helped visualize a string of events that had happened over 30 years before. In fact, it was Herren’s timelines that would eventually uncover a flaw in Cherry’s alibi–directly leading to his eventual conviction.

As they meticulously dug through old files, Fleming also uncovered crucial tape recordings of Blanton’s conversations originally recorded during the initial investigation in the 1960s. He and Herren spent hundreds of hours reviewing the tapes; their contents proved to be essential evidence against Blanton.

Going to State Court

When federal criminal charges could not be proven, Fleming and the prosecutors took their new case to state court. A state grand jury responded with indictments of both men on four counts of murder. A Birmingham jury of eight whites and four blacks took just two-and-a-half-hours to find Blanton guilty in 2001, while another jury of nine whites and three blacks found Cherry guilty of murder in May 2002. Both are now serving life sentences.

Devotion to Duty

Both Fleming and Herren displayed remarkable devotion to seeing the case through to its conclusion. Fleming continually delayed his retirement for several years and, although scheduled for mandatory retirement in March 2001, even applied for an extension to continue to lend his expertise and institutional knowledge to the Cherry trial. After retiring from the Birmingham Police Department in 1997, Herren was immediately hired by the FBI to continue working on the case. His lifelong residence in Birmingham and his experiences in the city during the civil rights era helped investigators relate to witnesses.

Fleming and Haerren’s devotion to pursuing justice for the four girls who lost their lives in 1963 is truly extraordinary.

Other 2002 Service to America Medals Recipients

The Partnership for Public Service also saluted the seven other 2002 Service to America medals recipients:

Call to Service Medal: $ 5,000 prize. This medal recognized an employee who has made a significant contribution to the country as a recent entrant to the federal workforce. The recipient was Rachel Billingslea, foreign policy specialist/Israel desk officer, Department of Defense, Washington DC. In her three years of federal service, she has played a leading role in developing national security policy to improve relations with US allies.

Career Achievement Medal: $ 5,000 prize. This medal recognized an employee who has demonstrated lifetime achievement in public service. The recipient was Katherine Gebbie, director, physics laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Gaithersburg, MD. The founding director of the award-winning NIST Laboratory and a pioneer in the practical application of emerging technologies, she has helped enhance scientific career opportunities for women and minorities through a lifetime of service.

Heroes of September 11 Medal: $ 5,000 prize. This medal recognized an employee who has made a national contribution during or after the events of September 11. The recipient was Kenneth Concepcion, chief of US Flag Deepdraft Vessels and Plan Review, US Coast Guard, Staten Island, New York. He directed the safe and orderly seaborne evacuation of 70,000 confused and frightened people from Lower Manhattan amidst the chaos of the September 11 attacks.

Environment, Science and Technology Medal: $ 3,000 prize. This medal recognized the federal employee who demonstrated significant achievements within the environment, science, and technology fields. The recipient was Donald Sweeney, senior regional economist, US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis, MO. He saved taxpayers $ 1.5 billion in unnecessary construction projects after refusing orders to improperly falsify data.

Justice Medal: $ 3,000 prize. This medal recognized the federal employee who demonstrated significant achievements within the justice field. The recipient was Robert Rutherford, criminal investigator/group supervisor, US Customs Service, Miami, Florida. His initiative, leadership, and ability to organize multiagency personnel into a cohesive unit led to a reduction in narcotics trafficking and crime in South Florida.

National Security and International Affairs Medal: $ 3,000 prize. This medal recognized the federal employee who demonstrated significant achievements within the national security and international affairs field. The recipient was Alfred League, division chief, imagery and geo-spatial sciences, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, Bethesda, MD. His technological innovations provide American military personnel with real-time information they need to ensure operational success and protect our national security.

Social Services Medal: $ 3,000 prize. This medal recognized the federal employee who has demonstrated significant achievements within the social services field. The recipient was Daniel Weinberg, division chief, housing and household economic statistics division, US Census Bureau, Suitland, MD. He led the development of an improved measure of poverty that more accurately reflects the needs of the poor; this will help leaders effectively target resources toward improving economic well-being.

Nominations for 2003

Congratulations and thanks to all of the 2002 Service to America medal recipients for your tremendous service to our nation! The nomination period for the 2003 Service to America medals will open February 1, 2003. Nominations must be submitted online at www.govexec.com/pps.

Bethany Hardy Young is the press secretary for the Partnership for Public Service (www.ourpublicservice.org). She can be reached at byoung@ourpublicservice.org

IAC-CREATE-DATE: April 14, 2003

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