The cases of WikiLeaks-enabler Bradley Manning and National Security Agency whistle-blower Thomas Drake have shown the legal risks of sharing sensitive information.
But the author of a new book says whistle-blowing can be important — and safe.
Attorney Stephen Martin Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, wrote a 300-page guide about protecting yourself from employer retaliation called “The Whistleblower’s Handbook.”
He talked to Roll Call about the challenges and benefits of the practice.
You divided your book into 21 rules that whistle-blowers should follow if they hope to win their cases. What is Rule No. 1?
The first rule is to understand the maze of legal work: Try to understand your rights before blowing the whistle — it often determines whether you’ll win or lose your case. There are more than 50 separate federal whistle-blower laws, and every state has its own, too. The trick is to find the law that protects you the most and use it to maximize your rights.
Look for damages: One law may only give whistle-blowers job reinstatement; another might award punitive damages. Look at timing: One law may require witnesses to file a complaint within 30 days of the reported incident; others allow two years.
Find the best law, and do this at the beginning of your case to avoid mistakes that may cause a judge to chuck your complaint.
What kinds of mistakes make a whistle-blower’s case moot?
Who you raise your concern to and how you articulate your concern are critical factors that can impact your ability to win the case and keep your job.
Some employees go to their internal complaints department at their employer, but guess what — under some laws, that’s not protected. Those employees might lose their cases for coming forward internally. In these instances, they should have gone to the government first.
Also, recording supervisors’ reactions to whistle-blowing can often turn out to be the best evidence for winning a case. Whistle-blowers tell the boss what the problem is, and the supervisor gets angry and demands that he or she destroy any evidence. But now the whistle-blower has documented evidence that will swing the case. Taping, in that circumstance, can be invaluable.
On the other hand — and this is another of my 21 rules — people must be careful with self-help tactics such as taping. It might be legal to tape a conversation without people knowing it in one state, but in another it’s outlawed. And you can get fired legitimately and lose your case.
All these laws are confusing. How can potential whistle-blowers find out exactly what’s legal and what’s not in their areas?
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.