Whistle-Blower Protections for All Federal Workers

Posted September 16, 2009 at 4:44pm

At great personal risk, whistle-blowers from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul have recently come forward to expose shocking security and ethical lapses. One of them has already been forced out of his job, and several others are suffering retaliation for their roles in exposing the scandal.

These courageous individuals were State Department contractor employees, but they would have been just as vulnerable had they worked directly for the federal government. The federal Whistleblower Protection Act fails to protect federal workers and government contractors who expose waste, fraud and abuse from retaliation by their supervisors.

What is happening to these embassy whistle-blowers gives real-life context to what’s at stake in Congress this year and gives us hope that whistle-blowers will finally get the protections that they deserve.

Just before the August recess, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee unanimously approved legislation to strengthen whistle-blower protections. The bill was the result of long weeks of discussions involving the Obama administration and key Democratic and Republican committee members. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) worked with Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) to craft a bipartisan legislative proposal that opens the door to giving federal workers full due process rights when they are retaliated against for exposing waste, fraud and abuse in government.

The Senate bill is not perfect, but the bipartisan consensus on which it is based offers a solid foundation for moving forward to achieve passage of a whistle-blower law that has been two decades in the making.

The House, which has consistently demonstrated bipartisan support for strong whistle-blower rights (including for all federal contractor employees), has bipartisan champions in Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Platts (R-Pa.). We are hopeful that the two chambers now are on the brink of coming together to deliver to the president a whistle-blower law that works.

This legislation must be enacted this year. For far too long, our nation’s whistle-blowers have lacked the protections that they need to stand up for the rest of us. Less than 1 percent of whistle-blowers who seek redress for their grievances ever win. Federal laws on the books were passed unanimously by past Congresses to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation when they report waste, fraud and abuse in government. But flawed court decisions and a poorly functioning administrative process to handle whistle-blower complaints have made those laws a joke.

This appalling failure rate sends a clear message to the federal work force: Keep your head down, keep quiet and don’t make waves. And if the taxpayer gets shafted, so be it. It’s not your job to take notice. 

Congress must ensure that all federal and contractor employees, including FBI agents and others who are on the front lines of our national security efforts, have independent due process rights to protect them when they report waste, fraud or misconduct. These employees who face retaliation for blowing the whistle when they witness wrongdoing should have the right to a trial by a jury of their peers, should the administrative review process fail, as it so often does.

For nearly 20 years, there have been efforts to strengthen these taxpayer accountability protections in law. But these efforts have been stymied by a lot of misinformation.

Myth 1. Protecting whistle-blowers is coddling workers who just want to whine and who use whistle-blowing as a way to save their jobs when they screw up. Nothing could be further from the truth. When whistle-blowers expose waste, fraud and abuse, and then are fired or demoted, these workers have to prove that they did not deserve to be disciplined simply because they’re bad employees. A federal agency that can demonstrate that Joe or Jean Fed repeatedly failed to come to work on time or did not do the assigned work won’t get a break because they cry “whistle-blower.— True whistle-blowers are usually the people who take pride in what they do and hate to see incompetence or illegality waste taxpayer funds. 

Myth 2. Protecting national security whistle-blowers will allow classified information to get into the wrong hands. National security whistle-blowers typically are patriots who blow the whistle because they see lax security measures and want to correct them. Too often, their complaints are buried and they are punished not because the government wants to protect legitimate government secrecy, but because it wants to hide its own misdeeds or to avoid embarrassment. National security workers who complain about sexual harassment or racial bias are able to have their day in court without disclosing state secrets. Surely we can find a way to do the same for whistle-blowers. A protected system for making disclosures will give whistle-blowers a better channel for alerting those in charge. Now national security abuses only get attention from the government when leaked to the media. 

With deficits looming, the government fighting two wars and people risking their jobs in order to protect the public, we cannot afford another year of delay on whistle-blower rights. 

Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project On Government Oversight.