Balancing Scales of Justice for Whistleblowers | Commentary

Posted October 7, 2014 at 1:07pm

Pressure to go along to get along starts early in life. A student who tells the teacher about playground misbehaviors may face taunts as a tattletale. Teens feel social pressure not to report mischief by their peers. Later in life, employees fear reprisals or retaliation for raising questions about workplace wrongdoing. Unfortunately, there’s a pervasive institutional mindset to muzzle whistleblowers from reporting what they know.

Doing the right thing often puts would-be whistleblowers in a David versus Goliath situation. Speaking up may cost them personal and professional relationships, as well as the loss of a promotion, paycheck or livelihood.

Employees who report wrongdoing may put their careers at substantial risk. After exhausting internal channels to report wrongdoing, federal employees deserve a fair day in court.

That’s why it’s so important to have strong legal and due process protections on the books and in our system of justice. People shouldn’t fear discrimination for coming forward with information that’s in the best interest of the public health and welfare.

Instead, the scales of justice arguably have been tilted unjustly against whistleblowers. Prior to bipartisan reforms included in the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled against independent appeals by federal whistleblowers 226 out of 229 times in its 20-year monopoly over these cases. The 2012 legislation created a two-year pilot program that strengthened due process rights for federal workers who appealed a judgment from the Merit Systems Protection Board. It allowed appeals to be filed in any of the federal appellate courts with jurisdiction, not restricting appeals to the Federal Circuit and its clear bias against whistleblower protections.

The good news is that Congress continues to appreciate the valuable assistance that whistleblowers lend to oversight and efforts to investigate waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. A bicameral, bipartisan effort to extend the pilot program for an additional three years was approved unanimously this fall.

In addition to supporting the extension of the circuit courts of appeal program, I continue to work to secure public policies that protect whistleblowers and encourage more to come forward, including financial incentives that allow them to keep a percentage of fraud recovery settlements and anti-gag laws that are designed to promote transparency and good government.

Following one’s instinct takes a lot of guts. There’s often an institutional mindset to go along to get along. And yet, thankfully, whistleblowers from both the public and private sectors have continued to report corruption, wrongdoing or unlawful activity.

These heroes help shield our institutions of government and free markets against fraud. For many years, whistleblowers have come to me with information about misspending, mismanagement and overreach within the federal bureaucracy. They have helped the federal government recover tens of billions of tax dollars and deterred untold billions more that otherwise would have been lost to fraud. Whistleblowers brave enough to put their reputations on the line for the public good ought to be treated with respect, not like skunks at a Sunday picnic.

Since America’s revolutionary days, whistleblowers have served as indispensable couriers of information to strengthen our system of checks and balances. The long arm of the federal government reaches into the daily lives of Americans, and the taxpaying public rightly expects the federal government to fairly administer public services and operate effectively and efficiently as possible.

Despite President Barack Obama’s promise to have the most transparent administration ever, this administration has failed to change a culture of intimidation. Federal gatekeepers deny and delay due process for whistleblowers time and again. It has a chilling effect that I’m working to thaw by boosting whistleblowers’ good deeds, conducting oversight investigations, and working to enact legislation that gives these citizens the protections they deserve.

Considering glaring injustices and wrongdoing exposed this year from the Department of Veterans Affairs, to the U.S. Secret Service and the IRS, it’s clearly in the public’s best interest to protect access to justice and due process rights of federal whistleblowers.

Congress needs to continue to back up whistleblowers and thwart court-driven erosion of good government policies. Standing up and speaking out against wrongdoing in government ought to be heard by the courts, not silenced.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley is a Republican from Iowa.