Joan Keynote Whistleweek

Whistleblower Week Kickoff
Keynote by Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President
May 14, 2007

I want to express my deep thanks to the Make It Safe Coalition for organizing this first-of-a-kind national Whistleblower Week here in Washington. This is truly a ground-breaking event. We are grateful for the many whistleblowers who have come here from across the nation to share their experiences with us and with lawmakers.

We are here to let Congress know, in no uncertain terms, that we need to strengthen whistleblower protections from the miserable state they are in today. I will make three points today briefly about the absolutely critical – and risky – role of whistleblowers in keeping our democracy healthy.

First, democracy needs an open and accountable government.

A democratic government can only function in the public interest if it operates with transparency and is held fully accountable to the people.  As citizens, we can and should demand nothing less – that our government should work for us. Without transparency, the special interests hijack government agencies and run them in the service of private, parochial profits.  We have seen this happen again and again under the current administration, and no trend is more corrosive to democracy.

In the Bush administration, the imperial prerogatives of the president have been taken to new lows. Decisions are far too frequently made to serve corporate lobbyists and partisan ends. The rules on safety and health are written far too frequently by the special interests being regulated, and the result often undercuts safety and the state of the republic.

Whether in the still-unfolding scandals regarding the firing of now 10 attorneys general for largely partisan reasons, the attempts at suppression of scientific findings showing an alarming trend in global warming by NASA scientists, or the Medicare official threatened with dismissal for telling the truth about the cost of the Administration’s proposed Medicare prescription drug program, this Administration will do, it appears, whatever it takes to get its way.

My second point is that our best line of defense against crass self-dealing and official misinformation campaigns are the informed insiders who blow the whistle, often at great personal peril. These are the people who say – enough is enough. These are the truth-tellers, people who believe so strongly in the importance of accountable and honest government that they are willing to put their careers and professional standing on the line to assure that the truth gets out. These heroes of democracy are far too often ill protected by the law, despite their vital function.

We are very pleased to have some of them here today, like Jeffrey Wigand, whose story exposing the tobacco industry’s unconscionable manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes was portrayed in the hit movie, “The Insider.” Jeffrey will be speaking as part of the luncheon panel on scientific and medical integrity.

National security is another critical area where government officials must be held accountable when they commit gross misconduct. We are also thrilled to have Coleen Rowley here today to describe her efforts as an FBI agent to hold the FBI accountable for critical failures surrounding 9-11. For her whistle-blowing efforts, Coleen was named a TIME Person of the Year in 2002. Coleen will be on the next panel to discuss oversight of the FBI.

The importance of whistleblowers cannot be overstated.  They are the public’s best protectors against waste, fraud and abuse. Whistleblowers come from all walks of life and every imaginable occupation. But they all share a similar conviction that government must serve the people – not the other way around. And all whistleblowers, usually after considerable soul-searching – have found the inner strength to stand up, speak out, and push back when government violates the public trust.

And blowing the whistle on government fraud, misconduct, waste and corruption is a very risky endeavor.  More often than not, whistleblowers suffer from some form of serious retaliation, including threats, demotion or outright firing for their exposure of wrongful conduct. This kind of retaliation, when it occurs, sends an unmistakable and deeply chilling message to all employees that they should keep quiet or else.

At Public Citizen, we have always worked to try to ensure that whistleblowers at every level of government are protected. Last year, Public Citizen argued a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, Garcetti v. Ceballos, on behalf of a brave Los Angeles County prosecutor, Richard Ceballos, who was retaliated against after telling his supervisors of his belief that police falsified an affidavit to obtain a search warrant. The Court ruled that the disclosure was made in the course of his official job duties, and so found that he was entitled to no protection, not even his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Organizations like POGO and GAP, well represented here today, have also remarkable work to protect whistleblowers and must be applauded. The American people understand the important role whistleblowers play in our democratic system.  In a recent survey conducted of 1,014 likely voters in February 2007 by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, whistleblower protection was among the most popular issues with 79 percent in favor of strengthening protections.  That’s truly amazing and should give us all the courage to keep fighting until we win.

My third point is that the improvements in the Whistleblower Protection Act are critical. The reward for dedication to the highest moral principles – and for your vision of an accountable and honest democracy – should not be harassment, abuse, failed careers, and substantial economic loss. What is vitally needed is a way to protect the Pentagon employee who discloses billions of dollars in cost overruns, the GSA employee who discloses widespread fraud or the nuclear engineer who questions the safety of certain nuclear plants. 

Conscientious civil servants deserve strong statutory protections – not bureaucratic intimidation.  Federal employees should not have to sacrifice their careers and livelihoods to do the right thing by disclosing information to protect public health, reduce fiscal abuse or secure the nation. Yet, many end up sacrificing tragically because the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) has been interpreted and enforced in a way that weakens the protections Congress intended -- protections that federal whistleblowers desperately need.

The whistleblower’s vital role is even more urgently needed now that Congress is reasserting its critical oversight role under Democratic leadership. Without strong protections, Congress cannot hope to adequately fulfill its constitutional responsibility of overseeing the federal bureaucracy. And that oversight is sorely needed for all administrations – not merely the current one. 

There is some excellent news on this front to report. On March 14, 2007 (by 331 to 94), the House of Representatives passed sweeping reforms to the WPA, H.R. 985, the “Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.” H.R. 985 was sponsored by Henry Waxman and had 29 co-sponsors, including Todd Platz (D-PA) whose staffer joins us on this panel. Some highlights of H.R. 985:

  • It extends protections to national security whistleblowers, including those at the FBI and intelligence agencies;  
  • extends protections to federally-funded contractors;
  • extends protections for any disclosure made by a federal employee in the performance of official duties, thus overturning the harm from Garcetti v. Ceballos for federal employees; and
  • provides federal employees and contractors with a right to jury trials in federal court to challenge reprisals.

In the Senate, Senator Akaka (D-HI) introduced a whistleblower protection bill, S. 274, the “Federal Employee Protection of Disclosures Act” in January 2007. Today the bill has 10 co-sponsors, including Senator Grassley, a long-time champion of whistleblowers, who will be here today to give the keynote address for our panel on congressional oversight of the FBI. In its current form, S. 274 includes many of the sweeping provisions found in the House bill and extends protections for any disclosure made by a federal employee in the performance of official duties. 

I am truly proud to be here to honor our nation’s whistleblowers. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude. On behalf of all of us advocating for the public interest and for the American people, I want to thank whistleblowers for all you have done and all the sacrifices you have endured.

Let’s keep the faith – the time is at hand to greatly improve the protections to fulfill the promise of 1989’s Whistleblower Protection Act. With your help, we intend to do just that.  

 

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