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May 14, 2007

Congress Must Strengthen Protections for Whistleblowers, Public Citizen Says

Joan Claybrook Delivers Keynote Address for "Washington Whistleblower Week" Highlighting Importance of Whistleblowers to a Healthy Democracy

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Whistleblowers are crucial to the health of democracy and need stronger protections from Congress against retaliation, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told attendees at the first day of events for "Washington Whistleblower Week." Public Citizen joined with more than 40 whistleblower and public interest groups in sponsoring a week-long gathering of whistleblowers from throughout the country in Washington, D.C., to share their stories with Congress and the public.

Claybrook gave the keynote address at the Russell Senate Office Building, launching a full day of panel discussions focusing on the importance of whistleblowers in preventing government waste and fraud, and protecting national security, scientific integrity and the public health. Claybrook discussed the need to strengthen whistleblower protection legislation and the importance of open and accountable government for a healthy democracy.

"Without transparency, the special interests hijack government agencies and run them in the service of private, parochial profits," Claybrook said. "We have seen this happen again and again under the current administration, and no trend is more corrosive to democracy."

A series of court rulings since 1994 has weakened the safeguards Congress intended in the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), making it extremely difficult for whistleblowers to protect themselves when they speak out to protect the public. Claybrook called for support of bills currently in Congress that would remedy the situation by strengthening whistleblower protections. On March 14, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, 331 to 94, essential reforms to the WPA, H.R. 985, the "Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act." The bill extends protections to federal employees who work in national security, including those at the FBI and intelligence agencies, as well as to federally-funded contractors. It also protects all federal employees who disclose wrongdoing in the performance of official duties. The bill provides federal employees and contractors with a right to jury trials in federal court to challenge reprisals. A similar bill is under consideration in the Senate, S. 274, the "Federal Employee Protection of Disclosures Act."

If the House bill were to become law, it would negate a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited the rights of employee-whistleblowers. In 2006, Public Citizen argued Garcetti v. Ceballos in the Supreme Court on behalf of a 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, holding that he was entitled to no protection, not even his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

"Conscientious civil servants deserve strong statutory protections - not bureaucratic intimidation," said Claybrook. "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."

To read Claybrook’s speech, click here.

To learn more about "Washington Whistleblower Week," click here.

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