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Feb 2, 2009

Post Editorial Misses Mark on Whistleblowers: Protections in Stimulus Bill Help Workers Hold Government Accountable

A Joint Statement from a Coalition of Public Interest Groups

Monday’s Washington Post editorial, “Wrong Way to Protect,” did a disservice to its readers and the taxpayers when it opposed provisions in the economic stimulus bill that are designed to empower federal whistleblowers.

The editorial argues that the reform should be pursued through ordinary legislative channels rather than included in the stimulus, stating “This is not the way it’s supposed to work.”    This is exactly how it is supposed to work: Federal whistleblower protection legislation has had the benefit of hearings, and has been vetted in both chambers for several years.   This is not an extraneous measure, as the editorial suggests.  In both chambers, the original stimulus bills included whistleblower protections for state and local employees.  Members of the House had the good sense to recognize that the massive stimulus package creates an urgent need for federal employees, who are the taxpayers’ first line of defense against waste and fraud, to be given the same protections afforded state and local employees. 

Congress has diligently built a record to strengthen federal whistleblower protections through a robust legislative history (see fact sheet below).   Identical whistleblower protections overwhelmingly passed the House as a stand-alone measure, 331-94, in 2007.  Despite eight years of hearings, committee meetings, mark-ups, and four House and Senate votes, federal employees who expose waste, fraud and abuse remain vulnerable to intimidation, reassignment and termination, with no effective means to fight retaliation.  Even so, whistleblowers each day risk their careers and come forward with evidence of misconduct, much to the benefit of The Washington Post and other newspapers that have earned prizes for their reporting on information whistleblowers provided.

In addition, the editorial cites curious concerns about disclosures of classified information (which could have been cleared up with a careful reading of the text).   There is nothing in the bill to condone any “breach” – “unilateral” or otherwise.  However, after some members of Congress raised legitimate concerns about the procedure for disclosure of classified information, the House managers agreed on the floor to work together with the Intelligence Committee to address those concerns.  The members who raised the concerns were satisfied, and voted for the whistleblower amendment.  We too are confident that those issues will be resolved.  In fact, because the law will allow for only lawful disclosures to those with the appropriate security clearances, it actually will prevent leaks and so-called "breaches." 

But it is important to recognize the central purpose behind protecting federal employees in the stimulus:   Taxpayers need their help in detecting fraud and waste.  The stimulus bill authorizes the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars; as taxpayers, we need the best oversight possible.  Countless studies have verified that whistleblowers are the most effective weapon against fraud. This includes recent statistics by the U.S. Department of Justice, which announced that whistleblowers were responsible for returning over $1 billion to the U.S. Treasury in 2008 alone. In addition, PriceWaterhouseCoopers recently surveyed more than 5,000 corporations worldwide and found that whistleblowers, by far, were the most effective means for the initial detection of corporate fraud, besting internal auditors and law enforcement.  The editorial asserts that it is somehow “disingenuous” to claim that whistleblowers will “enhance accountability.”  But the evidence shows that there is no better means of enhancing accountability.  We believe there is no excuse to spend another $888 billion without first locking in this proven accountability safeguard.  Lastly, whistleblower protections, unlike every other provision in the stimulus, will save money, not spend it.

If lawmakers reject these provisions, they will be sending federal employees a very strong signal: Keep your head down and don’t rock the boat. Employees know what happens to colleagues who step forward and expose waste, fraud and abuse in government.   Federal workers who have reported wrongdoing have lost more than 98.5 percent of cases at the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals since 1994, when Congress last unanimously strengthened the law. During the entire Bush administration, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board ruled only twice that the whistleblower law was violated.

It’s time to end the culture of secrecy and guarantee that the federal workforce has our support in making sure our stimulus dollars are spent honestly and effectively.

READ our Whistleblower Legislative History Fact Sheet.

LEARN more.

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