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May 14, 2009

Public Citizen Tells Congress Effective Federal Whistleblower Protections Depend on Full Access to Courts, Urges Obama to Fulfill Campaign Promise

Congressional Testimony by Advocacy Director Underscores Urgent Need for Accountability and Transparency

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Federal employees and contractors are in a unique position to contribute valuable information and save taxpayers huge sums of money, Angela Canterbury, director of advocacy for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, told lawmakers today. At a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Canterbury testified in support of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 1507), to restore and modernize the law that protects federal whistleblowers. 

“Not only is it a national disgrace that speaking out about wrongdoing in government is still such a risky endeavor, it also is unsustainable. Federal spending is at unprecedented levels, and the need for strict accountability and oversight has never been more urgent,” Canterbury said. “Whether the issue is stimulus spending, fraud at a Wall Street firm, prescription drug safety, environmental protection or national defense, federal workers must be empowered to safeguard the public trust.”

In 2007, the Ethics Resource Center found that more than half the federal workforce observed misconduct on the job, but only one-quarter of those reported wrongdoing because the rest feared retaliation. More than one in 10 who did report experienced retaliation.

The bipartisan Van Hollen-Platts bill under consideration by the committee has widespread support from more the 290 good government, and civil, employment and taxpayer rights groups. It also has strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, which already passed this measure unanimously this year as part of the stimulus bill, though it was stripped out by the Senate. 

President Obama repeatedly has voiced support for strengthening and expanding protections for federal workers and pledged during his campaign to support full access to jury trials for federal whistleblowers. Although the administration’s testimony today was largely supportive of the bill – a first for a presidential administration – the Department of Justice witness, Rajesh De, stopped short of reaffirming Obama’s campaign promise.

“It is encouraging to hear so much commonality between the administration’s testimony today and our vision for credible protections. No president has been more supportive of whistleblower reform,” Canterbury said.  “However, there are obvious areas where more discussion is needed. We hope the administration will commit soon to reform that includes full access to court for all federal whistleblowers, otherwise it will have a Potemkin village of accountability.”  

Canterbury also referenced the April 1 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 14 Penn Plaza v. Pyett, which held that discrimination claims brought by union employees can be subject to arbitration, and which may extend to whistleblower claims as well. She recommended lawmakers add simple language to H.R. 1507 from the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2009 (S. 931) to ensure federal contractors who blow the whistle will not be forced into arbitration if they face retaliation.

READ Canterbury’s testimony.

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