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How to Help Whistleblowers Turn Their Information into Power

This year’s Sunshine Week and its “Right to Know” mantra may take on a new significance for the federal workforce. Whistleblowers, the eyes and ears to abuses of power that betray the public trust, have a right and need to know how to safely report illegal behavior on the part of the government. In a climate in which the truth is increasingly difficult to discern amid obfuscation of the facts and unparalleled censorship, government employees are uniquely positioned to shed light on what takes place behind the Trump administration’s closed doors. In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

That is why this Sunshine Week, watchdog groups held a training, Working with Whistleblowers: A Sunshine Week Training for Public Interest Advocates, to show activists how they can safely partner with whistleblowers to turn their information into power. The training provides key pointers from a new guide by the Government Accountability Project, Working with Whistleblowers, a Guide for Public Interest Organizations. This must-read manual covers more than 40 years of lessons learned and best practices from the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

The vital role of whistleblowers in exposing government wrongdoing is by no means limited to the current administration. Whistleblowers are as timeless an institution as corruption itself – from Deep Throat’s exposure of the Watergate scandal, to the late climate scientist Rick Piltz who disclosed the Bush administration’s attempts to downplay climate change impacts, to Edward Snowden, who followed in the footsteps of pioneer NSA whistleblowers to let us know that Big Brother is watching. Regardless of who is in power, we have always relied on courageous civil servants as the lifeline to warn the public about illegal actions by our own government.

However, in the past year we have been confronted with threats to the very fabric of our democracy. In response, this Sunshine week we are also highlighting how the Trump administration is eclipsing the sunshine of transparency with secrecy.

The Trump administration’s unprecedented attack on the truth itself is an invitation to a new generation of truth-tellers. From reports of low morale throughout the government, to a wave of rogue social media accounts by public employees comparing the administration’s latest affronts to agencies’ missions, there is a palpable undercurrent of dissent.

This phenomenon underscores the essential position of whistleblowers as an internal check on otherwise unchallenged abuses of power. And despite the courage it takes to blow the whistle, most government employees who report a workplace concern believe they are simply doing their job.

More than 95 percent of whistleblowers first raise their concern internally, according to the Ethics Resource Center. Take the case of Helen Foster, a senior career official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). She refused to break the law by funding a lavish redecoration of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s office, or by turning a blind eye to a nearly $11 million accounting irregularity in HUD’s budget. She informed her superiors that such actions were illegal, and her demotion quickly followed.

As in Foster’s case, employers often respond by silencing the messenger rather than heeding their warnings – creating a climate of fear that stifles open dialogue in the workplace and fails to address the underlying misconduct.

The two greatest reasons employees don’t blow the whistle are the fear that they won’t have an impact and the fear of retaliation. When their internal disclosures fall on deaf ears, the desire to make a difference is often what motivates whistleblowers to contact trusted organizations with sensitive information about government abuses ranging from violations of consumer rights to taxpayer waste.

As public interest advocates who rely heavily on whistleblowers, we have a responsibility to protect them in the process of benefiting from their knowledge – and to know our own limitations.

The confusing legal landscape of whistleblower laws, if not navigated properly, can cause grave harm to the whistleblower and even the organization seeking to serve as a conduit for the information. Reprisal actions can range from expensive SLAPP suits to subpoenas and even threats of criminal prosecution. Further, it is not easy to avoid the legal landmines, because employees’ free speech rights can vary depending on the nature of their disclosure, what agency they work for, if they are a government or contract employee, and to whom and how they make a disclosure.

Fortunately, the dos and don’ts for working with whistleblowers largely remain the same. The guide and accompanying training break them down for truth-tellers and their advocates. Rule No. 1 for any recipient of a whistleblower disclosure is to do no harm to their source. That requires consulting an attorney or organization with expertise in whistleblowing; many offer their services at no cost or on a sliding scale. Beyond that premise, organizations can use the guide to apply decades worth of lessons learned when working with whistleblowers and contributing to the public’s right to know.

Read Working with Whistleblowers, a Guide for Public Interest Organizations here.

Watch a recording of Working with Whistleblowers: A Sunshine Week Training for Public Interest Advocates here.