Group proposes bill to strengthen whistleblower protections

By Chris Strohm

December 13, 2005

A coalition of national security whistleblowers has proposed legislation that would fundamentally change how complaints are adjudicated and would make retaliation against those who report wrongdoing a criminal offense.

Language drafted by the coalition would cover all federal employees and contractors, do away with the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act and prevent the Office of Special Counsel from adjudicating whistleblower cases. Government Executive obtained a copy of the proposed bill; the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition does not plan to release the document until January.

The bill is part of the coalition's ongoing push to obtain stronger protections for government workers and contractors who report waste, fraud or abuse. The coalition was established in 2004 and has more than 60 members. Most were retaliated against after reporting wrongdoing and either lost their jobs or are litigating their complaints.

Members are meeting with congressional staff to find lawmakers to formally introduce the legislation. The coalition also is asking other organizations to back the bill.

Sibel Edmonds, coalition founder and president, said she hopes to have more than 50 organizations and hundreds of whistleblowers supporting the bill by next month. Edmonds joined the FBI as a contract language specialist after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She was fired after reporting alleged security breaches, mismanagement and possible espionage within the bureau's translation unit.

The Justice Department's inspector general issued a report last January concluding that the FBI failed to properly investigate Edmonds' charges. The report also stated that she was fired mainly for bringing forth the accusations.

Edmonds said the bill is a combination of new proposals and previously submitted but unsuccessful legislation. The coalition also incorporated proposals from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

The proposed bill is more comprehensive than the Whistleblower Protection Act, which does not cover federal or contract employees working for the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, National Security Agency, the FBI and "any other executive agency determined by the president to have as its principal function the conduct of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence activities."

The measure recommended by the coalition would cover all federal or contract workers who provide, or are about to provide, information that they reasonably believe constitutes fraud, waste or mismanagement; a violation of any law, rule or regulation; or a threat to national security, homeland security or public health.

The bill also would prohibit an agency from revoking or suspending the security clearance of individuals who make protected disclosures. Whistleblowers say this is one of the most common tactics used against employees accusing national security and intelligence agencies of wrongdoing.

Under the proposed language, any person who knowingly retaliates against a whistleblower for making a protected disclosure would be guilty of a felony and subject to up to 10 years in jail and a fine up to $50,000 for each offense.

Currently, employees covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act can bring their cases to the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Federal employees also can appeal their cases to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Since 1994, however, the court has sided with government agencies in 104 of 105 whistleblower cases, according to the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group.

The proposed bill would revamp the system by creating a Whistleblower Retaliation Accountability Commission to investigate allegations of retaliation against covered individuals and enforce criminal penalties.

The bill would enable workers who have been retaliated against to file a complaint seeking civil relief with the secretary of the Labor Department. If the secretary does not issue a final decision within 180 days of a complaint, workers could file their case in a federal district court, ending the Court of Appeals' reign over such cases.

The bill would combat the executive branch's ability to prevent privileged information from being heard in a court case. According to the bill, a court must judge in favor of a plaintiff if the executive branch refuses to disclose information that the plaintiff needs to prove his or her case.

In addition, the bill would require the Government Accountability Office to report every three years on how much the government spends on whistleblower cases, including the costs associated with revoking or suspending security clearances, litigation, administrative leave and lost productivity.

By Chris Strohm

December 13, 2005