House panel votes to strengthen whistleblower protections

The House Government Reform Committee voted Wednesday to strengthen protections for whistleblowers by closing some of the "loopholes" in the law protecting federal whistleblowers from recrimination.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (H.R. 3281) passed the committee by a voice vote. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee passed similar legislation (S. 2628) July 21.

Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., offered a substitute he said was a compromise. "Although [it] does not contain all the provisions I had hoped for, it is a solid step in the right direction," said Platts, whose amendment passed by voice vote. "I think while there can be an effort to pursue other aspects in addition to what this bill does, that doesn't take away from what is good in this bill."

Platts said loopholes developed in the original 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act as it was interpreted by the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Circuit Court. He said replacing the "irrefragable" standard for proof of government corruption with a "substantial evidence" standard would help protect government whistleblowers.

The bill approved Wednesday clarifies congressional intent that "any" whistleblower disclosures includes those "without restriction to time, place, form, motive, context or prior disclosure made to any person by an employee or applicant, including a disclosure made in the ordinary course of an employee's duties."

The legislation prohibits retaliatory investigations of employees, and require a Government Accountability Office study to determine how often security clearances have been revoked in retaliation for whistleblowing.

"There may be some other things we may want to look at, but that does not diminish the importance of this bill," Platts said. "We think the burden of proof that we've put in the bill is a balance of responsible burden of proof and will better service the best interests of the American public and will allow legitimate whistle blowers to come forward and be protected against retaliation."

Platts said he looks forward to working with the sponsors of the senate bill in conference committee to resolve the issue.

However, Tom Devine, director of the Government Accountability Project, a leading whistleblower organization, said Platts' amendment has a fatal flaw in that it does not give whistleblowers access to the federal appeals courts and does not prevent whistleblowers from being stripped of their security clearances.

"Without structural reform it is only a temporary stopgap. The law's fatal flaw since passage has been minor league due process rights for enforcement, because whistleblowers do not have normal access to court," Devine said in news release. "The Senate committee approved a cure. The House committee approved a band aid."

-- Daniel Pulliam of Government Executive contributed to this report.

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