Senate bill would protect contractor whistleblowers

The head of the Senate contracting oversight subcommittee introduced legislation on Thursday that would provide whistleblower rights to employees of companies receiving government contracts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sponsored the legislation (S. 1745) that would also apply to employees of state and local governments, nonprofits, and other companies receiving grants or other federal reimbursements such as Medicare.

"Whistleblowers are our first line of defense against waste, fraud and abuse," McCaskill said. "We've got to do everything possible to protect them."

The bill would defend whistleblowers who make disclosures to their employer, Congress or agency inspector generals when they believe there has been a violation of law, rule or regulation related to an agency contract. Such disclosures also would cover abuse of authority by contract managers -- a definition that would include unethical practices that technically are not illegal, such as cronyism.

"Unless the inspector general determines that the complaint is frivolous, does not relate to covered funds, or another federal or state judicial or administrative proceeding has previously been invoked to resolve such complaint, the inspector general shall investigate the complaint and, upon completion of such investigation, submit a report of the findings of the investigation to the person, the person's employer and the head of the appropriate agency," the bill states.

The legislation also would shield contract workers when preconditions of their employment forced them to relinquish their whistleblower rights. In many cases, McCaskill said, new employees are forced to sign gag orders and to waive their statutory remedies against retaliation, submitting any dispute to company-financed arbitrators.

Government employees and private sector workers who receive contracts from the Defense Department already have many of these protections. McCaskill's bill would extend those safeguards to civilian agency contractors.

S. 1745 also would:

  • Establish a burden of proof in whistleblower cases, similar to that involving federal employees
  • Guarantee that unless an extension is approved, the IG will complete its investigation within 180 days
  • Give whistleblowers and their employers the right to inspect an IG's investigative file on their case
  • Allow whistleblowers to take their case to court and access to a jury trial once the administrative review is completed.
Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said the legislation is essential in ensuring that taxpayer dollars are not being wasted.

"Studies have shown that whistleblowers are the single most important source of information when people are ripping off the government," Kohn said. "Without this kind of law, people will not come forward to disclose fraud."

Additional whistleblower protections soon could be available to federal workers through legislation (S. 372) sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

The bill, which the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved in July, extends whistleblower protections to employees of the intelligence community and Transportation Security Administration. Government employees also would be allowed to bring major claims to jury trials.

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