Prospects for new whistleblower protections may be improving

Legislation overhauling a 1989 law designed to protect government employees from retaliation for reporting potential waste, fraud or abuse holds a better chance for passage this session of Congress, a congressional staffer said Monday.

At an event kicking off the first-ever Washington Whistleblower Week, Scott Miller, chief of staff for Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., said the work done in the last few sessions of Congress has helped generate even stronger bipartisan support for legislation seeking to protect federal whistleblowers who speak out to protect the public.

A House bill (H.R. 985), introduced this session by Platts and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was approved on March 14 on a 331-94 vote. But the next step is securing approval of the Senate version of the bill (S. 274), introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, despite a veto threat from President Bush, several panelists said.

If the Senate follows the House's lead, "this reform will be the strongest government employee whistleblower law ever passed by Congress," said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based watchdog group. The legislation seeks to reform the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, which, since 1994, has been weakened by a series of rulings by the Federal Circuit Court, panelists said.

The idea behind the new legislation is to restore what the panelists consider Congress' original intent, by protecting all federal employees who disclose wrongdoing in the performance of official duties, "without restriction to time, place, form, motive or context."

Devine said GAP is lobbying to ensure that four provisions in the House version of the bill also make it into the Senate measure. Those provisions would ensure jury trials for whistleblowers, coverage for FBI and intelligence whistleblowers, protections for government contractors and protections for government scientists who challenge the approval of dangerous medications, Devine said.

The Bush administration has argued the bill could increase the number of frivolous whistleblower complaints and compromise national security. The president "opposes the disclosure of classified information outside of the executive branch," said Jennifer Tyree, minority counsel for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce.

Monday's event was the first in a series lined up for this week to champion employee whistleblower and free speech rights. More than 40 whistleblower and public interest groups are sponsoring the events.

"Conscientious civil servants deserve strong statutory protections, not bureaucratic intimidation," said Joan Claybrook, president of the Washington advocacy group Public Citizen. "Federal employees should not have to sacrifice their careers and livelihoods to do the right thing by disclosing information to protect public health, reduce fiscal abuse or secure the nation."

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