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Hotline On the Hill

Congressional tip line lends an ear to whistleblowers whose complaints have gone unanswered.

Agency employees sitting on tales of waste, fraud or abuse have a new outlet. Since March, a whistleblower hotline has been operational in the office of Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Watchdog Caucus.

The goal is to support lawmakers and Capitol Hill staff in their oversight mission by developing strategies for investigations based on tips that may have foundered in existing whistleblower channels, Speier says. “Oversight is all about responsible governance, not about scoring political points or shaming public officials.”

Caucus co-chair Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., adds, “There are many people and organizations interested in good government; this caucus will allow us to coordinate and leverage efforts, across the country, to monitor, report on, and conduct oversight of federal spending and federal activities.”

By the end of June, the hotline had received some 20 calls from military personnel, former government employees and a few contractor employees. The sensitive revelations tend to be a couple of years old and perhaps were mishandled, according to Speier. 

“Individuals have a choice,” she says. “Sometimes their complaint to their internal inspector general simply gathered dust. We guarantee anyone who contacts the hotline will be evaluated.” Given all the demands Congress makes in the defense area alone, the inspectors general ignore some complaints and plead higher priorities, Speier says, adding, “imagine if a military private contacts them.” 

But far from competing with long-standing hotlines, the watchdog caucus website offers prospective whistleblowers a handy rundown of other outlets.

The idea for a legislative branch hotline came from Speier’s experience as a committee chairwoman in the California state Senate, where an anonymous call-in line generated hundreds of tips. “The ripest area of abuse was the Department of Corrections,” she recalled, citing “a whole series of behaviors and conduct” such as retired annuitants who were double dipping and employees abusing sick leave. 

One success story the federal caucus can point to involves a recent tip that active-duty and former U.S. Marines were posting abusive messages on Facebook—some threatened President Obama and others specifically targeted Speier for her activism in preventing sexual assault in the armed forces.

The whistleblower was key, Speier says, noting that she hardly has time to comb through Facebook. Upon viewing the posts, she and her staff were very disturbed. “They were using government resources to make misogynist, anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic comments so bad that Facebook took down the pages,” she says. The caucus sent details to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Marine Corps commandant; nonjudicial punishments were pursued.

“People who gravitate to public service want to do good,” Speier says, “and when they don’t see others having the same standards, it offends them.”

The number for the caucus hotline is 202-226-5294.

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