The FBI “spends a lot of time on humility,” said Director James Comey.

The FBI “spends a lot of time on humility,” said Director James Comey. Evan Vucci/AP

FBI Director Lauds Whistleblowers' Role in Culture of 'Humility'

Comey marks appreciation day acknowledging bureau as "imperfect."

Declaring that “it is hard for us to be wrong,” FBI Director James Comey on Monday took a shot at explaining why whistleblowers often meet resistance with their disclosures of alleged waste, fraud or abuse.

“Humility is one of the rarest elements in human existence,” and yet the FBI “spends a lot of time on humility” because of the tendency for the human brain to suppress a challenge to a set of facts one has come to believe, he said.

“Whistleblowers who see things that are wrong just want someone to listen,” Comey told a multi-agency panel convened on Capitol Hill to mark last Saturday’s annual National Whistleblower Appreciation Day. “Great institutions are looking for leaders who are confident and humble—which seems an odd combination. To shut up and listen takes confidence.”

Whistleblowers “are not entitled to be right,” Comey added, “but they are entitled to be heard in an adult conversation.” Hence the FBI “talks about whistleblowers constantly and provides training in the laws, regulations and rules with a structure designed to encourage whistleblowers to raise their hands.”

Comey himself makes the point in greeting new employees, he said, and once made a show of meeting publicly with a well-known whistleblower who, after reporting a boss’ abuse of overtime funds to give favored associates their birthdays off, was sent to work alone in a room with 130 empty desks.

Stressing the need to model humble leadership, Comey pointed to the FBI’s public admission, after last year’s deadly church shooting in Charleston, S.C., that the bureau made a mistake in the background check that allowed since-indicted shooter Dylann Roof to purchase a firearm. “It was important as a signal to the culture to say we’re sorry, we made a terrible mistake,” Comey said.

On a lighter note, he said he wants the FBI to emulate basketball superstar LeBron James, who, despite worldwide acclaim, is always seeking ways to do better. “The path to greatness is the attitude of humility,” Comey said.

The FBI chief keynoted the event organized by the Council on Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency, the Office of Special Counsel and the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration along with the 14-member bipartisan Senate Whistleblower Caucus. It was assembled quickly after the Senate on July 7 unanimously passed a resolution declaring July 30 National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.

“It’s important to recognize the work whistleblowers do for the country and taxpayer, how they make our government better with their courage and willingness to come forward at their agency, contractor, or grant recipient,” said Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general and chairman of the IG council.

 “For those of us in oversight, they are our eyes and ears, the lifeblood of what we do,” he said. “They come forward because they want to improve government,” though, he noted, most begin by bringing their concerns to their own supervisor, not the inspector general. “They come to the IG because their organization won’t listen.”

Horowitz stressed the need for a “culture that is inclusive, one that allows people to be heard” rather than a culture of “retaliation and fear.”

Whistleblowers who don’t get satisfaction from their IG often go to the independent, governmentwide Office of Special Counsel, said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “We’ve seen an increasing awareness of whistleblower rights,” a greater awareness of OSC’s existence, she added, noting that 70 agencies have now been certified for having delivered whistleblower rights training to employees and managers, with dozens more in the pipeline.

Lerner sketched out recent vindications of whistleblower reports of abuses at the Veterans Affairs Department, the Homeland Security Department and the Army. “The ability to identify waste and abuse is a real challenge, but the result can be a push for real reforms that save millions” of dollars, a “win-win for unions and the taxpayer,” Lerner said. In the VA cases—which in recent years have made up 40 percent of complaints to OSC—“the allegations were true, but no one did anything about it.”

Lerner said her team has seen “positive changes” at agencies, including more disciplinary actions. At OSC, “We have a staff attorney devoted to outreach and education,” she said. “We want to handle the complaints quickly and well.”

The Labor Department is charged with handling workplace whistleblowers in the private sector, noted David Michaels, assistant Labor secretary for occupational safety and health. “Inspectors can’t be in all places at once so we rely on the workers,” he said. “They must not be silenced” because the result can be “death or serious injury due to hazards. Too often they are the targets of retaliation.”

When he joined Labor seven years ago, Michaels said, his office was “in disarray, with a lack of leadership -- an item buried in the budget, and underfunded,” he said. “We’ve now made great progress” in elevating the program, he said. Labor put a senior executive service member in charge of a directorate, won a budget line item and grew the staff from 98 to 135. His team completed 3,300 cases last year, compared with 2,000 in 2009, and has given out $176 million to whistleblower complainants.

Two veteran Senate staffers spoke on behalf of longtime whistleblower advocates Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “Without whistleblowers, there is no hope for accountability in government and the economy,” said DeLisa Lay, Grassley’s investigative counsel. “They should be honored but are treated as skunks at the picnic.”

She highlighted the caucus’ discussions and increased training among congressional staff on the ins and outs of whistleblower rules.

David Berick, a longtime investigator for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Congress is “the court of last resort for whistleblowers because often the statute of limitations has run out or they’ve had difficulty with red tape at their agencies.” Though the volume of complaints varies by agency, in some “the floodgates have opened, with people feeling freer to come forward,” Berick said.

Horowitz acknowledged that IGs don’t always handle whistleblower complaints right. “These are hard calls,” he said, noting that he gets 10,000 calls a year on the hotline and often sends them back to the larger department components' staff to handle.

Asked about resistance to whistleblowers, Horowitz said, “A lot of the perception is that you keep your dirty laundry within the organization, which is why being a whistleblower takes courage.”

Michaels added that “idea of cultural change is foreign to many managers.”

Lay referred back to FBI chief Comey’s comment that “It’s hard to be wrong.”