Six months after reports surfaced that the Energy Department had mounted posters discouraging employees from “leaking” to the news media, the Office of Special Counsel responded to a complaint by confirming that the posters have been removed and new whistleblower protection guidance published.
Last August, E&E News broke the story of Energy’s wall posters warning employees that “Every leak makes us weak.” The posters were part of the governmentwide “insider threat” program aimed at deterring the release of classified information.
But the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight and other whistleblower advocates cried foul, pointing to the posters’ failure to distinguish between illegal leaking and employees’ rights to disclose waste, fraud and abuse.
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On Thursday, an investigator for the special counsel responded to a complaint by POGO to both OSC and the department, confirming that the posters have been removed for risking violation of the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.
The OSC also noted that it had sent out two items of new governmentwide guidance. One updated a 2012 memo addressing agency monitoring of employee communications. “Although lawful agency monitoring of employee communications serves legitimate purposes, federal law also protects the ability of workers to exercise their legal rights to disclose wrongdoing without fear of retaliation,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote in the reminder to agencies. “Indeed, federal employees are required to disclose waste, fraud, abuse and corruption to appropriate authorities and are expected to maintain concern for the public interest.”
A second memo updated 2013 guidance and reminded agencies to “ensure that all non-disclosure policies, forms, or agreements conform to the WPEA’s requirements.”
POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian in a statement said, “I am glad to see that POGO’s recommendations regarding the placement of these posters and their inappropriate and noncompliant wording has led directly to their removal. Even more so, I am encouraged by the legal message that this removal will send to Energy Department employees, and by the explicit policies that OSC has laid out for all federal agencies in these memos. Whistleblowers are the nation’s first line of defense against waste, fraud, abuse and illegality within the federal government, and when they are adequately protected, their disclosures can lead to important reforms.”
Kerner said in a statement: “OSC is grateful for watchdog groups such as POGO that are vigilant about whistleblower protection and bring incidents that could undermine whistleblowing to our attention. This is a valuable public service and helps OSC fulfill its mission.”