Defense Department file photo

Acting Pentagon IG answers critics of record on whistleblowers

Writings defend handling of retaliation claims by highlighting reforms.

Lynne Halbrooks, acting Defense Department inspector general, is pushing back against critics inside and outside government who charge that her office is wrongly dismissing too many whistleblower cases.

The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight recently obtained through the Freedom of Information Act a May 2011 report from the Pentagon IG showing that the investigative staff “made bad calls,” in POGO’s words, in more than half the cases brought by whistleblowers claiming to have experienced retaliation on the job. Forms of retaliation included threatened or actual firings, demotions and mental health referrals. An IG spokeswoman confirmed the report was authentic. POGO also obtained three appendices to the report with additional data. The group, which has long faulted Defense’s handling of whistleblowers who expose waste and fraud, called on the IG to contact the parties in the cases that were mishandled to reopen the investigations.

POGO’s report was picked up by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, and the center’s article, published Sunday in The Washington Post, accused the IG’s office “of persistent sloppiness and a systematic disregard for Pentagon rules meant to protect those who report fraud, abuses and the waste of taxpayer funds.”

On April 25, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who has long clashed with the Defense IG’s office, had sent Halbrooks 16 questions seeking such information as whether supervisors who violated whistleblower protection rules were subjected to discipline and the types of performance metrics that were being used in judging Halbrooks’ reforms. He said he was “disturbed by “the extent to which [the office] bungled so many whistleblower cases,” and declared that “heads must roll.”

On April 26, Halbrooks wrote that she strongly disagrees with the assertion that “IG inspectors knowingly ignored the law and showed disrespect for military whistleblowers and the core IG mission.” She cited a “top-to-bottom review” carried out by her predecessor, Gordon Heddell; the hiring of new staff; a reorganization of the offices involved with probing charges of reprisals; and a modernization of information technology to increase public transparency of data on the disposition of cases. She said she continues to “stand behind the continued professionalism and dedication of our reprisal investigators.”

On Wednesday, Halbrooks published a letter in the Post saying, “It is important to understand that the ‘internal Pentagon report’ referred to in the article was, in fact, a review I initiated on Nov. 1, 2010, as the principal deputy inspector general for the Defense Department,” and not, as might be inferred, an outside entity. She noted Grassley in his letter had called the review “an excellent, hard-hitting example of self-examination.”

Halbrooks said she is “committed to continuing on a path to establish a model whistleblower program for the Defense Department.”