Whistleblower protection bill clears Senate

Transparency watchdogs hail long-delayed vehicle to expand federal employee rights.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a longtime in the works bill to expand protections to federal workers who report wrongdoing. The vote by unanimous consent was hailed by many watchdog and transparency groups.

The bipartisan Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 743), sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, would clarify the difference between policy disputes and whistleblowing.

It would expand the types of employee disclosures of violations of laws, rules or regulations that are protected and beef up employee rights. It also would broaden coverage to employees of the major intelligence agencies and the Transportation Security Administration, prohibiting the revocation of a security clearance in retaliation for a protected whistleblower disclosure. And it would expand the rights of the Office of Special Counsel to file friend-of-the-court briefs.

The bill would strengthen authority for reviews by the Merit Systems Protection Board and provide whistleblowing employees with more access to their agency’s inspector general. It would allow jury trials under specified conditions for up to five years and establish whistleblower protection ombudsmen to educate agency personnel about whistleblower rights.

"Whistleblowers are critical to effective, accountable government,” Akaka said in a statement. “The American people deserve to know that whistleblowers will be protected when they have the courage to come forward to disclose wrongdoing."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said, "Congress has consistently supported the principle that federal employees should not be subject to prior restraint or punishment from disclosing wrongdoing. This should give federal workers the peace of mind that if they speak out, they will be protected. Full whistleblower protections will also help ensure that Congress and our committee have access to the information necessary to conduct proper oversight."

A House version, the Platts-Van Hollen Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (H.R. 3289), cleared the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in November 2011.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said on Wednesday, “I am pleased the Senate approved much-needed legislation to protect well-intentioned federal employees who expose waste, fraud and illegal behavior in the government. In many respects, this legislation mirrors efforts being undertaken in the House, and I look forward to working out differences between the House and Senate so that legislation enhancing protections for whistleblowers becomes law.”

The Senate effort to enact the bill goes back at least to 2001, as Akaka’s website notes, and a version nearly passed the last Congress, having drawn the backing of the Obama administration.

The bill went down previously because of an “unrelated controversy” over the WikiLeaks revelations involving a Defense Department employee who leaked hundreds of classified documents, according to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. “The WPEA will modernize the government whistleblower law by ensuring legitimate disclosures of wrongdoing will be protected; increasing government accountability to taxpayers; and saving billions of taxpayer dollars by helping expose fraud, waste and abuse,” POGO said in a statement on Wednesday. “The bill also will strengthen failed procedures, close loopholes, create efficiencies and affirm lawful disclosures. For the first time, some federal whistleblowers would have a real ‘day in court.’ ”

Patrice McDermott, executive director of the coalition Openthegovernment.org, said in an email to Government Executive, “While the bill itself is not a breakthrough -- the Senate has passed it previously -- it is landmark legislation that specifically brings national security and intelligence community workers, federal scientists and Transportation Security Administration officers under protection. The bipartisan support for the legislation is indicative of its importance for accountable government.”

Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, was less enthusiastic. “All federal employees badly need strong whistleblower protections consistent with the protections enjoyed by private sector workers,” he said in an email. “The Senate version of the WPEA contains some improvements, but falls far short of the comprehensive whistleblower law reforms promised in the 2008 political campaign.” He said under the Senate version, “federal employees will still lack important protections when they report fraud against the taxpayers,” citing as examples “full access to federal court for all federal employees, including national security employees, and no summary judgment at the MSPB.” His group worries the bill “will be watered down further once the House takes up the measure,” Kohn said.

Charity Wilson, legislative representative at the American Federation of Government Employees, called the bill “much-needed legislation to give federal workers protections when they report wrongdoing. We look forward to seeing the bill pass the House and the president signing it.”

The National Treasury Employees Union also welcomed Senate passage of the bill.

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