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Justice IG Identifies Gaps in Whistleblower Protections for Contract Employees 

The department said it’s working to ensure they know their rights. 

A watchdog advised the Justice Department on Thursday to remind personnel about whistleblower rights and protections for contractor employees. 

Michael Horowitz, Justice Department inspector general, sent a management advisory memorandum to Michael Allen, deputy assistant attorney general and senior procurement executive at the Justice Department. In 2018, the IG gave the department several recommendations on enhancing whistleblower protections in its annual management challenges report; however, it has identified several issues since then. In fiscal 2020, the department spent $8.3 billion on contracts, up from $8.2 billion in fiscal 2019 and $7.9 billion in fiscal 2018, according to Bloomberg Government.

“The department has the responsibility to ensure its contractors inform their workers of whistleblower rights and protections,” due to the “critical role that whistleblowers play in helping our government to remain efficient and accountable, and to ensure appropriate stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” Horowitz said. 

Therefore, the department should remind all personnel who work closely with contract workers, such as contracting officers and program managers, about the laws, regulations and internal policies on contract workers’ whistleblower rights. Also, officials should “enhance existing internal policies and procedures” to clarify when and how “whistleblower rights and protections to contract workers” are communicated, he wrote. 

The IG acknowledged that the department has made some progress on these issues since 2018, but said the memo is intended to recap recent concerns that the watchdog deems necessary to address. The memo was based on previous reviews of contracts from the department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Federal Bureau of Prisons; Drug Enforcement Administration; Environment and Natural Resources Division; and U.S. Marshals Service.

One example cited in the memo was that ATF awarded two contracts in 2012 and 2017, totaling approximately $29 million, to a company for crime gun intelligence. The contracts did not include the required whistleblower protection clauses to begin with or retroactively (following a Justice Department requirement instituted in August 2016). Therefore, the employees may not have been aware of their rights. Following the IG’s review, ATF identified 74 other contracts that did not have such clauses.

In another investigation, the IG found that a former employee of a BOP contractor was retaliated against after making a protected disclosure to a BOP official. 

“The contractor had imposed a 6-month probationary period on the employee, during which the employee was prohibited from having any further contact with the BOP official who had received the disclosure or any other person associated with the BOP or another federal agency connected to the contract,” said the IG report. This was “in direct conflict with the plain language” of the federal statute that allows a contractor employee to make protected disclosures to certain federal employees. The IG also found “the contractor did not provide its employees with any written materials to communicate the rights and remedies available to them.” 

In response to the memo, Allen outlined how the department intends to implement the IG’s recommendations. A Justice Department spokesperson told Government Executive the “department agrees that contractor employees need to be informed of their whistleblower rights,” and is “working on process revisions to ensure proper controls as recommended by the [IG office].”

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