Whistleblowers Risk Everything—Lawmakers Must Protect Them
Two pivotal pieces of legislation pending before Congress would strengthen weak whistleblower protection laws.
The three former Facebook employees who accused the tech behemoth of knowingly sacrificing the well-being of teenage girls and dangerously spreading disinformation to fuel its exponential growth and profit are just the latest in a parade of whistleblowers who have come forward over the past four years to prevent potential harm for public good.
I know the plights whistleblowers face firsthand from representing numerous employee truth-tellers across a range of issues. Imagine how many more immigrant women might have been subjected to unnecessary, nonconsensual gynecological procedures but for my client nurse Dawn Wooten blowing the whistle on alleged medical mistreatment at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, prompting the decision to end immigration detention at this facility.
Imagine how many more lives might have been unnecessarily lost to COVID-19 had Centers for Disease Control and Prevention whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright not spoken up about the Trump administration’s unwillingness to prepare for the pandemic and instead directed funds toward unproven, potentially dangerous drug therapies.
Imagine unrestrained efforts by then President Trump to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election had the Ukraine whistleblower and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman stayed silent about Trump’s apparent efforts to pressure the President of Ukraine to announce an investigation into then-candidate Joe Biden to harm the election bid of his political rival.
The coronavirus. Immigration abuses. Threats to democracy. Also banking fraud, climate science censorship, police brutality and unsafe food. Pick any issue that matters and whistleblowers likely have been vital to exposing, mitigating or preventing harm by those who would abuse the public trust.
Inside information—provided by just one employee of conscience—has the power to bring wrongdoers to account and to help drive change to protect against future abuses. While lawmakers often shy away from fixing problems in our partisan political environment where corporate dollars and re-election sometimes matter more than accountability, whistleblowers shine a light on wrongdoing and add pressure to act. Their information can cut through excuses, avoidance and lies. Whistleblowers serve a dual purpose: exposing misconduct and then catalyzing reform.
But truth-tellers with less reach and fewer resources take great risks when they threaten the power of government and corporate wrongdoers. Facebook has questioned Frances Haugen’s credibility and has not publicly committed to refraining from suing her for talking to the media (which could have the desired effect of deterring other employees from speaking out). Most whistleblowers know too well the retaliatory tools used by the powerful to shift the focus from the message to the messenger.
As essential as the disclosure is, so is the whistleblower. It is increasingly true that it sometimes takes individual employees willing to risk retaliation to keep us safe from physical, economic and environmental harm because those with enormous political and economic power can fail to use it responsibly at the expense of the public good. Our institutions often fail us, and when that happens, it’s our fellow workers who have our backs.
When whistleblowers who risk their careers are our best defense against fraud, corruption and health or safety threats, we are as vulnerable as they are. The least we can demand is that they are given the strongest protections from retaliation possible to encourage more whistleblowers to come forward. Since we may depend on them to be our public warning system and catalysts for accountability, the more they are protected, the more we are, too.
Two pivotal pieces of legislation pending before Congress would strengthen the weak U.S. whistleblower protection laws that lag far behind those in several other countries. One is the Whistleblower Protection Reform Act, which would protect corporate employees such as Frances Haugen. This reform would fix the current interpretation of the Dodd-Frank Act to ensure that employees are protected if they raise concerns internally first—as most whistleblowers do—rather than only if they file a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Whistleblower. It also would give whistleblowers a way to seek justice if they do suffer retaliation by creating a right to a jury trial.
The Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act (WPIA), currently introduced as part of the Protecting Our Democracy Act (PODA), would strengthen protections for federal employees by prohibiting federal officials from interfering with an employee’s ability to share information with Congress, prohibit retaliatory investigations, expand whistleblower protections to political appointees in the Senior Executive Service, and also provide much-needed access to jury trials for whistleblowers.
More than ever, we need whistleblowers to come forward. Lawmakers may need them, too, as the impetus, or cover, to do their jobs. Hopefully our elected officials will honor these truth-tellers by exercising their own moral courage and swiftly pass these essential reforms to protect whistleblowers and, in doing so, protect us all.
Dana Gold is senior counsel and director of education for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit whistleblower protection and advocacy organization. Follow her on Twitter @DanaLGold.