Lawmakers look to strengthen whistleblower protections

The bill would extend whistleblower protections to non-career employees in the Senior Executive Service, Public Health Service employees, and the commissioned officer corps at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

whistleblower (Lightspring/Shutterstock.com)
 

A group of lawmakers are looking to increase protections for whistleblowers in the federal government alongside a slew of other government oversight and transparency bills introduced in recent weeks.

These include bills that take aim at the independence of inspectors general, automating and digitizing the Plum Book, making federal advisory committees more transparent and amending federal vacancies code.

The latest is a bill called the Whistleblower Protection Act of 2021, which Chairwoman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) released during a hearing on Monday with co-sponsors Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.).

"This bill would clarify that no federal employee – including the President or the Vice President of the United States – may interfere with or retaliate against a whistleblower for sharing information with Congress," Maloney said in her opening statement.

One change the bill would enshrine is access to district court and jury trials for whistleblowers in the event that they seek corrective action from the Merit Systems Protection Board and aren't given a decision or order within 180 days.

MSPB, a quasi-judicial agency that hears appeals from feds on agency personnel actions, has been without the quorum it needs to make decisions on appeals since 2017.

"The bureaucratic body that exists right now to hear a whistleblower's retaliation complaint has no members," said Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. "That means that any whistleblower coming forward right now with a complaint of retaliation goes to the end of an over 3,000 case line. So they're effectively shut out from relief."

If passed, it would also extend whistleblower protections to non-career employees in the Senior Executive Service, Public Health Service employees, and the commissioned officer corps at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It would also help prevent retaliation against whistleblowers by limiting retaliatory investigations and giving protections against disclosing their identities, those introducing the bill said.

Currently, those investigations are only considered illegal retaliation in the Department of Veterans Affairs, Hempowicz wrote. In other agencies, they can lead to criminal prosecution, a trend that is having a chilling effect on whistleblowing, she said.

The provision on anonymity is also important, she said.

"Breaking their anonymity may just be a form of retaliation itself," she told lawmakers. "If you are a public servant and your name is now everywhere all over Twitter as somebody who is a traitor, I think what happens is we tell future whistleblowers don't come forward because instead of addressing the issue that you're blowing the whistle on we're going drag your name through the mud and ruin your life."

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