Sen. Kerry: SBA must protect whistleblowers

When Small Business Administration officials pried into the e-mail inbox of an employee supplying anonymous testimony to the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, the committee chairman said the result could have a chilling effect on oversight.

Employees can’t be guaranteed confidentiality when managers arbitrarily look into employee’s e-mail messages, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter, which he sent today to SBA Administrator Steve Preston.

The letter is based on a report from SBA’s inspector general that was released in October. The IG found that a manager in the Office of Disaster Assistance retrieved e-mail messages from an employee who was a confidential source for the IG and Kerry’s committee. The manager accessed the messages after a hearing in which the employee, who requested anonymity, submitted a statement for the record, according to a letter from SBA’s assistant IG for auditing, Debra Ritt.

In a similar instance, managers at a processing and distribution center checked several employees’ e-mail messages without permission from SBA Chief Information Officer Christine Liu, the IG found. The manager told the IG that no rules were violated because SBA had none.

Kerry said agency employees have the right to confidentially report allegations of misconduct to congressional committees and IGs, and he urged SBA to avoid any other encroachments on whistleblower protections.

Liu said Jan. 10 that SBA approved new guidelines Dec. 21 regarding managers’ access to employee e-mail accounts.

Although SBA has not provided a copy of the new guidelines, Liu said last October that they would cover what constitutes an authorized e-mail review by agency officials and the appropriate authorization levels needed before officials can conduct an administrative e-mail review.

Congress has pushed for more protection for employees coming forward with allegations because whistleblowers often are harassed for exposing problems inside agencies. Last month, the Senate passed a bill giving more protection for whistleblowers; the House passed a similar bill last March.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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