At hearing, IGs look to curb reprisals against whistleblowers

The Trump impeachment and trial put whistleblowers in the public eye, but behind the headlines, officials say, agency whistleblowers are subject to reprisal.

US Capitol (Ann Cantelow/Shutterstock.com)
 

Two federal agency inspectors general told lawmakers at a Jan. 28 hearing that whistleblowers looking to report misconduct shouldn't be subject to reprisals and ought to be able to maintain anonymity if they choose.

The hearing of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee was held as the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump continued in the Senate. That trial turns on the conduct of a whistleblower who brought allegations of presidential misconduct to a congressional committee.

"In tweets and statements to the press, the president himself has tried to identify the whistleblower and has called upon others to publicly identify the whistleblower. Threats against the whistleblower are reportedly increasing," subcommittee chairman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. "This is a sad and, for me, dangerous moment for whistleblowers."

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department IG and the chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, testified that "individuals who step forward and report wrongdoing or what they reasonably believed to be wrongdoing should not face even the threat of retaliation."

Glenn Fine, acting IG for the Defense Department, testified that in recent years, military whistleblowers faced risk of reprisals and those alleged to have meted out such reprisals were unlikely to face discipline.

"It is a disturbing trend. I point out in my testimony that there are at least two other cases where the same thing happened. [Agency officials] declined to take action in a substantiated case without providing detailed or persuasive reasons why. That is a disturbing trend, and we think … a spotlight ought to be shined and questions …  asked about that."

Much of the questioning from Republicans mirrored arguments from the Senate impeachment trial, focusing on the intelligence community whistleblower who brought the Ukraine allegations to light and the conduct of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), one of the lead impeachment trial managers, and his staff.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said he wondered what impact the controversy, and in particular Trump's remarks, would have on whistleblowers and federal employers who are considering reporting official misconduct, abuse or fraud.

"I would say it has a chilling effect, especially in the intelligence community, where it’s already so hard to enforce legal protections,” Elizabeth Hempowicz of the Project on Government Oversight testified.

Connolly and witnesses also bemoaned the lack of a quorum for appeals at the Merit Systems Protection Board, where feds who are appealing adverse personnel actions that they say are reprisals for whistleblowing can take their cases.

"The hearing is also a reminder that the Merit Systems Protection Board, the independent agency that serves as the guardian of the federal merit system, still lacks a quorum and remains unable to issue final decisions in cases where employees' rights are at stake," Connolly said in his opening remarks.

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