House backs whistleblower provision in stimulus bill

bballenstedt@govexec.com
January 28, 2009

The House on Wednesday passed an amendment to its $819 billion stimulus package that would enhance protections for federal employees who report on waste, fraud and abuse in government programs.
Reps. Todd Platts, R-Pa., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., proposed an amendment to include in the stimulus measure (H.R. 1) the Whistleblower Protection and Enhancement Act that passed the House in March 2007. The provision is just one of several accountability measures in the stimulus package that attempt to quell concern over how funds are spent.
Specifically, the amendment would grant federal employees the right to a jury trial in federal court, protect government scientists who report efforts to alter or suppress federal research, extend protections to FBI and intelligence community whistleblowers, strengthen protections for federal contractors, neutralize the government's use of state secrets privilege, and bar the Merit Systems Protection Board from ruling in favor of an agency before whistleblowers have the opportunity to present evidence of retaliation.
The amendment also would grant enforceable whistleblower protections to 45,000 Transportation Security Administration officers and the ability to seek a remedy from an external independent fact-finding body. "It is imperative to the ever-declining TSA morale that [transportation security officers] not be forced to subject themselves to a self-serving process negotiated with their employer," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, on Wednesday.
The measure also would grant comparable due process rights to employees who provide information on wrongdoing during a government investigation or who refuse to violate the law, and would remove the Federal Circuit's monopoly on precedent-setting whistleblower cases. It also provides whistleblowers with the right to collect compensatory damages.
A group of 260 public interest organizations that included AFGE sent a letter on Monday to the Obama administration and members of Congress urging them to support the inclusion of the enhanced whistleblower protections in the stimulus bill. The groups began pushing for stronger federal protections after discovering that the original stimulus bill provided protections only to state and local government whistleblowers.
"Whistleblower protection is a foundation for any change in which the public can believe," the letter said. "It does not matter whether the issue is economic recovery, prescription drug safety, environmental protection, infrastructure spending, national health insurance or foreign policy."
Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, said on Tuesday that the legislation includes all the core principles that would fill in the gaps of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, but added that there are still some "rough spots" that would have to be ironed out for the measure to be successful. For example, he said, the bill would not protect national security disclosures made to members of Congress. Instead, the measure only would protect national security disclosures made to agency general counsels and ombudsmen, he said.
"There are a number of rough edges to the legislation that need to be fine-tuned," Devine said. "If the technical problems are resolved, the House legislation would be the global gold standard for freedom of speech by government workers."


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