On Tuesday, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) chaired a bipartisan hearing of a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee. The purpose of the hearing, "Whistleblower Protections for Government Contractors" was to build support for the Non-Federal Employee Whistleblower Protection Act (S. 241), legislation that seeks to expand and make permanent whistleblower protections for government contractor employees. These protections were initially passed in the 2009 stimulus law.
Senator Rob Portman (R-Oh), the former Office of Management and Budget chief, participated supportively. From GovExec:
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, noted that with "half a trillion dollars a year, or 15 percent of the budget," being spent on contractors, it is time to rethink the 19 current laws. "Whistleblowers are the eyes and ears of all of us, and are a vital communications link between daily program managers and those in Congress responsible for oversight," he said.
The House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee already has approved a two year pilot experiment in jury trial rights for contractor employees as part of HR 3289, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), but the McCaskill stimulus provisions are not included in S. 743 – the Senate version of the WPEA.
At the hearing, representatives from Offices of Inspector General at the Department of Defense and Small Business Administration testified that the stimulus whistleblower law was significant in preventing waste and fraud in that spending, while not causing administrative problems. Protections in the 2009 law include mandatory Office of Inspector General review of alleged fraud, waste and abuse for investigation, and whistleblowers' guaranteed access to court for jury trials. Angela Canterbury from the Project On Government Oversight testified on a strong consensus of support for this reform from good government constituencies such as the Make It Safe Campaign.
Appearing at the hearing was Hanford Nuclear Site whistleblower Walt Tamosaitis, who filed suit recently against the Department of Energy and a subcontractor for each one's role in removing him from the problem-laden vitrification plant. Tamosaitis gave riveting testimony on contractor fraud, waste and abuse by the Bechtel Corporation at the site in Richland, Washington, which stores radioactive waste from nuclear power and weapons plants. Tamosaitis headed a blue ribbon oversight project for safe, permanent storage of some 50 million gallons of the world's most toxic, combustible radioactive and chemical poisons. But when his team protested billions in cost overruns and over four dozen violations of the law and professional standards he was stripped of duties and reassigned to an office in a basement copy room to make an example of what happens to whistleblowers. He makes over six figures a year to fill space and serve as an example to other would-be whistleblowers. Tamosaitis had the following back-and-forth with Sen. McCaskill (from Northwest News Network)
[Tamosaitis] testified he was taken out of his high-level management role on Hanford's waste treatment plant after he raised safety concerns. He now works in a basement office.
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill asked Tamosaitis what effect that has had on the larger project.
"So every day you are an example to all the workers there, whether they are federal employees or Bechtel employees, 'don't say anything or you too will be banished to the basement,'" McCaskill asked.
"Yes Senator. Very directly," Tamosaitis responded. "It's a very visible example of what happens if you speak up."
GAP Legal Director Tom Devine commented, "Mr. Tamosaitis is one of the world's top engineers, but Bechtel has made him a public example that no one's job is safe if they defend the taxpayers against highly dangerous contractor fraud and waste. Government contracts are the magnet for corruption worldwide. If Congress is serious about sparing taxpayers from indefensible spending, it will pass include the McCaskill bill in the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. It already has been tested for over two years, and worked. We don't need any more experiments. We need to start defending contractor whistleblowers who defend the public. Now. No more excuses. Taxpayers owe a debt of bipartisan thanks to Senators McCaskill and Portman for following through on rights for those who defend the integrity of over a half trillion dollars annually in contractor spending. "
Dylan Blaylock is Communications Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.