Yesterday, the Government Accountability Project, in conjunction with the Make It Safe Coalition, released a letter urging Congress and President Obama to complete enactment of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. The bill’s purpose is to restore credible free speech rights for federal workers who challenge government illegality, fraud, waste or abuse. In the letter, supporters for this reform swelled to 404 organizations and corporations, which represent over 80 million members.
Whistleblowers’ roles are to fight abuses of power sustained by secrecy. Ironically, however, the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) has degenerated into an efficient hammer to increase secrecy, by rubberstamping nearly every reprisal claim that whistleblowers challenge through exercising their rights. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the only court which can hear federal whistleblower appeals of administrative decisions, has consistently ruled against whistleblowers, with whistleblowers winning only three cases out of 211 since October 1994 when Congress last strengthened the law. The track record at the administrative level, the whistleblowers only chance for a hearing, is similarly dismal.
Congress has been working on legislation for ten years to overhaul federal whistleblower rights, and the signers urged them to finish. “Every month that passes has very tangible consequences for federal government whistleblowers, because none have viable rights. Last year, on average, 16 whistleblowers a month lost initial decisions from administrative hearings...”
Congress unanimously has passed and strengthened the Whistleblower Protection Act before, but the free speech mandate on paper consistently failed in practice because it was not backed by normal due process rights. This time the signers called for a law with teeth, starting with normal access to court for all employees paid by the taxpayers to enforce their rights, as Congress has done in ten laws for corporate whistleblowers since 2002. The letter also calls for national security workers to receive equal rights. These employees currently have the fewest protections. They have been harassed, investigated, and fired for exposing government breakdowns that put our combat troops in danger and impair our ability to prevent acts of terrorism.
Support to complete a genuine reform is swelling as the election approaches. The number of groups signing the letter have increased from 391 to 404 in the last two weeks, including – the Affiliation of Christian Engineers, Alliance for Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, Consumer Federation of America, Earth Day Network, Fleur de Lis Film Studios, Foreign Policy in Focus, Greenpeace USA, National Forum on Judicial Accountability, OAK: Organizations Associating for the Kind of Change America Needs, Sunlight Foundation, Texas State Community Council, and US Justice Watch.
Politicians campaigning against government waste, misspending and abuses of power are not credible, unless they do their share to deliver rights for those who fight it on the front lines. Whistleblowers live political rhetoric by risking their careers to challenge government misconduct internally, and to warn Congress and taxpayers about cover ups that betray the public trust. The message to Congress from these voters about whistleblower reform is clear: “Don’t come home for more campaigning without it!”
Tom Devine is Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization.