Free Speech Shield Praised as Nation’s Strongest
(Washington, D.C.) – The Government Accountability Project (GAP) praised D.C. City Councilmember Mary Cheh for her leadership regarding the unanimous approval of the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Amendment Act of 2009. The significant good government reform went into effect today after congressional review.
“Thanks to Councilmember Cheh, Washington, D.C. again has the nation’s strongest whistleblower protection law,” concluded GAP Legal Director Tom Devine. GAP led outside efforts for the law’s passage, in partnership with leading whistleblower rights attorney Jason Zuckerman.
In 1998, Washington, D.C. passed the nation’s best whistleblower law in response to sustained corruption scandals. Over the last five years, however, these protections deteriorated quickly. The erosion came from hostile judicial activism that gutted statutory rights. These local rulings reflect similar deterioration of the Federal Whistleblower Protection Act.
“Congress has been trying to revive federal whistleblower law for the last decade. Thanks to Councilmember Cheh, Washington D.C. did it in a year,” added Devine.
The new law adds the following protections for Washington, D.C. government employee and contractor whistleblowers:
- Protection for Job-Related Speech: Many government workers’ jobs require them to expose wrongdoing as part of their positions (such as auditors, investigators and inspectors). These workers are targets for retaliation when the catch criminal activity, or force a major political donor to comply with public health and safety standards. That is why their jobs may be the government’s most significant. Recently, courts have ruled that whistleblower rights do not apply to such speech. The new law restores government workers’ rights to act as public servants, rather than bureaucratic “yes men” whose free speech rights are limited to parroting the government’s party line.
- Anti-gag Provision: The legislation protects the City Council’s “right to know” by banning agencies from spending taxpayer money to restrict employees from communicating with the Council. Safe channels for the free flow of information are a prerequisite for effective oversight. The anti-gag provision is quite strong, with supervisors who censor their employees personally liable to repay the Treasury for their illegal spending.
- Retaliatory Investigations: Witch hunts are the oldest, ugliest form of harassment against whistleblowers, and nearly always the foundation for further retaliation to finish off the target’s career.
- Statute of Limitations: The new law extends the current one year limit to three years, conforming to best practices on the issue.
- Right not to violate the Law: Whistleblowers now cannot be retaliated against for refusing to obey an illegal order.
- Training: A major impediment to the impact of whistleblower laws is that employees are not aware of their rights. The law now will require supervisors to brief employees on hiring of their whistleblower rights.
- Accountability: Under current law, supervisors or those ordered to retaliate have not had anything significant to lose by doing the dirty work of retaliation. The law increases the penalties for illegal retaliation from $1,000 to $10,000.
- Protection for contractors: Under current law, workers at D.C. government contractors are protected from retaliation by their employer. But there is no protection for the contractor itself against D.C. government retaliation if the firm blows the whistle on associated corruption. For years this has been a serious problem, as contractors could not do business without providing kickbacks demanded by corrupt bureaucrats. Under the new law, those companies can blow the whistle and have the same anti-retaliation rights as an employee. This is a good government breakthrough, not found in any other federal, state or local whistleblower law.
Government Accountability Project
The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, GAP’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, GAP is a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Contact: Dylan Blaylock, GAP Communications Dir.
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 137, cell 202.236.3733