House votes to expand whistleblower protections

AP News
Posted: Sep 28, 2012 2:31 PM
House votes to expand whistleblower protections

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House voted Friday to significantly expand protections for federal employees who expose fraud, waste and abuse and make it easier to punish supervisors who try to retaliate against the whistleblowers.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act was approved by voice vote, in a short session convened with nearly all members back in their districts for the fall election campaign. The provisions were agreed to in advance in both chambers, but the bill still be returned to the Senate for final action.

The legislation closes loopholes created by court rulings, which removed protections for whistleblowers. One loophole specified that whistleblowers were only protected when they were the first to report misconduct.

The new legislation, however, would go beyond restoring protections, to expand whistleblower rights and clarify protections that were not explicitly clear. For instance, the bill would clarify that whistleblowers could challenge the consequences of government policy decisions.

Specific protections would be given to certain employees, including government scientists who challenge censorship and workers at the Transportation Security Administration, who provide screening at airports.

The bill also would clarify a 24-year-old portion of appropriations bills, to make clear that agency restrictions on disclosures are superseded by the right to communicate with Congress and other whistleblower rights.

To stop illegal retaliation, the bill would make it easier to discipline those responsible, by modifying the burden of proof required when taking action against those trying to punish whistleblowers. Also, the Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees, would no longer be liable for attorney fees of government managers if the office does not prevail in a disciplinary action.

The new legislation would suspend the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals' sole jurisdiction to review decisions in whistleblower cases.

The bill's supporters said the court consistently narrowed protections and ruled for whistleblowers only three times in 229 cases between October 1994 and May 2012. A review by all federal circuit courts was added as a two-year experiment.

Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, said the protections do not extend to whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing in national security cases.

Devine, whose organization has led a coalition pushing for the bill, said the administration has promised to take action if Congress failed to apply the protections to federal employees in national security jobs.

"Because this bill excludes intelligence community workers, now is the time for the president to honor his promise and provide an effective, responsible channel for reporting waste, fraud and abuse," Devine said.

He added, "The good news is that the whistleblower rights in this bill are the strongest in history for federal workers. Congress has restored credible free speech rights for government employees who want to expose corruption and defend taxpayers."

He said supporters would try in the future to restore provisions, removed by some Republicans, for the right to jury trials for federal whistleblowers.

The measure came close to passing in the waning days of the last Congress in December 2010, but final action was prevented by an anonymous objection in the Senate as time ran out.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the bill's sponsor, said the legislation was essential to those who expose wrongdoing.

"For too many of those federal employees who spoke up to expose wasteful spending and criminal behavior in the past, it was true that: no good deed goes unpunished," he said. "It is a sad truth that many of these whistleblowers faced reprisal because they embarrassed those in power who were happy to waste taxpayer money or violate the law."

The ranking committee Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, also hailed the bill's passage but said the work is not done.

"We need to provide meaningful rights to whistleblowers in the intelligence community and we need to amend the law to allow whistleblowers the ability to go to court and have their case heard by a jury," he said.