House approves landmark whistleblower legislation with protection for scientific freedom

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The Government Accountability Project (GAP) hailed the March 14 House of Representatives floor vote approving H.R. 985, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, legislation that overhauls federal whistleblower law. Among its numerous provisions, the bill would create specific protection in the law for scientific freedom, making it an abuse of authority to censor, obstruct dissemination, or misrepresent the results of federal research. For the last seven years, GAP has led a campaign working toward this reform’s enactment. The margin of victory is large enough to overcome a veto threatened by the administration

Government Accountability Project
National Office
1612 K Street, NW Suite #1100 • Washington, D.C. 20006
202.408.0034 • http://www.whistleblower.org

March 14, 2007

House Approves Landmark Whistleblower Legislation

331-94 Vote Sufficient to Overcome Threatened Veto

(Washington, D.C.) – The Government Accountability Project (GAP) hailed this evening’s House of Representatives floor vote approving H.R. 985, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, legislation that overhauls federal whistleblower law. The vote was 229-0 by Democrats, and 102-94 among Republicans.

“Today the House of Representatives whistled the truth,” commented GAP Legal Director Tom Devine. “If the Senate follows suit, this reform will be the strongest whistleblower law ever passed by Congress, or any other nation.” He emphasized the bill’s underlying significance, “This is the foundation for serious congressional oversight, with investigations that uncover the iceberg instead of just the tip. The House acted wisely to protect its witnesses.” Devine added, however, that GAP’s support for the final bill was based on commitments to address concerns and clarify that last-minute amendments will not weaken national security whistleblower rights.

Highlights of the bill include “no loophole” whistleblower protections for those paid with federal funds, including contractors, national security agency workers, and baggage screeners. The legislation restores the legal rights and mandate of the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), which has been gutted by judicial activism since 1994 when Congress unanimously strengthened it. For the first time since 1978, government employees also will have due process enforcement teeth if their rights are violated, through normal access to court, including jury trials.

The legislation, sponsored by Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ranking Member Tom Davis (R-VA), Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA), and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) overhauls the law protecting federal government whistleblowers. For the last seven years, GAP has led a campaign working toward this reform’s enactment.

Specifically, the legislation would:

Codify the legislative history for “any” protected disclosure, meaning the WPA applies to all lawful communication of misconduct. This restores “no loopholes” protection and cancels the effect of the Supreme Court’s Garcetti v. Ceballos decision limiting federal workers’ First Amendment rights.

Provide those covered by the WPA access to jury trials in federal district court to challenge reprisals.
End the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals monopoly on appellate review of the Whistleblower Protection Act (The Court has single-handedly gutted the WPA, leading to a 2-178 record against whistleblowers for decisions on the merits from October 1994 through February 12, 2007), restoring all-Circuit review, as in the original 1978 Civil Service Reform Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. This provision was approved today by a voice vote amendment.

Extend rights to all national security whistleblowers, including those at the FBI and intelligence agencies.

Extend rights to federally-funded contractors.
Extend WPA rights to some 40,000 airport baggage screeners.

Provide normal whistleblower rights to those who disclose misconduct in litigation testimony, or who refuse to violate the law.
Restore independent due process review of security clearance determinations for whistleblower reprisal, unavailable since a 1985 Supreme Court decision.

Create specific protection in the law for scientific freedom, making it an abuse of authority to censor, obstruct dissemination, or misrepresent the results of federal research.

Restore the unqualified, original “reasonable belief” standard established in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act for whistleblowers to qualify for protection.

Define the “clear and convincing evidence” legal burden of proof for an employer’s affirmative defense of independent justification, after an initial reprisal case is established. 
Make permanent and provide a remedy for the anti-gag statute – a rider in the Treasury Postal Appropriations bill for the past 17 years – that bans illegal agency gag orders. The anti-gag statute neutralizes hybrid secrecy categories like “classifiable,” “sensitive but unclassified,” “sensitive security information” and other new labels that lock in prior restraint secrecy status, enforced by threat of criminal prosecution for unclassified whistleblowing disclosures by national security whistleblowers.

Codify protection against retaliatory investigations, giving whistleblowers a chance to end reprisals by challenging preliminary “fact-finding” charades.

Provide specific authority for whistleblowers to disclose classified information to Members of Congress on relevant oversight committees or their staff.

Provide compensatory damages and reimbursement for expert witness fees to prevailing whistleblowers, establishing consistency with other remedial employment laws. This was another strengthening amendment added today.

Modify the burdens of proof to make it more realistic for the Office of Special Counsel to seek disciplinary accountability against those who retaliate.

Provide the Special Counsel with authority to file friend of the court briefs in support of whistleblower rights cases appealed from the administrative level.

The margin of victory is large enough to overcome a threatened veto the administration released yesterday. GAP Legislative Representative Adam Miles commented, “Whistleblowers are employees who exercise freedom of speech to challenge abuses of power that betray the public trust. This reform is simply a composite of best practices in current whistleblower laws. The President’s intolerance raises an obvious question: Why? There is no excuse to veto a breakthrough codifying measures that have proven most effective for government accountability.”

Contact: Adam Miles, Legislative Representative
Phone:  202.408.0034 ext. 132, cell 202.276.2007
Email:    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Contact: Tom Devine, Legal Director
Phone:  202.408.0034 ext. 124, cell 240.888.4080
Email:    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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Contact: Dylan Blaylock, Communications Director
Phone:  202.408.0034 ext. 137, cell 202.236.3733
Email:    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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