“The War on Whistleblowers”

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An excellent November 1 article in Salon details the current degenerate state of federal whistleblower protections. Whistleblowers cannot rely on their legal rights for an official victory, no matter how valid their charges nor how important the issues. The article points to the need for legislative reform and also suggests to us that, in addition to legal counsel, whistleblowers with strong cases should have the support of skilled, aggressive public interest advocacy, the media spotlight, and political pressure in order to get favorable results.

Quoting briefly from the much-longer article, which we recommend highly:

The war on whistle-blowers

U.S. officials have long retaliated against employees who speak out, burying the dangers they expose. Now, Congress wants to give whistle-blowers greater protection—but President Bush vows to stop it.

by James Sandler*

Every year, hundreds of federal workers sound the alarm about corruption, fraud or dangers to public safety that are caused or overlooked—or even covered up—by U.S. government agencies. These whistle-blowers are supposed to be guaranteed protection by law from retaliation for speaking out in the public’s interest.

But a six-month investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting, in collaboration with Salon, has found that federal whistle-blowers almost never receive legal protection after they take action. Instead, they often face agency managers and White House appointees intent upon silencing them rather than addressing the problems they raise. They are left fighting for their jobs in a special administrative court system, little known to the American public, that is mired in bureaucracy and vulnerable to partisan politics.

One elected official who has the right attitude toward whistleblowers is Sen. Grassley:

“Whistle-blowers are treated like a skunk at a picnic, and there’s no excuse for it,” Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, said after being provided with details of the CIR/Salon investigation. Grassley has long sought stronger whistle-blower protections and is backing the new legislation toward reform. “It’s whistle-blowers who can help us truly understand problems at government agencies. They stick their necks out to speak the truth. They don’t take the easy way out.”

The article notes the Government Accountability Project’s pioneering whistleblower protection work and reports on the results of the CIR/Salon investigation:

One advocacy group that assists whistle-blowers, the Government Accountability Project in Washington, has scrutinized past rulings to determine how whistle-blowers fare. GAP’s pioneering work showed that whistle-blowers seldom win. But until now, no comprehensive study has been done on whistle-blower cases. The Merit Systems Protection Board does not specifically keep track of cases, but using records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the CIR/Salon investigation reviewed 3,561 whistle-blower cases filed since 1994, when the Whistleblower Protection Act was last revised by Congress. The cases often traversed a costly and drawn-out series of legal steps prior to a decision. During the Clinton administration, in cases from 1994 to 2000, whistle-blowers won only 3.5 percent of the time. During President Bush’s tenure, from 2001 through June 2007, 3.3 percent of whistle-blowers won. Most whistle-blowers spent several years fighting in court.

The great majority of government whistleblowers lose their cases, if they rely on playing out the string and getting formal legal rulings. Whistleblowers cannot rely on their legal rights for an official victory, no matter how just their cause and no matter how serious the government wrongdoing to which they are calling attention. Experience teaches that, in order to get a case settled favorably, it helps if the whistleblower has the support of an aggressive and skilled advocacy campaign—including getting a media spotlight on the case and putting constituency pressure on public officials—in which a lawsuit-in-progress is only a part of the action. Public interest advocacy can sometimes get the job done when the government that is supposed to protect whistleblowers has become part of the problem. 

*James Sandler is a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting.
The Center for Investigative Reporting, along with PBS FRONTLINE, put together the excellent program “Hot Politics,” on the politics of global warming and the disinformation campaign, which first aired on April 24, 2007. CSW director Rick Piltz was interviewed on the program, with extended interview text posted online by FRONTLINE (see links on our April 26, 2007, posting).

Climate Science Watch is a program of the Government Accountability Project.

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