To Promote Accountability, Support Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers are one of the most effective catalysts of accountability. Truths about wrongdoing and illegality exposed by employees of conscience act as a check against powerful individuals and institutions. Time and time again, whistleblower stories serve as a case study for why policies should encourage workers to speak up. However, whistleblowers are too often chilled from making disclosures across the federal government. In order to change this, the Biden administration and Congress must act to support whistleblowers not only in policy, but also practice. 

Despite weak protections for whistleblowers at the federal level and the real risk of reprisal, brave individuals still step forward. Here are a few of their disclosures that continue to make a difference:

Dawn Wooten
Dawn Wooten, a nurse at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, shined the light in 2020 on inadequate medical care at the facility, including failures to comply with COVID-19 guidelines and hysterectomies performed on immigrant women with dubious consent. Wooten suffered a demotion and ultimately was assigned no work after raising concerns internally. She subsequently filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. Her disclosures generated an avalanche of media coverage, congressional calls for investigations and multiple Hill briefings, including a House resolution to formally condemn the alleged forced medical procedures, organizing by the immigration justice community, multiple agency investigations, and a class action lawsuit of immigrant women seeking justice.

Voice of America Employees
Multiple employees at the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s Voice of America, the country’s largest international broadcaster, blew the whistle on former Chief Executive Officer Michael Pack’s politically motivated abuse of authority, including violating the VOA legal firewall that protects journalists’ independence, terminating the presidents of all of the USAGM-funded networks, and removing critical senior staff and/or revoking their security clearances—replacing them with political appointees that undermined the independence of USAGM reporters to promote political propaganda. They filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel which found a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing and ordered an investigation. Pack resigned after President Biden asked him to step down on the first day of term and replaced with one of the whistleblowers he had reassigned, longtime USAGM journalist Kelu Chao, with others restored to their posts.

Jay Brainard
Jay Brainard, the Federal Security Director in Kansas for the Transportation Security Administration, sounded the alarm internally in spring 2020 on gross mismanagement in TSA’s response at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. As TSA continued to withhold protective equipment from workers and refused to mandate that agents wear masks and change gloves often, Brainard filed a disclosure in June 2020 with the OSC and went to the press to raise the alarm about airports being vectors for the spread of COVID-19. His disclosures, once public and validated by the OSC, prompted TSA in early July to update its safety protocols to address the concerns.

While these whistleblowers made a difference, not everyone’s disclosure can do the same. In order to give employees a platform, we’ve worked with Open the Government and a coalition of organizations on Accountability 2021, a set of recommendations to promote a more accountable government. Those recommendations include strengthening support for whistleblowers.  

Our chapter calls on the Biden administration to re-energize bipartisan support for truth-tellers and revitalize our whistleblowing programs, ensuring functional channels for reporting disclosures, and encouraging their use by increasing protections from retaliation. Actions taken by the Trump administration led to one-third of federal workers saying they were less likely to make whistleblowing disclosures in a survey. To change course, President Biden must side with the overwhelming majority of the general public by showing strong support for whistleblowers as essential catalysts for accountable government. 

We’re also calling on lawmakers to take action. While Congress has advanced whistleblower protections in the public and private sectors significantly over the past decade, the laws that protect whistleblowers from retaliation remain inadequate. Through Accountability 2021, we’ve outlined how lawmakers can help whistleblowers by improving the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 and reforming the Intelligence Community whistleblower processes. 

Whistleblowers are brave, but that doesn’t mean they should have to face wrongdoing alone. With the support of the public, and action from the administration and lawmakers, employees of conscience, whose disclosures benefit all of us, can be given the protection they rightly deserve. 

Accountability 2021 is an agenda to repair critical gaps in transparency, ethics, and oversight and to begin to forge a new path toward a long-lasting accountable government. The effort centers around 18 core principles across broad categories, including whistleblowing. Join Government Accountability Project in shining a light on this principle from March 29 to April 2 as we celebrate Whistleblowers Week on Facebook and Twitter.