Groups demand whistleblower protections
This article features our Legal Director Tom Devine and was originally published here.
Over 200 groups called on President Joe Biden and congressional leadership on Thursday to enact stronger whistleblower protection laws, especially to ensure that the government is fairly spending trillions of dollars in pandemic relief funding.
A diverse group of 264 organizations, led by the Government Accountability Project, sent the letter to leaders to emphasize the important role whistleblowers play in holding the government accountable.
They argued that current whistleblower laws––such as the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act and 2012 Whistleblower Enhancement Act––are outdated and insufficient to protect “courageous” individuals who disclose wronging.
“Improvements to whistleblower protections, historically passed by Congress with bipartisan and nearly unanimous support, and supported by 86% of Americans according to a recent Marist poll, are a crucial first step to ensuring accountability and establishing safeguards in the federal government,” they wrote. “Public servants should be able to disclose evidence of wrongdoing without fear of reprisal or futility.”
This is especially needed for the “integrity of the pandemic relief legislation,” but also important for other areas such as environmental protection, foreign policy and infrastructure.
Specifically, the groups would like to see the following legislative reforms:
- Give whistleblowers the right to jury trials in federal courts.
- Allow whistleblowers to challenge retaliatory investigations.
- Extend relief to whistleblowers if they prove a case of retaliation prima facie, meaning they provide sufficient evidence ahead of the trial.
- Expand rights beyond just protection from retaliation.
Whistleblower advocates are particularly concerned about “an increasingly popular form of retaliation” known as SLAPP lawsuits (strategic lawsuit against public participation), used to censor or silence critics by burdening them with legal fees, said Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project.
“The whistleblower is legally defenseless against those attacks, which are far scarier with a worse chilling effect than getting fired,” he said. Meanwhile, “globally, in two-thirds of nations with whistleblower laws, those rights are an affirmative defense against civil or criminal liability.” The United States should follow suit, Devine said.
In addition to their recommendations, the letter’s co-signers noted that, “unlike the 2009 stimulus package after the Great Recession, nearly $3 trillion in COVID relief did not add whistleblower protections to the law.”
A new inspector general and several oversight bodies were established and IG offices received funding, however.
The Federal Managers Association, National Federation of Federal Employees and Federally Employed Women co-signed the bill.
Other groups included: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Project on Government Oversight, Whistleblowers of American, R Street Institute, Public Citizen and Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Secrecy and retaliation against whistleblowers are not healthy components for a democratic republic because ultimately, citizens have a right to know what the government is doing,” said Lisa McCormick, a progressive activist in New Jersey.