Note: this article, featuring our Legal Director Tom Devine, was originally published here.

Swalwell Introduces Federal Whistleblower Protection Law

Federal officials who leak whistleblower’s identity would face criminal penalties.

A federal bill that would better safeguard the anonymity and security of whistleblowers was introduced by Tri-Valley Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Livermore) earlier this month.

The “Enhancing Protections for Whistleblower Anonymity Act” was drafted last year, after complaints about President Donald Trump’s relationship with the Ukrainian government led to his impeachment.

The identity of the person who raised concerns about Trump’s actions generated substantial speculation and numerous efforts by some congressional members to uncover and publish their information. Trump’s accusations that the whistleblower was a spy who could face the death penalty and instigator of a hoax, and demands to “meet his accuser” made the whistleblower’s attorney share concerns about their client’s safety.

“Whistleblowers are critical to rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and illegal conduct, especially as this administration strives to block congressional oversight at every turn,” Swalwell said after his new bill was introduced June 11.

“Threatening and trying to reveal whistleblowers’ identities is wrong and undercuts long-established policy, endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans for decades, to encourage people to come forward with allegations of wrongdoing. It’s time to stand up against these attacks and strengthen the right of whistleblower anonymity,” Swalwell added.

Federal officials are currently prohibited by law from revealing the identity of a whistleblower, but no penalty exists for violations.

The Whistleblower Anonymity Act would “would impose criminal penalties on any federal official who knowingly communicates the identity of a whistleblower, or information which would reveal such a person’s identity, except to other government officials when permitted by existing law.” Whistleblowers whose identities are illegally disclosed would also be able to sue for injunctive relief or monetary damages.

Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, said the bill “adds the teeth that whistleblower confidentiality laws have always needed for credible rights.”

“It long has been illegal to retaliate against federal witnesses, and exposing anonymous whistleblowers is the gateway for all reprisals. But federal laws protecting confidentiality rights are toothless, without any way for whistleblowers to defend themselves or enforce them,” Devine said. “Until there are remedies and accountability, there will be no deterrence against gateway harassment. Outing whistleblowers exposes them to retaliation, ranging up to death threats last year, and has a chilling effect on the flow of evidence necessary for the rule of law.”

The House Judiciary Committee, which Swalwell serves on, will hold a hearing in the future and receive testimony from whistleblowers about what Swalwell called Trump’s and Attorney General William Barr’s “politicization of the Department of Justice.”