Senate Extends Sarbanes-Oxley Court Rights to DOE Workers and Contractors as Conference Showdown Looms 

(Washington, DC) – The Government Accountability Project (GAP) today highlighted a breakthrough for whistleblower rights unanimously approved on June 24 as part of the Senate Energy bill. The bipartisan amendment, which was sponsored by Nevada Senators Harry Reid (D) and John Ensign (R), will afford Department of Energy (DOE) government and contractor employees the right to a jury trial if their whistleblower claims are allowed to languish inside agencies awaiting an administrative determination.

Modeled after the Sarbanes-Oxley whistleblower protection rights for employees of publicly traded corporations, the Reid-Ensign amendments in section 625 of the energy bill provide that when whistleblowers do not receive an administrative ruling on their complaint within 180 days, whistleblowers can seek a jury trial in court.

“Jury trials long have been acknowledged as whistleblowers’ only meaningful chance for justice,” noted Tom Devine, GAP Legal Director. “Nuclear whistleblowers are modern Paul Reveres on the nation’s first line of defense against radioactive threats. Senators Reid and Ensign engaged in leadership that could make a real difference. The Senate vote is not just a breakthrough for whistleblower rights, but a breakthrough for homeland security.”

This summer a House-Senate Conference Committee will resolve differences between two separate bills. The current House Energy bill contains weaker whistleblower rights: it excludes federal government workers and makes contractor employees wait 540 days before access to court.

However, both bills share common ground by providing the right to a jury trial in court. After completing mandatory filing of cases at the Department of Labor (DOL), all DOE whistleblowers receive court access as an escape hatch from current administrative remedies. The DOL system, infamous for its snail’s pace when dealing with whistleblower cases, routinely takes years for a final ruling – sometimes over a decade for controversial lawsuits.

The 180 day waiting period prior to initiating court action is a standard provision used in equal employment (EEO) discrimination laws for government and corporate workers, as well as in the Sarbanes-Oxley law which provides protections for employees of publicly traded corporations.

“Most whistleblowers can hold out for 180 days to get initial relief, but few can financially survive years and years of delays waiting for a Labor Department decision,” explained GAP nuclear director Tom Carpenter. “The patient is dead before the doctor finishes the operation.”

The House-enacted provisions also include a restriction on contractor legal fee reimbursements. Currently, the taxpayers reimburse DOE contractors and their law firms’ for attorney fees in whistleblower cases, even when the DOE contractor is found guilty of reprisal. “Since company lawyers get paid to lose, there is no incentive to resolve even the most outrageous cases,” added Carpenter. “Many lawsuits continue for no reason except to make money for corporate law firms.” Enacting legal reforms may reduce government costs by $3 million annually, according to a 2002 GAO report.

Congress will begin its energy bill conference after the July 4th recess. GAP urges nuclear whistleblowers, along with environmental, homeland security and good government organizations, to rally behind the Reid-Ensign whistleblower rights amendment and House legal-fee reform. GAP’s website, will have ongoing reports on progress and suggestions how citizens and organizations can make a difference in the outcome.