Silencing and Intimidating Whistleblowers about Coronavirus Could Have Grave Consequences for Public Health

WASHINGTON — Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Vice President Mike Pence, who President Trump announced would coordinate the government’s response to the Coronavirus, directed government health officials and scientists to “coordinate all statements and public appearances” with his office in an effort to control messaging related to the health crisis. Later in the day, the Washington Post reported that a senior HHS whistleblower disclosed that more than a dozen workers who received the first Americans evacuated from China did not have “proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear.” Soon after raising concerns about the workers being improperly deployed, untrained and not quarantined, monitored or tested, the whistleblower was involuntarily reassigned.

Government Accountability Project CEO and Executive Directive Louis Clark said:

“We not only need an army of dedicated civil servants and contractors to respond to this potential pandemic, but we need an army of employees willing to exercise their rights to raise the alarm about gross mismanagement and dangers to public health so we have the information to contain the crisis. The truth matters. Facts matter. Science and research matter. Now more than ever. Gag orders that attempt to chill employees from blowing the whistle and swift retaliation against those who dare to speak up will only exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the potential danger to public health and the economy. Let’s be crystal clear on this: when it comes to Coronavirus this administration’s aggressive war on whistleblowers, and those who seek to speak the truth, could have grave consequences for public health. Lives are on the line. We stand ready to support any whistleblowers who seek to exercise their rights to report serious problems related to the response to the Coronavirus, and any other abuses of public trust.”

The Whistleblower Protection Act, as well as appropriations laws, make it unlawful to implement or enforce any non-disclosure policy unless the policy statement contains statutorily mandated language (see 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(13)) noting that employees’ whistleblower rights to make protected disclosures supersede any non-disclosure directive.

Federal employees and contractors should understand that not only would Pence’s directive be unenforceable if it failed to include language mandated by the WPA and appropriations laws, but moreover, any retaliation against an employee for exercising their rights to blow the whistle on information they reasonably believe evidences a violation of law, rule or regulation; abuse of authority; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety would be unlawful under whistleblower laws that protect both federal employees and federal contractors and grantees.

Because the government response to the Coronavirus could potentially implicate any of these categories of protected disclosures – like those of the HHS whistleblower – it is essential that federal employees and contractors understand not only their rights to speak out, but their duty to speak out in order to mitigate a growing public health crisis.

Contact: Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director
Phone: 202-457-0034 ext. 156

Government Accountability Project
Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, the Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C