Bill Would Provide Enforcement Teeth for 1912 Congressional “Right to Know” Law

(Washington, D.C.) – On Tuesday, January 22 at 10:30 AM in 2218 Rayburn House Office Building, Government Accountability Project (GAP) Legal Director Tom Devine will join lead sponsor Albert Wynn (D.-MD), in launching the public campaign of HR 4650, Mr. Wynn’s Congressional Disclosures Act of 2007. They will be joined by representatives of the No Fear coalition, the Semmelweis Society and other supporters of this legislation giving federal workers and contractors access to court when they are prosecuted or otherwise harassed for blowing the whistle to Congress.

Since passage of the Lloyd Lafollette Act of 1912, it has been illegal to harass government workers for communicating with Congress. But the law has been a “right without a remedy,” not including any process for enforcement.

GAP’s Devine put its significance in perspective, saying “By proposing this reform, Rep. Wynn has put Congress on the spot. Quick action to lock in protection for congressional witnesses would be a weathervane that Congress is serious about hard-hitting oversight. It is unrealistic to get witnesses with evidence of political hot potatoes when they must proceed at their own risk.”

In 1912 Congress passed the Lloyd Lafollette Act, in response to Presidents Taft and Roosevelt gagging federal workers. Codified at 5 USC 7211, its text is simple, unequivocal and clear: “The right of employees, individually or collectively, to petition Congress or a Member of Congress, or to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied.” Unfortunately, the law contains no provision giving employees access to court or any other legal forum to enforce that right. As a result, the courts have dismissed 58 out of 59 lawsuits that congressional witnesses filed to challenge Lloyd Lafollette violations, explaining that Congress did not provide them with authority to act.

That is the point of the Congressional Disclosure Act, which is the second in a series of good government and anti-discrimination reforms launched by the No Fear Coalition, the namesake umbrella group whose campaign sparked passage of the No Fear Act, the first civil rights act of the millennium. The new legislation would give any congressional witnesses paid with federal funds the right to immediate court access, without exhausting prior and often lengthy administrative remedies in civil service law. The bill also would create an affirmative defense against retaliatory criminal prosecutions against whistleblowers, thwarting a recent trend.

As GAP’s Devine observed, “An ugly pattern intensifying over the last few years has been to seek imprisonment of whistleblowers it would be illegal to fire.” The legislation also would establish a Judge Advocate General model to provide legal representation for aggrieved federal workers, and help them find outside counsel by requiring agencies to pay triple back pay and triple attorney fees when an employee prevails.

Tuesday afternoon GAP also will post a new Retaliatory Prosecutions web page on its website, summarizing case studies where the retaliation against whistleblowers has been criminal investigation or prosecution. The organization is calling for other whistleblowers similarly harassed to submit their own experiences for review and posting.