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Project on Government Oversight

Whistleblowers Convene in the District, Lobby Policymakers for Reform

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September 30, 2011

Members of the whistleblower community gathered in the courtyard of the Steven R. Mott House last Monday and Tuesday for the 2011 Washington Whistleblower Assembly, entitled "A Conference for Accountability." The focus of this year's Assembly, spearheaded by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and co-sponsored by POGO and other allies, is part of a larger advocacy effort to protect and increase whistleblower protections.

National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake was honored as the keynote speaker. Drake blew the whistle on a failed multi-billion dollar intelligence program called Trailblazer. The Justice Department originally prosecuted Drake under the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking classified information, charging him with ten felony counts. But the Department’s misguided case against him collapsed in June, and Drake pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of exceeding authorized use of a computer. At the Assembly, Drake said the need for better protections for whistleblowers is greater now more than ever. “Whistleblowing has become a hazardous occupation free of hazardous duty pay," Drake said.

Robert MacLean, a former Federal Air Marshal (FAM) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) whistleblower, received a “Profile in Courage Award” during the Assembly’s closing ceremony. In 2003, MacLean blew the whistle within the Department of Homeland Security. After he was ignored, he went to the media to disclose an attempt to remove air marshal coverage of long distance, “high-risk” flights amidst heightened warnings based on intelligence that terrorists were planning on hijacking planes and flying them into U.S. East Coast targets. In 2006, the TSA fired MacLean, and said that he disclosed information marked as “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI), though it was not marked as such at the time or communicated in accordance with SSI policy. MacLean lost his retaliation case before the Merit Systems Protection Board in July. The federal Office of Special Counsel said the Board's ruling would "chill would-be whistleblowers." MacLean has said he plans to appeal.

The Whistleblower Assembly championed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2011 (S. 743), which would create safe channels for disclosures of wrongdoing and better protections for federal whistleblowers. In the Senate, this bill has been reintroduced by Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Susan Collins (R-ME). Eleven other senators have cosponsored the bill. On the House side, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) and the cosponsors of last year’s bill to reform federal whistleblower protections, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Todd Platts (R-PA), in addition to HOGR Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), have pledged to introduce a companion to the Senate bill.

In a recent Roll Call article, Senator Akaka said that protecting whistleblowers will be a key part of reducing the deficit. “If we are to make real progress to reduce the deficit, we must empower whistleblowers to uncover waste, fraud and abuse,” he said.

Staffers for some of whistleblower champions in Congress presented at the Assembly and discussed current legislative reform efforts. Lisa Powell from Sen. Akaka’s office, Scott Miller from Rep. Platts’ office and James Robertson from Rep. Issa’s office reaffirmed congressional support for legislation providing greater legal protections for federal whistleblowers.

Several Obama Administration officials also attended this year’s Assembly. Paul Igasaki, Chair and Chief Judge of the Administrative Review Board at the Department of Labor; Carolyn Lerner, Special Counsel, Office of Special Counsel; and Susan Tsui Grundmann, Chair of the Merit Systems Protection Board, expressed their strong support for whistleblowers and government accountability. These officials encouraged members of the Assembly to utilize the services their agencies had to offer and said they were working towards being more accessible to whistleblowers.

Blake Roberts of the White House Counsel’s office also met with Assembly participants to hear concerns from the community. Roberts reemphasized support from President Obama for the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

“Being Right on Whistleblowing,” a session with panelists Lt. Col. Tony Schaffer; Pete Sepp, Executive Vice President of National Taxpayers; David Williams, President of Taxpayers Protection Alliance; and Peter Forcelli, a former policeman and a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms whistleblower, discussed the need for bipartisan support in order to pass the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

Despite the diversity of content in the presentations throughout the day, one message came through loud and clear: the current protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 must be modernized and expanded.

Attendees of the Assembly spent the second day on Capitol Hill lobbying for just that. They told congressional offices about their personal experiences and said that S. 743 is must-pass legislation because it protects the interests of whistleblowers and the public, which benefits from whistleblower disclosures of government waste, fraud and abuse.

Peter Forcelli, a former Bronx police officer and ATF whistleblower, offered a sober reminder of the hardships whistleblowers can experience under the current law. Forcelli said that nothing he experienced during his time as a career police officer—including his work at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001—could have prepared him for what he experienced as a whistleblower. “My advice to whistleblowers? Don’t do it,” he said. “Don’t do it if you have a family to feed. Not unless we can get better protections.”

Meanwhile, the White House reaffirmed its support for whistleblower protections in the U.S. National Action Plan, an action plan for transparency as part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) that was released the same day the Assembly was on the Hill. “Recently, Congress nearly enacted legislation that would eliminate loopholes in existing protections, provide protections for employees in the intelligence community, and create pilot programs to explore potential structural reforms in the remedial process,” the plan states. “The Administration will continue to work with Congress to enact this legislation.”

The plan also states that the White House will consider using executive branch authority if Congress doesn’t act. “Statutory reform is preferable, but if Congress remains deadlocked, the Administration will explore options for utilizing executive branch authority to strengthen and expand whistleblower protections.”  

The experiences of Forcelli, MacLean and other whistleblowers at the Assembly serve as living proof that the actions of whistleblowers protect the public interest. But the question remains: who’s protecting the whistleblowers?

The politics have been, and continue to be uncertain for the brave federal employees who warn taxpayers of waste, fraud and abuse. But POGO is relentlessly fighting for better protections for all whistleblowers and taxpayers. We are working with whistleblowers, allies, the Obama administration, and Congress to ensure that the promise of expanding and modernizing the Whistleblower Protection Act is not lost to another political squabble or red herring. You can support this effort by telling your Member of Congress to pass the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.