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Alarming Flip-Flop on Whistleblowers from Senator Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Sen. Harry Reid

When a senior member of the Senate calls a group of whistleblowers a “bunch of whiners,” it is alarming, considering the important role whistleblowers play in keeping government fraud, waste, and abuse at bay. However, when that same leader has in the past championed whistleblower protections and rights, it makes the former statement that much more confusing.

Earlier this week, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) was quoted calling a group of 15 whistleblowers a “bunch of whiners” after they accused him of using political pressure to benefit a Las Vegas casino. After an investigation into these complaints, Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth called the same group of whistleblowers “courageous” and pledged to protect them from retaliation. What is so puzzling about Reid’s new stance on whistleblowers is that he, too, considered them worthy of protection—that is, until they spoke out against his actions.

Whistleblowers across the government and private sector receive wildly disparate treatment, some walking away with million-dollar rewards, while others walk away with nothing left of their old lives. Some of the most sensitive pseudo-government positions, like intelligence community contractors, have no whistleblower protections at all. The Project On Government Oversight has been working for years to bring whistleblower protections up to a minimum standard across the board. Statements such as Reid’s—which paint whistleblowers as annoyances rather than resources, or villains rather than heroes—jeopardize this goal. Yet, it’s whistleblowers we have to thank for exposing the lack of safe vehicles for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the TSA cutbacks that led to the removal of air marshals from high risk flights in the wake of 9/11.  Unfortunately, whistleblowers often face retaliation after exposing fraud, waste, and abuse, even when disclosures are made through the proper channels.

With the creation of the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, under the bipartisan leadership of Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), whistleblowers are seeing a renewed congressional effort to support and protect them as they navigate the often-daunting path of blowing the whistle. This is essential because they don’t normally find support within their own agencies or companies. For context, Just this morning, the Office of Special Counsel released information about two Bureau of Prisons whistleblowers, one of whom was reassigned to work in a converted jail cell instead of an office, after making a protected disclosure.

Whistleblowers often reach out to Congress to make protected disclosures, so it is imperative that elected officials create an environment where they are welcome and protected. Senator Reid used to understand this, but his alarming flip-flop, right at the end of his congressional service, may mar a long career of generally championing whistleblowers.

Image from Flickr user Lake Mead Natural Resource Area.

By: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz
Director of Public Policy, POGO

Photograph of Elizabeth Liz Hempowicz is the Director of Public Policy for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Whistleblower Protections

Authors: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz

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