The True Cost of Telling the Truth

Whistleblowers save the government (and taxpayers) billions of dollars when they speak out against fraud and waste committed by federal contractors. But insufficient whistleblower protections make it so their honesty can cost them.

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Truth-Tellers 🤝 Taxpayers 

Taxpayers owe a lot to truth-tellers. Whistleblowers who work for federal contractors have saved the government (and us taxpayers) billions of dollars by exposing the bad business behaviors they witness at their place of work. Just through the act of telling the truth, they do a great service to the public. But outdated and insubstantial whistleblower protections are doing them a disservice, leaving whistleblowers vulnerable to retaliation from their employers. A bill in the Senate is giving Congress the chance to right that wrong. 

In this edition: 

  • Costly contracts 
  • How whistleblowers expose fraud 
  • The unfair price for telling the truth 
  • More than just the right thing to do 

For this edition of The Bridge, I talked to Joe Spielberger, policy counsel on POGO’s Effective and Accountable Government team. He recently co-wrote an op-ed for the Miami Herald on the need for stronger federal contractor whistleblower protections.  

Understanding the stakes 

The U.S. government has called itself “the world’s largest customer.” And one of its biggest expenses is for contracted goods and services that enable the government to see through its many duties to the public. Federal contractors work with the government to fulfill needs in every imaginable sector: public safety, national security, infrastructure, health care, disaster relief, environmental protection, and so much more. “Contractors play a really important role in so many different areas that impact our day to day lives,” Joe told me.  

Contractors are crucial to our government — and they are costly. In fiscal year 2022, the federal government allocated around $694 billion to contracts. With so much money on the line, the quality and integrity of contractors’ work is critical. 

Line of defense 

That is where whistleblowers come in. “The information they bring forward helps ensure that companies aren’t defrauding the government, which ends up saving taxpayers billions of dollars,” Joe explained. 

In their op-ed, Joe and Government Accountability Project Legal Director Tom Devine highlight a specific case from earlier this year when the Justice Department was able to recover $7.7 million in a settlement against contractors, thanks to whistleblowers who made disclosures under the False Claims Act, which happens to be celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. The act was specifically made for the purposes of countering fraud by contractors. Last fiscal year alone, the government recovered over $2 billion through False Claims Act settlements. “That’s why inspectors general have cited stronger whistleblower protections as a necessary bulwark against fraud at this level of federal spending,” Joe said. 

Costly in other ways 

Unfortunately, weak federal contractor whistleblower protections have made it so that the whistleblowers saving the government so much money often pay an unfair price for their honesty. 

Because of insufficient laws protecting them, employees of federal contractors who blow the whistle can face retaliation from their employers. Whistleblowers are often harassed, threatened, and even terminated from their jobs for having exposed their employers. Some face retaliatory lawsuits and criminal charges. They can even be blocklisted from the industry, which can effectively vanish their career prospects. 

“People lose their careers. It harms their financial wellbeing, their mental health, their psychological health,” Joe told me. “So when we talk about whistleblower retaliation, we’re really talking about really serious and potentially lifelong consequences.” The possibility of retaliation alone is often enough to scare employees into silence, discouraging them from divulging the wrongdoing they witness. 

Safeguarding the truth 

In Joe’s op-ed, he explains that the last time federal contractor whistleblower protections were updated was back in 2009. 

“Contractor whistleblower laws have been languishing for more than a decade. What were seen as best practices at that time may no longer be the case, as we see new trends develop, and employers utilize new tactics for retaliation,” Joe explained. 

It’s important that Congress update whistleblower protections to keep up with new trends in retaliation. Right now, there’s a bill in the Senate — the Expanding Whistleblower Protections for Contractors Act — that would update these safeguards, close loopholes, and better protect truth-tellers from retaliatory lawsuits.  

Protecting whistleblowers protects all of us. By exposing wrongdoing, federal contractor employees help protect the federal government and us taxpayers from stolen or wasted funds. With billions of dollars in federal contract spending on the line every year, there’s no better time for Congress to step up for whistleblowers.