For the past twenty years, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has worked with whistleblowers to expose waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government. We always advise potential whistleblowers that the safest course in exposing wrongdoing is to make their evidence public while remaining anonymous. Why? Because powerful interests and entrenched institutions always try to discredit the messenger, rather than acknowledge and correct the wrongdoing. To have an effective democracy, we must protect and reward those individuals who act honestly in exposing government waste and fraud. By protecting and encouraging these individuals, our government protects its own credibility and the American public.
In the past, federal workers have helped to expose wrongdoing in a wide range of fronts: fraud in Medicare, faulty aircraft wiring, IRS taxpayer abuses, oil industry fraud, and life-threatening safety problems in military weapon systems. However, according to government surveys, one out of every fourteen federal employee whistleblowers reports being retaliated against for disclosing health and safety dangers, unlawful behavior, and/or fraud, waste, and abuse (Merit Systems Protection Board, 2000).
S. 995 is an important step in strengthening the Whistleblower Protection Act. The proposed legislation will:
- Make the Anti-Gag Statute Permanent by preventing agencies from forcing federal employees to sign agreements waiving their whistleblower rights.
- Improve the Judicial Process by instituting a normal judicial appeals process. Right now a whistleblower's only avenue of appeal is to the hostile U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. Under the proposed legislation, the Federal Circuit's monopoly would be ended.
- Close Loopholes in Protection by restoring Congress' intent that "any" disclosure by a federal employee will be protected - including 90% of cases where coverage has currently been stripped.
Failing to support these legislative changes will doom federal whistleblowers, silencing the majority of would-be whistleblowers, forcing the conscientious individuals who do speak out to suffer incalculable harm, and ultimately robbing the American public of vital information. Consider the following:
Ed Block was an aviation wiring specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency and won an employee of the year award in 1981 for saving taxpayers $2 billion. He was fired in 1984 for testifying that a wiring insulation material used in the F-14 could lead to dozens of crashes, and recommending that the fleet be grounded. Today, the National Transportation Safety Board databases include more than two dozen incidents involving electrical wiring malfunction, according to Block. Further, Navy officials admitted that hundreds of F-14s were grounded in the mid-1980's because the cost of replacing the wiring was not feasible. Because commercial aircraft often have exactly the same types of troubled wire as military aircraft, he tried to alert the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to the problems he observed. If the government had listened to him years ago, it might not have had to play catch-up with the emergency grounding of older Boeing 737s and other commercial aircraft because of frayed wires. Finally, on May 10, 2000, the White House Office of Science and Technology issued an internal memorandum stating that "aging wiring is an issue of national concern that extends beyond aviation." Nearly twenty years after Block brought the problem to public attention and was fired for it, he received partial validation for his decades long struggle. Unfortunately, that vindication can hardly compensate for the years he spent fighting, without his government job, to hold the government accountable for wiring flaws that risked and likely lost American lives. Mr. Block stated, "I want Congress to create a whistleblowers' bill of rights. The way things work now, it's more like the truth shall set you free - from your job."
As Navy Admiral Rickover once warned, "You can sin against God, and God will forgive you - if you sin against the bureaucracy, they will never forgive you!" As living testament to this statement, fifteen years after the Defense Logistics Agency fired Mr. Block, they arrogantly refused even to meet with him despite the growing evidence supporting his findings.
S. 995 strengthens the legislation that could have supported a whistleblower like Mr. Block. Those who seek to ensure that our food is safe, our drinking water pure, and our nuclear facilities well protected from terrorist attacks, should not have to fearfully look over their shoulder as they do the right thing. Protections are needed to prevent the government from killing the messenger, rather than examining the message.
POGO itself has experienced the difficulties associated with whistleblowing. On the eve of the controversial 1993 House vote to fund the $13 billion Superconducting Super Collider, POGO acquired a draft of the Energy Department's report concluding that forty percent of expenditures on the project were wasteful. Many members of Congress subsequently credited POGO with the program's cancellation. In response, Department of Energy Inspector General agents flashed their badges at POGO's doorway, demanding to know POGO's sources. POGO declined to comply.
Then, in 1995, POGO came under attack from the Air Force over an investigation into the illegal burning of hazardous wastes at the super secret Area 51. POGO acquired an unclassified Area 51 employee manual from years past to prove the existence of the secret base. The Air Force retroactively classified the manual and then used POGO's possession of it to demand access to the organization's files. POGO again refused to comply.
Of course, it is much easier for an organization like POGO to confront retaliation resulting from whistleblowing than for an individual government employee. Strengthening the Whistleblower's Protection Act through S. 995 empowers individuals who are willing to risk their jobs and personal well-being to expose government fraud and waste. Exposing government waste helps keep the government running honestly and efficiently thus strengthening the nation as a whole.
No one knows how much money the federal government squanders every year. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee recently documented that at least $35 billion had been wasted in FY 1998 alone. Federal employees are our nation's foot soldiers in the war against waste and fraud. S. 995 is an important step in giving these patriots the protections they deserve. It is not, however, enough. Rewards for blowing the whistle - rather than mere protections - ultimately will be the only way to send the right message to federal employees, both the whistleblower and the retaliator.