Federal Employees News Digest

Federal whistleblowers get stronger protection

For many years, federal employee unions and advocacy organizations have complained about weak protections for feds who stand up and blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse at government agencies.

Despite several reforms in federal law and regulations—from the Whistleblower Protection Act (1989), to the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (2012), and others—on the ground such complaints continue to resonate with rank-and-file federal employees, who have seen a long line of high-profile whistleblowers get punished in various ways for their legitimate—and often heroic—efforts.

Hence, it will come as good news to many feds that the House of Representatives recently put in place what backers hope might help ease the plight of whistleblowers: new rules strengthening protections for feds who disclose wrongs to lawmakers.

How will these rules help out? First and foremost, as of the first week of January, for the first time House members and staff who breach confidentiality on the identity of an anonymous whistleblower will be held to have violated that body’s Official Code of Conduct. Breaching confidentiality, with subsequent consequences for whistleblowers, is one of many ways these sentinels of trouble have been unfairly forced to pay a price rather than be rewarded for their bravery.

“The framers of the Constitution assigned the U.S. Congress three basic functions: to represent, to legislate, and to conduct oversight of the executive branch,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) wrote in a letter last November, in which he proposed and specified the changes to come. “Without vigorous oversight that includes encouraging federal employees who see wrongdoing to report it anonymously and without fear of retribution, Congress cannot hold the executive officials, including the president and his appointees, to account or enact laws that serve the people it represents.”

“Members of Congress who would willfully undermine their own institution’s ability to conduct oversight by revealing or threatening to reveal the identities of whistleblowers must face consequences,” Hoyer continued.

The new rules, now in effect, are part of a package of House ethics reforms.

For more information, feds should check in with their unions, government resources—such as those on the U.S. Office of Special Counsel website—as well as major advocacy organizations with expertise in whistleblower law and practice—such as the Project on Government Oversight’s whistleblower resource webpages.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel also offers a Whistleblower Disclosure Hotline, which offers services targeted at feds who, as the OSC site states, have “inquiries on how to report fraud, waste, abuse or dangers to health and safety.” The hotline’s number is (202) 804-7000 or (800) 872-9855.

“The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) handles disclosures of wrongdoing within the executive branch of the federal government,” the OSC web page dedicated to “disclosure of wrongdoing overview” states. “[This includes those] from current federal employees, former federal employees, and applicants for federal employment. (For purposes of this section, former and current employees, and applicants for federal employment are all “employees" or “whistleblowers") The OSC unit responsible for this work is the Disclosure Unit.

The OSC’s Disclosure Unit breaks down disclosures into six different kinds. These include:

“Violation of a law, rule, or regulation; Gross mismanagement; A gross waste of funds; An abuse of authority; A substantial and specific danger to public health or safety; and/or Censorship related to research, analysis, or technical information,” the OSC’s site states.

“Federal law establishes a unique process for disclosures made to OSC,” the OSC site warns. “This process is intended to protect the confidentiality of the whistleblower and ensure that the alleged wrongdoing is investigated and, where necessary, corrected. In brief, when a whistleblower disclosure is filed with OSC.”

Again, before you as a federal employee act on making a whistleblower disclosure, it is advisable that you browse the OSC’s pages as well as the extensive resources on the subject available online—most prodigiously those on POGO’s website.

Feds who encounter waste, fraud or abuse related to or during the presidential transition process should in addition consult POGO’s specialty pages about the transition. (These pages also provide information—useful to all feds—on how to assist in the safeguarding and preserving of government documents.)

In addition to the WPA and WPEA, there are other laws that help guarantee protections for anyone who must make disclosures to protect safety and efficiency in the federal workplace. Federal contractors, for example, since 2013 have enjoyed substantial legal protections under the Enhancement of Contractor Protection from Reprisal (41 U.S.C. Sec. 4712).

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2021 Digital Almanac

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