But with Lerner heading the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), whistleblower advocates now give it strong praise.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight: “There is a real sense that professionals are running the place now.”
Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project: “It’s like switching from night to day.”
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: “She and her staff have begun to turn a moribund, listing battleship onto a course where the Office of Special Counsel can become a formidable force for good government.”
Protecting federal whistleblowers against retaliation by supervisors is one of the main responsibilities of the office. But under former boss Scott Bloch, advocates told clients that the agency was not a place they could get a fair shake. Now, Devine said, OSC is “the first and best option.”
The renewed emphasis on whistleblower protections was symbolized by the Public Servant of the Year Award that Lerner presented Thursday to James Parsons, Mary Ellen Spera and William Zwicharowski for their roles in exposing serious misconduct at the Port Mortuary on the Dover Air Force Base. It was a case of the tiny OSC pointedly taking on the mighty Pentagon and winning.
“Whistleblowers are patriots,” Lerner said at the ceremony. “They possess unusual courage. They come forward because they are driven by conscience. When they see something that is not right, they speak. They know they may be unpopular for it. They do it anyway.”
The Federal Diary asked Lerner about protecting whistleblowers from retaliation:
Q: Generally speaking, do federal whistleblowers feel free to report fraud, waste and abuse or is there a fear of retaliation? Has this changed in the past year?
A: “I remain optimistic that federal employees feel free to report waste, fraud, abuse and health or safety issues when they see them. Our government relies on them in order to weed out problems and to be effective and efficient. Retaliation against whistleblowers is a very real phenomenon, but our office and other government bodies stand prepared to help them.”
Q: There have been many cases of retaliation over the years. What is your office doing to prevent or reduce retaliation?
A: “Shortly after I took office last June, we began a Retaliation Pilot Project to both train more OSC attorneys in this area of law and to accelerate our handling of such cases. As a result, the number of favorable resolutions in OSC prohibited personnel practice cases nearly doubled. We have also emphasized mediation to efficiently and effectively resolve our cases, and this has also led to an increased number of positive resolutions for agencies and employees alike.