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Federal Diary

Senate Committee Approves Greater Protections for Whistle-Blowers

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page B02

These are tough times for federal employees who blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse. Their cases take months to investigate; they often face reprisals from bosses, and once in court, they find that the protections granted by Congress are not all that strong.

In an effort to strengthen those protections, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bipartisan bill that supporters hope will encourage employees to step forward when they spot wrongdoing in government offices.

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"Strengthening whistle-blower protections is more than just an employee protection issue. It promotes good government," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), a chief sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

"If federal employees fear reprisal for blowing the whistle, then we not only fail to protect the whistle-blower, but we fail to protect taxpayers and . . . national security," Akaka said.

Among those sponsoring the bill are Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

The legislation would clarify congressional intent as to what type of whistle-blowing is protected and where it may take place. It also reinforces the right of whistle-blowers to turn over classified information to Congress, but only to members and aides who hold security clearances and who are authorized to receive the information.

The bill would prohibit federal managers from suspending or revoking an employee's security clearance in retaliation for whistle-blowing. The Merit Systems Protection Board would be able to conduct expedited reviews in disputes over security clearances but would not have the power to restore a security clearance, according to the bill.

Under the bill, federal employees would be required to offer "substantial evidence" in court to support disclosures of improper activities. That would make clear that employees did not have to provide "irrefragable proof" of official misconduct, a standard used in a 1999 court ruling and one that watchdog groups contend is impossible to meet.

The bill also would suspend the monopoly held by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on whistle-blower retaliation cases and permit multi-circuit review for a period of five years.

Elsewhere on the Hill

The House Government Reform Committee approved a bill, sponsored by Reps. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), that would revamp key operations at the U.S. Postal Service. The vote was 39 to 0.

House aides believe the bill will get to the floor this year, but some parts of the House bill and a pending Senate bill may change. Postmaster General John E. Potter told Bloomberg News: "There are some issues we have with each of the bills."

Reps. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced a bill that would bar the Internal Revenue Service from contracting with debt collection companies to collect tax debts.

The IRS, under a law approved last year, plans to hire at least three companies this summer to collect taxpayer debts. The debt collectors will be able to keep up to 25 percent of the money they bring in, and will be required to comply with taxpayer confidentiality rules. But Van Hollen said turning over access to taxpayer information to contractors "poses a risk that we just cannot afford."

GSA Urged to Go Slow on Cuts

Nine Democrats have written the General Services Administration expressing concern "about the hasty implementation" of a fiscal 2006 budget plan that would cut staffing at GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

The letter, sent this week to GSA Administrator Stephen Perry, said the Democrats understand that the staffing reductions -- involving 92 jobs -- could be completed by the end of this month, even though the fiscal 2006 budget has not been approved by Congress. Fiscal 2006 begins Oct. 1.

"We urge you not to make these reductions without due consideration and full disclosure to the affected employees," the letter said.

The letter was signed by Maryland Democrats -- Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, Benjamin L. Cardin, Albert Wynn, Elijah Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Chris Van Hollen -- and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

GSA spokeswoman Viki Reath said the agency "will respond in a timely manner."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com

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