Senate Committee Acts To Restore Protection For Whistle-Blowers

By Stephen Barr
Monday, June 26, 2006

In a breakthrough for advocates of whistle-blower rights, the Senate has approved an amendment that would tighten up protections for federal employees who expose waste, fraud, abuse and threats to public safety.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), won unanimous consent last week to include the amendment in the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill. The amendment was based on a whistle-blower bill introduced by Akaka last year.

Federal employees "who put their country before their personal well-being should not be restrained because of fear of retaliation for doing what's right," Akaka said in a statement.

Numerous federal whistle-blowers have complained in recent years that agencies fail to handle their cases in a confidential manner and to ensure they do not suffer reprisals from their superiors.

The Akaka amendment would permit federal employees to claim whistle-blower protection for "any" disclosure they make of wrongdoing. According to Akaka, the amendment would restore and clarify congressional intent as to what type of whistle-blowing is protected and where it may take place.

The 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act sought to protect federal employees from reprisals and retribution for speaking out on waste, fraud and abuse inside the government.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has ruled that federal employees have no protection for disclosures made to immediate supervisors or co-workers, for statements made in connection with their normal employment duties, or for statements of publicly known facts.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that public employees cannot seek First Amendment protection in sounding an alarm but must rely on federal and state laws to protect them from reprisals.

Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the amendment "reverses the steady erosion of whistle-blower protections caused by employment practices that circumvent current protections and adverse court decisions."

Akaka and Collins were joined by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) in sponsoring the amendment. Akaka praised Collins for helping "forge the consensus needed" to pass the amendment.

"The need to act now was heightened because of last month's Supreme Court decision that limits whistle-blower protection under the First Amendment. It's unacceptable for the courts to add another deterrence to federal whistle-blowing," Akaka said.

The House version of the defense bill does not address whistle-blower rights, which means that the Akaka amendment will be taken up by House-Senate negotiators who will write a final defense bill. But whistle-blower groups called the Senate action a milestone event in what has become a six-year campaign to strengthen employee protections.

"We're elated," said Tom Devine , legal director for the Government Accountability Project.

Retirements

Anthony H. Gamboa , general counsel at the Government Accountability Office, will retire at the end of the month after 45 years of government service. Gamboa joined the GAO in 1996 as a senior associate general counsel for procurement law, heading the bid protest office. In 2001, he was named general counsel. Before joining the GAO, Gamboa served more than three decades in the Army, on active duty and as a civilian employee.

Jerry Mitchell , a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, will retire July 3 after 40 years of delivering mail in the Hillandale area of Prince George's County.

Evelyn Petschek , chief of staff to the commissioner of internal revenue, retired June 6 after 13 years with the agency. She also served as commissioner of the tax exempt/government entities division of the Internal Revenue Service, and was awarded a distinguished presidential rank award in 2004 and a meritorious presidential rank award in 1999.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.


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