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Armor for the Whistle-Blowers

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By Stephen Barr
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Three House members who favor stronger protections for whistle-blowers are urging support for a Senate amendment that would reinforce the rights of federal employees who disclose waste, fraud and abuse in government.

"We believe there is now a real opportunity for Congress to accomplish a significant bipartisan victory for whistle blowers," Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Todd R. Platts (R-Pa.) said in a letter released yesterday.

The Senate amendment would restore and clarify congressional intent as to what type of whistle-blowing is protected and where it may take place, according to sponsors. Amendment supporters claim that the Federal Circuit appeals court, which rules in employee cases, has created loopholes in whistle-blower law and eroded safeguards for federal workers.

The issue took on added significance in May when 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.

Numerous federal whistle-blowers have alleged in recent years that agencies fail to handle their cases in a confidential manner and do not take appropriate steps to stop reprisals from superiors, such as yanking their security clearances and transferring their jobs far from their homes.

The Senate amendment was added to the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and other senators. In their letter, the House members urged Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman and ranking members of the House Armed Services Committee, to include the amendment in the final version of the bill.

The letter writers pointed out that the House Government Reform Committee has worked on the issue of enhanced whistle-blower protections since 2000.

"The committee's experience has demonstrated repeatedly that whistle blowers can be America's first line of defense against threats from outside, as well as from bureaucratic breakdowns within the government that can be equally dangerous," the letter said. "Committee investigations and hearings repeatedly have confirmed this conclusion, whether the context was protection of nuclear weapons facilities, disregarded advance warnings about vulnerability to 9/11, failure to upgrade homeland security since that tragedy, or fraud and contracting abusers that have undermined the safety of our troops in Iraq and elsewhere."

In the past, the Justice Department has objected to similar efforts to reword whistle-blower law. In 2004, the department opposed a bill sponsored by Akaka, contending proposed changes would be "burdensome, unnecessary and unconstitutional."

Tax Chase to Start

The Internal Revenue Service has informed employees that it will begin using private debt collectors to track down tax delinquents starting in late August or early September.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get every nickel that is owed to the government by people who haven't paid their taxes," IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said yesterday.

The IRS has estimated that debt collectors could pull in about $1.4 billion over 10 years. Under a 2004 law, the IRS has hired three companies and will pay them on a sliding scale -- from 21 cents to 24 cents for each dollar collected.

Everson said "a modest number of cases" will be turned over to the companies at the start, promising to "ramp this up deliberately and very carefully" to ensure that taxpayer privacy is protected.

The National Treasury Employees Union opposes the use of contractors, saying that tax work should be done by government employees. Union President Colleen M. Kelley yesterday called the program a "foolish endeavor" and noted that the inspector general for tax administration and about two dozen House members have raised concerns about the it.

According to an agency message, IRS employees will refer taxpayers with questions about debt collection notices to the private companies. If taxpayers choose not to work with a debt collector, they must notify the contractor and the IRS in writing, the IRS told employees.

"This is going to be a confusing situation for impacted taxpayers," Kelley said.

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


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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