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Whistleblowers May Have a Friend in the Oval Office

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

While Barack Obama's election victory led millions of Americans to cheer and shout, a much smaller group of government watchers had reason to blow their whistles.

Whistleblowers in the federal government and those who work to protect them see a longtime friend in the next president.

"Attorney Obama and Senator Obama and candidate Obama and President-elect Obama have all supported whistleblower rights," said Adam Miles, the legislative representative for the Government Accountability Project, a public interest group that bills itself as the nation's leading whistleblower organization.

Obama's whistleblower trail starts before his days in public office.

When he was an associate with the Chicago firm of Miner Barnhill & Galland, Obama was among those representing Janet Chandler, a psychologist who charged Cook County Hospital with lying about the results of a federally funded program that served pregnant women on drugs.

The settlement resulted in money being returned to the government.

As a senator, Obama supported legislation that would increase whistleblower protection. Versions of that measure remain before Congress.

As a presidential candidate, he endorsed whistleblower protection legislation in the House that is stronger than the bill he voted for in the Senate.

President-elect Barack Obama has continued along this track. His transition Web site says:

"We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process."

Whistleblower protection advocates expect he'll have the chance to move from campaign promise to presidential performance early in his administration. "Extending serious protections for whistleblowers in the first 100 days is possible under the Obama administration," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

There's a good chance final legislation will pass because similar versions passed separately in the House and Senate last year. However, there's no guarantee for such action in the first 100 days.

The legislation would strengthen the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act. It was designed to protect government workers who blow the whistle on government wrongdoing, but it has been weakened by court decisions.

One obstacle to passage of a stronger act should disappear next month when President Bush leaves office. In a letter to Congress last year, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said the legislation is "burdensome, unnecessary and unconstitutional. Rather than promote and protect genuine disclosures of real public concern [the bill] would provide a legal shield for unsatisfactory performance and behavior by federal employees."

Mukasey underlined the last sentence in the first paragraph of his letter. It warned that the president's "senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."

That's not likely the advice Obama will get from his advisors.

When Rahm Emanuel, Obama's incoming chief of staff, was a congressman, his office released a list of government workers who "lost their jobs in the Bush administration for telling the truth."

An Emanuel press release said "one of our most important weapons against waste, fraud and abuse . . . is federal whistleblower protections."

And in September, the co-chair of Obama's transition team, John D. Podesta, testified in favor of stronger whistleblower protections. Podesta spoke in his role as president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Whistleblower Robert MacLean, a former air marshal, wants Obama to issue an executive order that "would send a loud message" that his "administration will not tolerate reprisal against those who expose wrongdoing."

There are no signs Obama is planning such an order, but there is plenty of evidence to make whistleblower advocates think the future for their issue will be better than its past. They take comfort in the words coming from Obama's transition team:

"Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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