Federal whistle blowers involved in costly legal fights with their agencies may be able to have their lawyers paid by the government, even if they eventually lose their case.

The General Accounting Office has given the Special Counsel of the Merit System Protection Board authority to "request" payment of legal fees by government. That could take a substantial financial burden off civil servants who are fighting disciplinary action from their agencies for blowing the whistle on alleged waste, fraud or mismanagement.

GAO's ruling is a foot-in-the-door that will be a boon to bureaucrats who aren't independently wealthy and to Washington's legal community, which often shies away from whistle-blower cases because clients can't pay their bills.

The MSPB has authority to order an agency to pay legal fees after it has heard an employe's case. But allowing the special counsel to request payments would be a big help -- to employes -- since it brings cases to the board for action. The counsel's office, by definition, also is more sympathetic to employes than the Board, which has more of the role of independent judge.

GAO's action doesn't give H. Patrick Swygert, the special counsel, authority to "order" payment of legal fees, but it does allow his office to request the payments. Under the setup the special counsel, with the MSPB approval, can order agencies to take corrective actions, such as reinstating employes, or ordering them to stop harassing workers. Corrective action in the future also could include payment of legal fees.

The MSPB and its Office of Special Counsel were created by the president's Civil Service Reform Act. Idea was to provide a special agency with investigation authority and power to order corrective action against agencies that punish workers for pointing out serious problems.

Critics say that both the Board and the Special Counsel have been hampered by lack of funds and personnel (and some internal infighting). Many federal workers are willing to lay their careers on the line when they see wrong-doing. But very few can afford the lawyers bills that result from a long fight with Uncle Sam. This new action won't make the system perfect, but it should help.