by Lisa Rein

If you’re a servicemember who went public with waste, fraud or other wrongdoing in the military and you were punished for it, the investigators handling your case aren’t doing the best job they can.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Government Accountability Office on the problem-filled system for addressing reprisals against military whistleblowers, which may be endangering the careers of those who step forward and hurting the military’s ability to stop mismanagement.

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Troops who claim retaliation not only wait more than a year on average for their cases to be resolved. They’re often victims of confusing instructions to investigators, who close many cases prematurely, according to the audit released last week.

“Until it further addresses the challenges it faces in regard to oversight mechanisms,” the government “cannot be assured that it is effectively...implementing the whistleblower reprisal program as intended,” auditors wrote.

Reprisal claims are handled by the inspector generals for the services and the Pentagon. Pentagon officials agreed with the audit’s conclusions.

The inspector general’s office “has taken significant measures to improve the transparency and the integrity of the data relating to whistleblower investigations,” and has “embarked on an aggressive path forward” to becoming a model in the federal government, assistant inspector general John Crane wrote in the audit.

Federal law is supposed to protect civilian and military whistleblowers against retaliation that can range from reprimands and demotions to outright firing. But military whistleblowers often have a harder time proving they were retaliated against.

Auditors recommended that the Defense Department improve its oversight of cases and be more proactive in spelling out the remedies for whistleblowers who are found to have suffered reprisals.

Some of the problems auditors cited:

• The Defense Department missed its 180-day deadline for completing investigations in cases allegations of reprisal in 70 percent of the cases auditors studied, letting stack up for an average of 451 in a sample auditors looked at. Federal law requires investigations to be completed within 180 days. The delays were caused by short staffing, the inspector general’s office told auditors.

• Just one in five servicemembers who win their cases receive some form of relief from a panel that corrects military records.

• Whistleblowers applying for relief have to fill out so much paperwork the burden on them is excessive.

• Knowledge is scant about remedies for whistleblowers. For example, the inspector general’s office used to provide staff with specific recommendations for what to do when someone wins a case. He could get his job back, for example.

The policy now? “Appropriate action” should be taken.