Federal agencies would be required to discipline officials who retaliate against whistleblowing employees, and to fire them on their second offense, under a bill up for a House vote Thursday.
The bill, approved by the Senate in May, is one of many arising from the disclosures starting in 2014 of falsified patient records at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The revelations drew a surge of complaints from lower-level employees who said they had suffered workplace reprisal from managers for pointing out the problems and that managers were not being held accountable for violating the legal protections for whistleblowers.
“While retaliation at the VA has captured the public’s attention most recently, retaliation against whistleblowers is not confined to any one agency,” a Senate report on the bill says, adding that mandatory discipline is designed to “ensure accountability throughout the Federal Government.”
The bill would require at least a three-day suspension of a federal official found to have committed retaliation by an internal government legal process or by a federal judge and firing for a second offense. The time to contest a notice of proposed discipline would be shortened from 30 to 14 days, but once the firing became final, regular appeal rights would apply.
Congress last year enacted a similar requirement applying only to VA officials who retaliate against employees who disclose fraud, waste or misconduct, with at least a 12-day suspension for a first offense and firing for a second. This year, a law shortening and restricting appeal rights for VA employees was enacted, and on Wednesday the House passed a measure somewhat widening whistleblower protections.
The measure requiring firing for retaliation would create an exception to the general rule that agencies have wide discretion over disciplining their employees. Currently, mandatory firing also applies at the Internal Revenue Service under a long-standing policy known as the “10 deadly sins” involving abuse of authority.
The George W. Bush administration attempted to impose mandatory discipline for certain types of misconduct as part of alternative personnel policies at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, but neither took effect in the face of lawsuits and opposition from Congress.
Also, under the latest bill, agencies would have to give priority to a request for a transfer on behalf of an employee — including one still in a probationary period — who alleges retaliation; it would be an act of retaliation for an agency official to access the employee’s medical records following a disclosure; and more training on whistleblower rights would be required for new employees and for supervisors.