Michael Horowitz, inspector general with the Department of Justice, in his office in 2014 in Washington. He says public and congressional pressure makes it harder for managers to retaliate against whistleblowers. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Promoters are good about proclaiming appreciation.

There’s Houseplant Appreciation Day in January, Truck Driver Appreciation Week in September and National Nurses Week in May, not to be confused with Emergency Nurses Week in October or Perioperative Nurses Week in November.

The federal government gets in the act, too, with appreciation days for clergy spouses and collector cars, among a flurry of other notable days and weeks. I ignore almost all of these self-promoting, often sales-driven occasions, save one — National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.

That day falls on Tuesday and will be marked by a bipartisan Capitol Hill event honoring whistleblowers. It follows a Senate resolution, unanimously approved last week, in their support.

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, better known as CIGIE and representing more than 70 federal inspectors general, is marking the day with the release of a report on how inspectors general protect whistleblowers. Self-congratulatory, yes, but the report points to the vital role whistleblowers play in keeping government leaders honest — or at least in exposing them when they are not. 

One case summarized in the council’s report concerns Marine Brig. Gen. Norman L. Cooling. In May, the Pentagon’s inspector general found after investigating allegations from whistleblowers that his “overall course of conduct disparaged, bullied, and humiliated subordinates, devalued women, and created a negative . . . work environment that led to a general distrust of his impartiality and leadership.”

The Pentagon’s probe determined that Cooling said “he would rather have his daughter work in a brothel than be a pilot. He loudly and publicly berated two staff members whom he accused of trying to ‘f**k’ him and asked them repeatedly, ‘Where the f**k have you been?’  He publicly yelled to a staff member that if the staff member did not give him requested budget information he would castrate the staff member. In a staff meeting, he bullied a staff officer when he publicly berated, belittled, and singled her out for ridicule in front of her peers when a Member of Congress canceled a meeting with the Assistant Commandant.”

Cooling issued a statement saying he never “negatively singled out anyone for anything other than their job performance. . . . I inadvertently offended some through random remarks that were taken in a different context than I intended.”

The heading over the section of the council’s report about Cooling is “Holding Senior Military Officials Accountable for Misconduct.” That’s ironic, because Cooling’s case demonstrates why federal employees — including, apparently, those in the military — have reason to doubt the government’s seriousness in holding senior leaders accountable. 

Asked about any disciplinary action against him because of the conclusions reached by the defense inspector general (IG), Cooling said by email that he was “officially counseled regarding the IG’s findings.” 

Could this discipline, if you can call it that, have been any lighter? On top of that, an agency official said he now is in a job of greater responsibility than the one he held previously. 

As much as Uncle Sam professes his love for whistleblowers, National Whistleblower Appreciation Day reminds us just how little appreciation the government too often demonstrates for many who suffer retaliation by agency supervisors. 

Listen to Robert MacLean, twice fired from the Transportation Security Administration despite having won the first federal whistleblower Supreme Court case in January 2015. He has this discouraging warning for feds planning to drop a dime on waste, fraud or abuse: “Think about potentially destroying your career, making your family homeless,” he said. “If you do, document everything.”

Retribution is common, said Stephen Kohn, a federal whistleblower lawyer, because “managers and supervisors don’t want their mistakes reported.” Kohn is a founder and chairman of the National Whistleblower Center, an organizer of the day’s events.

Nonetheless, inspectors general, the Office of Special Counsel (not the one led by Robert S. Mueller III into Russian election interference) and other agencies rely on and protect whistleblowers, a duty that has been enshrined from the earliest days of the republic. 

The Senate resolution says that the “Founding Fathers unanimously supported the whistleblowers in words and deeds, including by releasing government records and providing monetary assistance for the reasonable legal expenses necessary to prevent retaliation against the whistleblowers.”

But it is public and congressional pressure, not devotion to the founding principles, that makes it harder for managers to retaliate with impunity, according to Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general and the CIGIE chair. He cited a 2016 law that requires every inspector general to publish semiannual reports on whistleblower retaliation, “including information about the official found to have engaged in retaliation and what, if any, consequences” the official faced.

“There has been greater responsiveness by the agency and the components in taking action in response to our findings of misconduct,” Horowitz said. “Making that public has helped.”