The Project On Government Oversight applauds Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Todd Platts (R-Pa.) for introducing the bipartisan Non-Federal Employee Whistleblower Protection Act (H.R. 6406), an important bill that could save billions of taxpayer dollars. POGO has always supported granting strong whistleblower protections to all federal contractors and grant recipients of federal funds, and this bill would do just that. In April, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) companion legislation S.241, cosponsored by Senators Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and we are glad to see House members following McCaskill’s lead.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that up to $60 billion was lost in Iraq and Afghanistan due to waste and fraud, most of which was the result of questionable contracting. To stop this kind of gross waste in the future, would-be whistleblowers need to feel safe coming forward speaking out against the misuse of federal funds.
Last December, POGO’s Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight about the inadequate protections in existing law:
The accountability loopholes are many in the patchwork of laws that protect only some contractors and federal-fund recipient employees who blow the whistle, and only under very limited circumstances.
Contractors, subcontractors, and grantees should have protections and safeguards similar to those available to federal employees and other private employees. All truth-tellers who protect the public interest should be free from fear of discharge, demotion, discrimination, or any other form of retaliation.
In the words of whistleblower champion Rep. Speier:
It is the workers on the front lines who are best suited to identify and expose misconduct, but contract workers are the most vulnerable to termination and the risk of career ending retaliation is currently too great for most non-federal employees to blow the whistle on their employer or contract manager.
Rep. Platts, Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Government Organization, Efficiency, and Financial Management said, “This legislation would make the federal government more open and accountable to the citizens it serves.” POGO agrees completely.
H.R. 6406/S. 241 would do a great deal to enhance government accountability and protect those contract workers on the front lines. Modeled after the excellent whistleblowing protections in the Recovery Act, the bill encourages internal reporting and provides protection for complainants who disclose waste and wrongdoing to their supervisors, Congress, Inspectors General, federal agencies, and the courts. Significantly, it would protect subcontractors and grantees.
The bills also include time limitations for inspectors general to take action after receiving complaints so that contractor whistleblowers are not left high and dry indefinitely if they suffer prohibited personnel practices. And if an investigation does ultimately conclude that the non-federal employee was subject to reprisal, the head of the concerned agency will be required to order the employer to reinstate the person to their original position, provide back pay, benefits, and compensatory damages.
Another practical reform that could make a difference in preventing retaliation in the first place is the requirement that the IG’s decision be posted in a manner in which “every employee of the employer will have notice of the decision and otherwise require a reasonable compliance program to ensure that no further retaliation is committed.” This accountability mechanism will inform employees of their rights and send a message that the government will not tolerate repeat offenders.
If passed into law, the Non-Federal Employee Whistleblower Protection Act would go a long way toward improving accountability to taxpayers. Though it’s not likely to happen before Congress recesses for the election, POGO hopes they will take action on these bills in the Lame Duck session.
Suzie Dershowitz is a public policy fellow at the Project On Government Oversight.Follow @SuzieDershowitz