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The firings and shufflings of inspectors general that have occurred recently in the Trump administration have worried a related community. Namely, the whistleblowers and those who advocate on their behalf. For a take on the temperature, Federal Drive with Tom Temin checked in with the executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, John Kostyack.
Tom Temin: Alright, so there’s a bill now to protect from, I guess, summary dismissal, the federal inspectors general that’s banding about in Congress. Just if you would maybe reeducate us on the connection between whistleblowers and inspectors general, because generally you think of whistleblowers and the Office of Special Counsel and places like that.
John Kostyack: Yeah, the inspectors general is a really important place for whistleblowers to go. Whistleblowers need options and inspectors general are highly respected professionals, folks who have been in investigations their entire career, generally have unimpeachable integrity, and Congress listens to them. Congress passed the Inspectors General Act, the initial one back in 1978, because they needed an objective reporting on potential waste, fraud and abuse within the government. And so if you’re a federal whistleblower, and you have information on potential waste, fraud and abuse in the government, the IGs generally going to be very interested and it can do thorough investigation, will keep your name confidential and in general that report that the IG produces will be seen by Congress and ultimately oftentimes debated and public.
Tom Temin: So whistleblowers then often go directly to inspectors general?
John Kostyack: That’s right.
Tom Temin: What about the chain of you know, first, the supervisor and so on — rr do they often, in your experience feel more comfortable going right to the IG?
John Kostyack: Yeah, oftentimes the issues that are raised by whistleblowers implicate superiors, and so whistleblowers don’t feel safe bringing the very topic that their superiors might be quite knowledgeable about but may not have completely clean hands around — so they’ll need to know venue in that situation. And obviously the Office of Special Counsel is important venue, but so is the IGs office.
Tom Temin: And with all of this debate going on and some celebrated departures if you will of inspectors general, what does it look like from the whistleblower standpoint that you’ve been noticing lately? Are they kind of going into hiding? Is there more activity or maybe no effect?
John Kostyack: Well, it’s hard to get great data. There’s been one survey now several months old and is certainly not complete that suggests that some federal employees are less likely to step forward, others no change and then others are more motivated than ever to step forward in the face of wrongdoing because they’re concerned about potential corruption. So it’s not a clear picture, it’s certainly a riskier environment than ever before and whistleblowers have always taken risks. We’ve been fighting at National Whistleblower Center to create more confidential channels, to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, as well as ensuring that there’s good education across the federal government about the value of whistleblowers and the importance of protecting them. But as you know, there have been breakdowns, quite a lot of the backlog at you know the Merit System Protection Board, the list goes on and on, breakdowns in this current system. So whistleblowers definitely need to tread carefully, and these days, there has been enough evidence of retaliation for speaking up against powerful individuals that you have to tread. especially careful.
Tom Temin: And what should whistleblowers do in times of uncertainty or if they think the inspector general might be in trouble or something?
John Kostyack: Well, first of all, every federal employee is a citizen, so we always encourage people to exercise their voting rights. We also encourage people to understand the whistleblower protections and to try to navigate within the system of protections we have. It’s oftentimes a good idea to get with whitleblower council because it is a complex body of laws. Those who step outside the legal protections obviously are at greater risk. People will go directly to the media with potentially sensitive information. Obviously, that’s a very risky maneuver. Now obviously there’s a lot of information that gets to the media that’s not national secrets. But there’s a lot of important questions always the voters should ask themselves before they go public or before they disclose. We very much encourage disclosure of misconduct, but we also say it’s not a simple process, and needs to be done thoughtfully.
Tom Temin: It does take some intestinal fortitude it doesn’t it to embark on that path.
John Kostyack: Yes, unfortunately, we have a long list of whistleblowers we’ve worked with and spoken with who have gone through fairly traumatic experiences. And we’re trying to change that and trying to strengthen our culture of respect for these people. They are the ones who are really on the front lines of protecting our democracy and the rule of law and I think we’ve had a lot of learning opportunities in the past year and the most important thing I think for people to take away from all this is some of the most important subjects we are debating today about the future of our country are only being debated because whistleblowers have brough the issues forward, and we need more of that.
Tom Temin: And the government just recently printed up a couple of trillion dollars into various programs has really distributed it. And at this point, the oversight apparatus is just really getting started. I think there’s a new GAO report out, but that’s the first of them. And inspectors general are part of that also. Should we expect a bumper crop perhaps of whistle blowing complaints as what happened with that money becomes more and more transparent?
John Kostyack: Oh certainly. There’s a direct correlation between large government spending and fraud and abuse. And the massive spending we’re seeing now is particularly subject to abuse because there are not enough measures for transparency and accountability in the legislation that’s been passed. We’ve seen the Treasury Secretary authorized many billions of dollars to spend and saying that he is not going to provide the names of the beneficiaries of that spending. So we are in great need of whistleblowers and we are already seeing the whistleblower step forward on COVID response spending — then expect large influxes of additional whistleblowers. We need to make sure the system is set up to protect them and ensure that their complaints are heard.