What does a federal whistleblower risk? More than you think

If you see something, say something. It’s a simple phrase that carries a lot of weight if you’re a federal whistleblower.

Maybe you pass off a tip to your agency’s inspector general, or Congress, about something that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Maybe that’s as far as it goes. Or maybe it’s just what auditors and investigators need to dig deeper on some particular wrongdoing.

Few whistleblower tips turn into the latest Hollywood blockbuster,...

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If you see something, say something. It’s a simple phrase that carries a lot of weight if you’re a federal whistleblower.

Maybe you pass off a tip to your agency’s inspector general, or Congress, about something that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Maybe that’s as far as it goes. Or maybe it’s just what auditors and investigators need to dig deeper on some particular wrongdoing.

Few whistleblower tips turn into the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but there are plenty of disclosures below that threshold that still root out fraud, waste and abuse.

And yet, whistleblowers often come forward with what they know at great personal risk. Sometimes that means losing their jobs, or facing years of drawn-out legal battles to clear their names.

Take the Defense Department’s inspector general office, for example, which receives at least 10,000 calls on its whistleblower hotline every year.

One of those calls, back in 2014, led to a $25 million False Claims Act settlement last year with a Boeing subsidiary that allegedly sold used and refurbished drone parts to the Navy and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) for the price of new materials.

The whistleblower in question, former Insitu executive D.R. O’Hara, took his concerns to the company’s executive staff before making a call to the DoD IG’s hotline. The former action, by his telling, led to a demotion.

O’Hara received $4.6 million of the recovered funds part of the qui tam provision of the False Claims Act, but spent several years and close to half a million dollars on his legal defense overall.

For cases where whistleblowers face retaliation from agency executives, Congress a year ago passed the Elijah E. Cummings Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination Act.

The Office of Personnel Management, just last week, introduced a proposed rule to implement the law. which would require agencies to create a tracking system for complaints on discrimination and whistleblower retaliation.

It would also require agencies to provide public notice in an accessible format of any final decision in which there has been a finding of discrimination or retaliation.

The late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), while serving as the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, warned that lawmakers and agency IGs conduct effective oversight without whistleblowers.

But Jeff Neal, a former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said federal whistleblowers face more risks than ever when it comes to telling someone what they know.

What starts out as an anonymous tip can lead to a whistleblower’s name — and maybe their phone number and address — getting posted on Twitter. That can lead to threatening calls and harassment.

“It becomes much scarier, and much harder to expect somebody who has knowledge of wrongdoing,Jef to trust the system to protect them,” Neal said. “It creates huge problems for us as a country that we’re doing more and more that seems to make it harder to expect people to actually do the right thing.”

OPM’s proposed rule may help document cases where an agency executive retaliates against a whistleblower, but Neal said whistleblowers have a lot to lose, and may not have faith that the disclosure process will actually work as intended.

Lawmakers last year advanced several bills meant to increase the independence of agency IGs and make it harder for a president to fire. But in the end, IGs, as executive branch employees, ultimately serve at the pleasure of the president.

“Can Congress do something that makes it impossible for a president to fire an IG? The answer is probably no. They might be able to make it more difficult. But the president does run the executive branch and IGs are executive branch employees,” Neal said.

There are plenty of other variables a would-be whistleblower needs to unpack before making allegations. Sometimes their disclosure involves classified information, which could add to their legal woes.

In other cases, a whistleblower’s claim may not actually translate into actual wrongdoing.

“I’ve seen this happen, maybe somebody discloses something, and it turns out what they thought was something crooked going on, or something illegal going on, was perfectly legal. They just didn’t have the whole story, and in going about it the way they did, they create problems,” Neal said.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Jonathan Tercasio

Former President Gerald Ford is recognized as the country’s first active skiing president, according to a 1974 article from the New York Times. Ford’s personal instructor described the former president as someone who’s “all for skiing” and “doesn’t fall down much.”

Source: The New York Times

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