Most Americans would agree that when anyone sees wrongdoing, the right thing is to speak up about it. Doing so is even more important if public health and safety is at stake. But when federal employees blow the whistle on lax enforcement at the Food and Drug Administration, or political interference at the Environmental Protection Agency, or many other instances of waste, fraud or abuse at federal agencies, they risk dismissal or exile to a dead-end job.
Why? Because federal law fails to adequately protect federal whistleblowers.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Congress can — and should — fix this glaring problem. And Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman could play a key role in making that happen this year.
Coleman has fought for whistleblower protections for employees at the World Bank and the United Nations. As a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, he is in an ideal position to defend federal employees with the same intensity and dedication.
Months of negotiations
Last year, both the House and the Senate passed whistleblower protection bills. For many months Coleman’s committee has been negotiating with the House on a final bill. But House and Senate negotiators have been bogged down trying to resolve the differences between the two versions.
Now, with just weeks remaining in the congressional schedule, there is distinct possibility that the House and Senate, pressed for time, may agree to a weak bill or not pass anything at all. Either outcome would be a significant blow to millions of federal employees who have waited decades for a law that would truly protect whistleblowers from demotion, harassment or dismissal.
Coleman could make a difference by showing leadership on this critical issue. He should push to ensure that federal employees can speak out without fear of retaliation and that they have access to jury trials. He should prod his colleagues to guarantee protection for national security employees and airport baggage screeners, as well as for federal scientists who expose attempts to alter or suppress federal research and technical data.
Coleman’s high profile on whistleblower rights would help pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make whistleblower legislation a higher priority and reserve some floor time in September for a vote.
Scientists fear retaliation
Why is passing this law so important? Largely because of a number of flawed court decisions, current federal whistleblower protections fail to protect nearly all federal employees. The result is thousands of federal employees are afraid to speak out. For example, nearly 1,100 of the nearly 3,400 federal scientists at nine agencies who responded to questionnaires from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) over the past three years said that they fear retaliation for raising concerns about the work and mission of their agencies.
Their fears are warranted. Consider these emblematic anecdotes:
• In 2004, Bunnatine Greenhouse, the highest-ranking civilian contracting officer at the Army Corps of Engineers, exposed a pattern of favoritism that benefited Halliburton and its then-subsidiary KBR. Her complaints, first made internally and eventually to Congress, cost her her job. After years of outstanding performance reviews, she was demoted. “[T]his is a woman who has been terribly disserved by her government,” North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan said in February. “She spoke out, and for that she paid with her career.”
• FBI Special Agent Mike German had a stellar 14-year career, infiltrating terrorist groups, recovering caches of illegal weapons, and preventing acts of terrorism. But after German reported in 2002 that federal wiretap regulations had been violated during an FBI investigation, he was dropped from one terrorism investigation, blocked from participating in another, and barred from training agents in undercover techniques. German left the FBI and only then told his story to Congress. An investigation by the FBI inspector general’s office uncovered a pattern of abuse that German had reported four years earlier. But nothing has been done to repair German’s shattered law-enforcement career.
• In 2006, Rosemary Johann-Liang, a high-ranking Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist, recommended that the label for the diabetes drug Avandia include a strong warning that the drug could cause heart problems. She was reprimanded by FDA managers, who transferred the Avandia safety review supervisor job to her boss. Johann-Liang was vindicated in May 2007, when the New England Journal of Medicine raised similar concerns about Avandia, and the FDA finally requested the warning label. Johann-Liang, however, ended up leaving the agency.
In 2006, Coleman defended the rights of whistleblowers at the World Bank. A year later, he spoke up for whistleblowers at the U.N. Development Program. He convinced the Senate to withhold U.S. funding for the agency until it adopted a whistleblower-protection policy. Federal workers deserve no less.
Celia Wexler is the Washington representative for the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
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