Few attract more admiration, gratitude, fear and loathing for the same behavior than whistleblowers – employees who exercise freedom of speech to challenge abuses of power that betray the public trust. Their rights are at a crossroads, illustrated by the stimulus law. Funding recipients have the strongest whistleblower rights in history. But federal workers responsible to keep spending honest got nothing, and will proceed at their own risk if they challenge waste, fraud or abuse in $787 billion new spending.
It should be no surprise that they are not passive either about their rights, or associated consequences for taxpayers. For four days earlier this month over 100 members of the whistleblower community – whistleblowers, employee rights advocates and congressional allies – strategized for the final push in a ten year campaign to bridge the gap between false advertising and genuine freedom of speech. The National Whistleblower Assembly, “Ending the Dark Ages: Turning on the Lights Together,” sponsored by the Make it Safe Campaign, combined four days of inspirational speeches, networking, training, and congressional lobbying. Earl and Barbara Johannaber, a couple from Georgia, exclaimed “[t]his is the first time we found the company and support of other ‘hidden patriots’. We had no idea that there were so many of other whistleblowers and that so much good is being done.”
The assembly kicked-off Sunday with motivational Yes We Can talks by Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, tobacco industry whistleblower and subject of The Insider, and Coleen Rowley, FBI Whistleblower and Time’s 2002 Co-Person of the Year. Prominent air security whistleblowers like air marshal Robert MacLean headed a national security panel. A domestic surveillance panel spotlighted Thomas Tamm, former DoJ attorney on the full scope of warrant-less wiretapping. They highlighted the indispensable role of national security whistleblowers to defend both public safety and civil liberties, making the case to end a loophole exempting them from existing federal whistleblower law.
Whistleblowers were buoyed by champions like Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who provided a rousing keynote address, and Congressman Van Hollen (D-MD), whose remarks pledged to finish overhauling the Whistleblower Protection Act for federal employees this year after a ten year campaign. After hostile judicial activism, that law has degenerated into a trap that rubber stamps retaliation in over 99% of cases. The congressman wasted no time. The day after the conference ended, he reintroduced House-passed WPA legislation in the stimulus but rejected by Senate conferees. At Tuesday’s congressional awards ceremony Representative Woolsey (D-CA) pledged comprehensive corporate whistleblower legislation to institutionalize six new piecemeal laws passed since the 2006 elections for workers ranging from defense contractors to truck drivers to retail commerce employees regulated by the Consumers Products Safety Commission.
Some two dozen participants then visited over 75 congressional offices to lock in follow through commitments.
The conference featured theme-based workshops to strengthen solidarity between whistleblowers and NGO’s in food, drug and airlines safety, medical fraud, mortgage fraud and disaster accountability. Experts led training sessions on media advocacy, legislative advocacy, tactics to run bureaucratic gauntlets at agencies implementing current whistleblower laws like the Office of Special Counsel for federal workers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for corporate employees, and “street-law” for new rights since 2006. It concluded with a living history day where whistleblowers could make a record by bearing witness with their stories.
Next steps? Identify and win commitments from relevant policy officials in the Obama administration. Whistleblowers are the human foundation for its pledges of openness, transparency and accountability. But the day after President Obama’s inauguration, the White House removed from its website his campaign pledge to strengthen whistleblower rights, and has not taken a position on the Whistleblower Protection Act.
The struggle could go either way. On March 11 the President issued a new science policy requiring federal agencies to issue whistleblower protection policies, a breakthrough for scientific integrity. But on Wednesday a presidential signing statement challenged an appropriations measure to protect whistleblowers who communicate with Congress.
One thing is certain. The whistleblowers will not give up. They were buoyed by kindred spirit Senator McCaskill’s pledge: “I am going to keep working to make sure that we…provide the same kind of protections to all federal employees that we have for private employees that are working on the federal dime...essential among those of course is making sure that federal employees have the right to a jury trial…I want to be your champion and I will continue to be your champion”.
To stay involved check the Make It Safe Coalition’s website, www.makeitsafecampaign.org.
Shanna Devine organized the 2009 National Whistleblower Assembly for the Government Accountability Project. Tom Devine serves as GAP’s legal director.