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Sepp of National Taxpayers Union Joins Fight for Whistleblower Protection

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My guest today is Pete Sepp, Executive Vice President of the National Taxpayers Union [NTU]. Welcome to OpEdNews, Pete. Last month, you participated in the Washington Whistleblower Assembly, part of the National Whistleblower Conference. What brought you there? Were you a small outpost of conservatism in a sea of progressives and liberals?

photo credit: Jerry W. Terry

Thanks, Joan, for interviewing me!

To paraphrase and re-purpose a popular saying, I've thought that protecting government whistleblowers isn't a right vs. left issue, it's a right vs. wrong issue. That was one reason why I gladly accepted my invitation to serve on a panel at the Washington Whistleblower Assembly [September 18, 2011], and why I hoped to approach attendees from a trans-ideological perspective. In my opinion, such conversations lead to collaboration in the best sense of the word.

I suppose there's a perception in the mainstream media that because whistleblowing challenges centers of power and political establishments, the activity "belongs" to the left. But that notion didn't really bother me when I visited the Assembly. In fact, my organization, though it might be perceived as ideologically conservative, has always had a connection to this cause. One of NTU's earliest leaders (back in the 1970s) was Ernie Fitzgerald, who blew the whistle on taxpayer rip-offs associated with the C-5A transport aircraft.

When I joined NTU's staff in 1988, some of my first experiences on the telephone were with people inside government who were just desperate to relay information about waste, fraud, and abuse but who were also fearful of retaliation on the job. I quickly learned how vital these folks were to our mission as a citizen group, and the experience was transformative for me personally. When my outfit worked on three successive packages of Internal Revenue Service reforms, I heard heartbreaking "horror stories" from citizens who had been mistreated by the tax agency. But I also heard similarly harrowing accounts from conscientious IRS employees about specific flaws in the agency's institutional culture. It was that knowledge which allowed us to win truly substantive changes in the third package (the 1998 IRS Restructuring and Reform Act) ... changes that have made a difference in many lives. More than any other issue I've worked on, this one taught me the importance of looking beyond statistics, distribution tables, and budget allocations and seeing how policy matters to real, live people.

Furthermore, we've often worked with organizations popularly thought of as left-of-center on many non-whistleblower issues, such as reductions in government expenditures on defense and agricultural subsidies, not to mention ethics reforms for elected officials. So when I was asked by some of those allies from previous struggles to help with a renewed push to restore whistleblower protections, it wasn't a stretch at all for us to become involved.

OK, reality check! Will we continue to have disagreements, arguing passionately for our beliefs? Of course. Will we have vastly different motivations behind our mutual support for a given issue? Sure. But working together like this and getting beyond labels is truly gratifying. So as not to offend your readers, I won't say it's "progressive"; I'll call it positive progress instead.

Progress and collaboration work for me, Pete! You also rustled up a bunch of other conservative organizations and put  together a letter to our public officials. Can you talk about that a bit? 

Even though we try to view whistleblower protections through a transpartisan lens, we knew from experience on lobbying the issue in Congress that others didn't. That was one reason why we thought it made sense to recruit organizations with which self-identified conservatives in Congress were familiar. Doing so would help convince lawmakers from this ideological perspective that trusted partners from other projects were willing to go to the mat for whistleblower legislation.

We also knew that we could focus on several concerns that Congressional conservatives had raised when the bill was grinding through the legislative process in previous years. One myth we had to address was that whistleblower protections would simply shield underperformers or malcontents in the federal workforce. In addition to the argument cited in the letter, we were able to produce cases of real-life whistleblowers that directly refuted this stereotype -- many of these conscientious workers were in fact exposing underperformers.

We then turned to the assertion that giving whistleblowers jury trial rights would clog the courts. This one was easy to marshal evidence against, since we knew from our experience with IRS reform that providing judicial remedies to taxpayers didn't mean excessive reliance on them. To the contrary -- the "see you in court" option was there precisely to encourage settlements at lower levels through administrative means.

Probably the worst argument we heard was that whistleblower protections would lead to rampant Wikileaks-style disclosures that could harm national security. Whatever one thinks about Wikileaks, the effect of whistleblower protections would be totally the opposite. People would be given a safe and secure channel to convey information without feeling they had no choice but to pursue a Wikileaks-type path.

In enlisting other organizations for our coalition, we were sensitive to the perception that open letters to Congress are a dime a dozen in Washington. For that reason, we made sure to provide every signatory with a thorough background on the legislation and the political situation surrounding it. Everyone who joined us has done so with open eyes.

Of course, another reason to do a letter like this was to show folks in Congress and the interest group community who don't consider themselves conservatives that they're not engaged in this campaign alone. They have allies, however unlikely they may be.

I think this is a wonderful idea. Who can appeal to conservative lawmakers better than their fellow conservatives? Last session, the WPEA [Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act] was passed in both houses [unanimously, in the Senate] but still got killed by a secret hold. What hopes do you have to actually get legislation passed this session?

Yes, unfortunately we've had to contend with "secret holds" before. Back in 2006, it was a secret hold that threatened to derail the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, sponsored by then Senator Barack Obama and Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma). That bill dealt with establishing a searchable public database of federal grants, contracts, and other expenditures. It took a grassroots effort from numerous citizen groups, including ours, to "smoke out" which of their colleagues placed the hold (it was the late Ted Stevens, R-Alaska). The folks at Government Accountability Project led a similar effort with the whistleblower legislation earlier this year .

It's easy to be discouraged by such tactics, though I see hopeful signs of evolution. Congressman Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, is poised to introduce a companion to S. 743 [Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2011], while whistleblower advocates have been able to meet with staffs of many freshman House Members; the reception has been good. Recently, the Administration unveiled new initiatives to reinvigorate the Office of Special Counsel, which is a helpful step. Plus, the 15 groups on our letter will from this point comprise a "patrol" of sorts that will make it difficult for lawmakers to sweep the legislation under the rug with parliamentary maneuvers.

Even better, with this coalition, we'll be able to demonstrate to media -- especially talk radio -- that the whistleblower issue has moved to a new, more intense level of support. Here again, the more we can keep word of this circulating in these outlets, the harder it will be for Members of Congress to ignore.

So have all the stars aligned for passage in this session? Well, unlike stars, lawmakers don't always move in predictable patterns, so we have to prepare for that. At least now, we have watchdogs on both political "flanks" ready to go to work.

Thanks for catching us up on this, Pete. You've been involved with the National Taxpayers Union for quite a while now. I'm not familiar with this organization.  What goes on over there? Can you tell us some more?

Twenty-three years is awhile to spend at a place -- as I have -- but that's barely more than half the history of National Taxpayers Union. The group was born back in 1969, with the involvement of a graduate student who thought there ought to be a collective organization for taxpayers outside the political parties that could influence fiscal issues no matter who was in charge. Since he couldn't find such a group in the DC phonebook, he decided to form one himself. We were tiny for roughly the first 10 years of our existence, until the taxpayer revolts of the late 1970s and early 1980s took root (such as Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2-1/2 in Massachusetts). Through their participation in these movements, our members spread the word about us and helped to build a national following. We lobby Congress, help citizens create community-level watchdog groups, conduct research and analysis on government budgets, and sponsor policy forums.

As a grassroots citizen group with more than 350,000 people on our rolls, we've experienced plenty of defeats, which seems par for the course with entities on all points of the spectrum. Yes, as I mentioned before, we work on many issues from a perspective that the left might not agree with -- lower tax rates across the board, reductions in many domestic programs, and regulatory relief. On the other hand, we probably share more views with the progressive community than many would think. One of the first issues we tackled, in the early 1970s, was taxpayer subsidies for the Supersonic Transport aircraft in the U.S. We partnered with environmental organizations, which were concerned about the impact the SST would have on noise pollution, to end federal involvement in the program. It was the first of many effective, trans-ideological alliances that continue today on farm subsidies and corporate welfare (with environmental and anti-world-poverty groups), wasteful defense projects (with progressive groups) , taxpayer rights (with civil liberties groups), defending direct democracy procedures at the state level (with numerous organizations) and, of course, whistleblower protections.

One of our most recent projects that might interest your readers is a joint report with U.S. Public Interest Research Group identifying more than $1 trillion of expenditure reductions . We recently delivered these recommendations to the "Supercommittee," in hopes of showing that if two groups like ours, which disagree strenuously on many tax and regulatory policies, can reach "common ground" so can Congress.

My parting message is this: folks out there may end up visiting our website and vehemently disagreeing with 50, 75, even 90 percent of what we're advocating, but I'm willing to bet that there's something that can unite us. Our nation's political establishment has spent the better part of a generation conducting partisan maneuvers on vital issues about our country's fiscal future -- precious time we could have used to bring about positive, gradual change. During that time, groups of citizens have been quietly building bridges with others -- all of us ought to cross them more often!

You've tossed down a great challenge to us all in overcoming stereotypes and preconceptions. And we've already seen how people from diverse political backgrounds can work together effectively on the whistleblower protection issue. Well, readers? Thanks so much for talking with me, Pete. It's been an education!


International Association of Whistleblowers website - "Protecting the public/Safeguarding the future" organization of, by, and for whistleblowers

Government Accountability Project website -  "Protecting Corporate, Government & International Whistleblowers Since 1977"


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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