Entrapping the Whistle-Blowers

Article excerpt

Despite the guarantees of the Whistleblower Protection Act, bereaucrats still strive to thwart the efforts of government employees trying to stop corruption.

It was just a letter handed to a congressman last year, but it allegedly cost the career of a high-ranking civilian engineer with a compartmentalized top-secret clearance. The letter states in part, "I have observed in my department, and in related departments, a pattern of con tracts that we may have won because of fraud, by claiming compliance with applicable [federal] standards. I and others have been told not to worry about the noncompliance; since there are no auditors with sufficient clearances to verify the objective evidence, the fraud will never be discovered."

The letter, provided to Insight, purportedly shows what can happen to whistle-blowers who report allegations of wrongdoing or suspected malfeasance in government programs. In the case of the engineer, it's unknown whether his information was correct -- neither the man nor his company would speak on the record about the specific case. When shown a copy of the letter, a high-ranking congressional aide said his boss gets similar tips regularly. But they're hard to prove -- especially in intelligence arenas, as with the engineer's claims that government mapping satellites were used by unauthorized people for clandestine operations to gather sensitive data on defense-plant layouts and production secrets that other countries and competitors would kill for.

"Senior corporate officials appear to me to be under intense pressure to collect and relate data to federal agencies," the letter says. "The data collected appear to me to exceed the authority of the agencies requesting the data, and to be in violation of their agency charters and constitutional ... law. When I have raised questions with one of my direct supervisors, I was told to `never ask questions like that again.'"

Shortly after being contacted at work on an unsecure line by a senior congressman, the whistle-blower claims, he was fired; such a connection is almost impossible to confirm. Then why mention it? Because this is precisely what people believe happens to those who dare blow the whistle to Congress on systemic corruption.

Critics of the Whistleblower Protection Act claim they know of hundreds of people who want to step forward but choose not to because they've heard "stories" like that told by the engineer. It doesn't matter if the stories of betrayal are true or false: It's what people believe, especially when it concerns the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, which investigates such complaints. It is supposed to protect those who expose illegality, waste, gross mismanagement, abuse of power or danger to public health. But does it?

The OSC is supposed to try reprisal cases before the Merits System Protection Board, or MSPB, a politically appointed three-member panel, but it has not done so since 1979. The last case involved allegations made by U.S. marshals who charged they suffered retaliation for complaining about racism within the Marshals Service. Shortly after losing that case, the special counsel resigned and the OSC budget was slashed dramatically.

In fact, the OSC never has won a trial to restore a whistle-blower's job. "It is a toothless tiger that is not willing to call an agency's bluff and take it to trial," declares Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project in Washington. Devine advocates reforming the 1978 whistleblower law (already amended once by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989) to allow such employees access to jury trials and to expand whistleblower protection to government vendors in the private sector. "As long as whistle-blowers are limited to bureaucratic courts, whistle-blowers aren't going to have a fair chance of defending themselves," Devine says.

The way the system is set up, the only way to get a jury trial is for a whistle-blower to take on the personal expense of hiring an attorney and filing a lawsuit or for the Justice Department to take the suit on behalf of the whistle-blower under what's called a "False Claims Act. …