The watchdog for the federal government’s largest agency said on Tuesday that managers are increasingly retaliating against whistleblowers with impunity, while advocates for those employees told lawmakers individuals are now less likely to speak out against waste and wrongdoing due to President Trump’s reaction to his impeachment.
Officials at the Defense Department are not taking action when the inspector general validates allegations of whistleblower reprisal, Glenn Fine, who is currently performing the duties of the Pentagon’s IG, told a panel of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He called it critical that management take prompt remedial action and called on Congress to take action when the department fails to do so.
“Recently, we’ve seen a disturbing trend of the [Defense Department] disagreeing with the results of our investigation or not taking disciplinary action in whistleblower reprisal cases without adequate or persuasive explanations,” Fine said. “Failure to take action sends a message to agency managers that reprisal will be tolerated and also to potential whistleblowers [that they] will not be protected.”
He added that his office was limited in what steps it could take if management declines to act after substantiated incidents of retaliation.
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“We’re not judge and jury,” Fine explained. “We ought to provide transparency on when this happens, and then people ought to be asked about this. Hearings are good. Questions are good.”
Lawmakers and other witnesses at the Government Operations Subcommittee hearing expressed concern that Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower who originally sounded the alarm on the president’s call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump requested investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son would have a long-term negative effect on those aware of waste, fraud or abuse. Trump has referred to the Intelligence Community whistleblower and those who provided him or her with information as spies, promised “big consequences” for them, repeatedly referred to the whistleblower as “so-called” and “fake” and posted a tweet that alleged to identify the individual by name.
“You don’t want to attack, and you shouldn’t be attacking, people who come forward,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said when asked about Trump’s comments. “They may not be right, but that’s for us to assess.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., the subcommittee’s chairman, said no federal employee should be punished “for doing the right thing.”
Trump’s comments, he predicted, will have a “chilling effect on those who in other administrations would otherwise have come forward to expose wrongdoing.”
A recent Government Executive survey found that one in three federal employees are now less likely to report wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities due to attacks by Trump and congressional Republicans on the whistleblower whose filing kicked off the impeachment proceedings. Another 16% said they are now more likely to blow the whistle.
Connolly and several witnesses said Congress should bolster and clarify whistleblower laws, including to ensure that all feds who speak out about wrongdoing have a statutory right to anonymity. Advocates said lawmakers should ensure whistleblowers can seek compensatory damages if their privacy is breached and enable them to go directly to court to seek protections rather than entities like the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board.
“The degradation in the confidentiality and anonymity that we promise whistleblowers is eroding the ability of those federal employees who uncover waste fraud and abuse to transmit those allegations with the candor and forthrightness that we as citizens and you as Congress would want to have,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute.
Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, criticized the president and his supporters in Congress who accused the whistleblower of bias. Motive cannot be used as a means to deny whistleblower protections, she said.
Connolly accused his colleagues of talking out of both sides of their mouths, defending whistleblowers with rhetoric and even votes, but failing to come to their defense in high-profile cases.
If the identity of the whistleblower on Trump’s call is exposed, he said, “We have jeopardized the entire protection of every whistleblower going forward and I find that an unbelievable hypocrisy.” He added, “It’s the hard cases that require the protection, not the easy ones.”