Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Obama Quietly Signed Law Protecting Federal Whistleblowers

Recently, President Obama signed a law that had been struggling to pass in Congress for 13 years.  The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) affords greater protection to federal employees who expose fraud, waste and abuse in government operations.  The WPEA closes loopholes created by court rulings, which removed protections for federal whistle-blowers. One such loophole specified that whistle-blowers were only protected when they were the first to report misconduct. 
The whistle-blower law makes it easier to punish supervisors who try to retaliate against the government workers.

Despite this significant passage, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) still says there's still more protection needed for federal employees.  The WPEA does not include jury trials to enforce newly-enacted protections, or the extension of free speech rights to national security workers making disclosures within agency channels. While the House removed the national security whistleblower provision from the bill, last month the Obama administration made good on its promise to take executive action on those rights, signing a Presidential Policy Directive to restore the lion's share of national security rights that the House removed.


1.) Expanded Protection for Disclosures of Government Wrongdoing
  • Closes judicially-created loopholes that had removed protection for the most common whistleblowing scenarios and left only token rights (e.g. only providing rights when whistleblowers are the first to report misconduct, and only if it is unconnected to their job duties). (Sec. 101, 102)
  • Clarifies that whistleblowers are protected for challenging the consequences of government policy decisions. (Sec. 101, 102)
  • Cancels the 1999 precedent that translates "reasonable belief" to require irrefragable proof ("undeniable, uncontestable, or incontrovertible proof") before they are eligible for protection. (Sec. 103)
  • Protects government scientists who challenge censorship. (Sec. 110)
  • Codifies and provides a remedy for the "Anti-Gag" Statute – a rider in the Appropriations bill for the past 24 years – that requires a statement notifying employees that agency restrictions on disclosures are superseded by statutory rights to communicate with Congress, whistleblower rights, and other statutory rights and obligations. (Sec. 104(a), (b) and 115)
  • Clarifies that protection of critical infrastructure information does not override WPA protection. (Sec. 111)
2.) Expanded Coverage and Fair Processes
  • Suspends the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals' sole jurisdiction on appellate review of the WPA in light of its consistent track record of narrowing the law's protections. (The Court has a 3-226 record from October 1994 – May 2012 against whistleblowers for decisions on the merits), restoring all-Circuit review for a two-year experiment as mandated in the original 1978 Civil Service Reform Act and the Administrative Procedures Act. (Sec. 108)
  • Establishes explicit whistleblower protections for Transportation Security Administration employees. (Sec. 109)
  • Overturns an unusual Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) practice that allows agencies in some cases to present their defense first and allows the MSPB to rule on the case prior to the whistleblowers' presenting their evidence of retaliation. (Sec. 114)
  • Requires that the President's exercise of his discretionary power to impose national security exemptions that deprive employees of Title 5 whistleblower rights must be done prior to the challenged personnel action. (Sec. 105)
  • Provides compensatory damages for prevailing whistleblowers under WPA cases that prevail after an administrative hearing, (Sec. 107(b)), including retaliatory investigations (Sec. 104(c)).
3.) Administrative Authorities
  • Provides the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) with authority to file friend-of-the-court briefs to support employees appealing MSPB rulings. (Sec. 113)
  • Makes it easier for OSC to discipline those responsible for illegal retaliation by modifying the burdens of proof (Sec. 106(b)), and by ending OSC liability for attorney fees of government managers, if the OSC does not prevail in a disciplinary action (Sec. 107(a)).
  • Requires the designation of Whistleblower Protection Ombudsmen in Inspectors General Offices to educate agency personnel about whistleblower rights. (Sec. 117)
  • Requires the MSPB to report on the outcomes of whistleblower cases, from the administrative judge through the Board appeal, in its annual reports. (Sec. 116(b))
  • Requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the impact and feasibility of changes in the number and outcome of cases before the MSPB, the Federal Circuit, or any other court; and to provide recommendations to Congress regarding whether the MSPB should be granted summary judgment authority and whether district courts should have jurisdiction over some WPA cases. (Sec. 116)

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