Senate expands whistleblower protections for feds

Wednesday - 5/9/2012, 5:24pm EDT

The Senate unanimously approved a bill Tuesday expanding protections for federal whistleblowers.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which was authored and introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the chairman of a Senate subcommittee on the federal workforce, updates a 1989 law protecting government whistleblowers.

"Whistleblowers are critical to effective, accountable government," Akaka said in a statement. "My bill gives them the protection they need."

Revelations of wasteful spending at the General Services Administration elicited public outrage and galvanized action in Congress.

Many of the bill's co-sponsors suggested strengthening protections for federal employees who disclose wrongdoing could help prevent government waste and mismanagement.

"This should give federal workers the peace of mind that if they speak out, they will be protected," said Susan Collins (R-Maine) in a statement. "Full whistleblower protections will also help ensure that Congress and our committee have access to the information necessary to conduct proper oversight."

The bill:

  • Extends whistleblower protections to Transportation Security Administration employees

  • Makes it easier for whistleblowers to seek redress for adverse personnel actions taken against them. In cases where agencies are alleged to have retaliated against federal whistleblowers, the Office of Special Counsel would only have to show that the whistleblower status was a significant motivating factor, even if other considerations were taken into account.

  • Grants the Merit Systems Protection Board with the authority to consider and grant summary judgments and allows any court of appeals "of competent jurisdiction" to review MSPB decisions. Now, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has sole jurisdiction over federal whistleblower cases.

  • Creates protections for intelligence community employees modeled after existing protections for FBI employees.

  • Establishes an whistleblower protection ombudsman to educate agency officials about whistleblower rights.

  • Reiterates that federal employees can disclose evidence of agency wrongdoing, fraud or waste to Congress following the same procedures that intelligence community employees do.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, introduced similar legislation in November. The bill, which garnered a number of co-sponsors and bipartisan support, passed the oversight committee. It has yet to be voted on by the full House.

In 2010, both the House and the Senate passed similar versions of the bill, but the two versions were never reconciled.

The Project on Government Oversight, which applauded the Senate vote, said the various iterations of the bill have made it "finely-tuned public policy with overwhelming bipartisan support," in the words of POGO's director of public policy, Angela Canterbury. "It's high time for federal whistleblowers and taxpayers [to] get the protections they've been promised and they deserve."

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