Reasons unclear for drop in whistleblower disclosures

Wednesday - 8/1/2012, 6:08am EDT

By Taeja Smith
Special to Federal News Radio

The number of whistleblower disclosures decreased 3 percent from the previous year, making the first decline in five years, according to the Office of Special Counsel fiscal 2011 annual report to Congress.

John Mahoney, chairman of labor and employment practice at Tully Rinckey, a law firm in Washington, wrote in a blog post that this is "indicative of a chilling effect that federal agencies' retaliatory practices may be having on whistleblowers."

In an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp, Mahoney said that whistleblower disclosures declined due to several factors including:

  • An increase in educational efforts by the special counsel and the agencies to prevent underlining whistleblower issues.

  • People being more afraid of retaliation from agencies to whom they have blown a whistle on.

  • Federal employees not seeing as much waste, fraud and abuse last year.

Ann O'Hanlon, OSC's press and public affairs liaison, stated in an email response to Mahoney's interview that "they use the fact that our number of disclosures declined a tiny bit in FY '11 to say that there may be a chilling effect out there by federal agencies — which may or may not be the case — impossible to say based on this slim data."

O'Hanlon added, "Just to be clear and dispassionate about the facts, OSC's disclosures were 724 in FY 09 and then it spiked 33 percent to 961 in FY 10, an all-time high. It then dropped to 928 in FY 11."

A 2010 survey by the Merit System Protection Board of federal employees highlighted a possible backlash toward whistleblowers. It showed that 21.6 percent of employees reported reprisals for whistleblowing, up from 18.7 percent in 1992.

While the number of overall cases declined, OSC found the number of reports to agency leaders for investigations jumped to 47 last year from 24 in 2010. It had dropped from a 2009 high of 46.

Mahoney said it's hard to determine whether this increase is due to people feeling more freedom to blow the whistle or whether there was more wrongdoing over which to file a report.

The OSC said it may have to do with a decrease in processing time from an average of 80 days to 34 days, a 57 percent drop. Additionally, the report said OSC processed 63 percent of the disclosures in less than 15 days.

O'Hanlon said that OSC is "expecting an all-time high of over 1,100 based on disclosures to date." She reiterated that this "would be a 22 percent increase from FY '11 and a doubling of disclosures over the most recent four-year period."

Taeja Smith is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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