Leaked GAO report reveals whistleblower program flaws

Thursday - 2/23/2012, 11:07am EST

Debra Roth, partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth

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The Pentagon may be putting whistleblowers at greater risk of retaliation. The Government Accountability Office says in some cases DoD investigators have closed reprisal cases prematurely, meaning whistleblowers may not be getting the protection they're supposed to.

The news comes from a GAO draft report leaked to the Project on Government Oversight.

Debra Roth, partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth, told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin the leaking of the Government Accountability Office's draft report back to DoD was unusual. The report was an evaluation of the whistleblower protection program for military service members and does not apply to other federal employees.

Congress, particularly the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Charles Grasley (R-Iowa), had concerns about the effectiveness of the program and had requested a report from GAO.

"GAO did one of its very comprehensive studies," Roth said. "They send their draft reports back to the agencies for comment. This particular draft somehow got leaked. ... It's a very unusual event to have it leaked."

Debra Roth, partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth (SB&R photo)

Congress asked GAO to find out whether whistleblower investigations were occuring in a timely manner. The statute applying to military service members requires DoD's inspector general to conduct investigations of whistleblower reprisals within 180 days of receiving a complaint and evaluate whether an oversight mechanism is in place to track the investigations and measure quality control. Congress also wanted to know if appropriate corrective measures were being identified in cases where reprisals had been identified.

According to Roth, the leaked draft report showed that the program was in "deep trouble."

"When you read this particular draft, what you learn is that the Department of Defense I.G. program for whistleblowers was evaluated at their request in 2009 by Department of Justice I.G., on the issue of timeliness," Roth said.

Both the leaked draft report and the DoJ report from 2009 showed investigations of alleged reprisals were exceeding 400 days on average to complete.

"Because they can't even get these investigations done on time, they're losing track of the ability to collect valuable data on whether or not the program is serving service members," she said.

The hidden message of the reports, according to Roth, is if you can't conduct the investigations in a timely manner, collect the data and guarantee a consistency of investigative quality, how will you know what the appropriate response is when a legitimate claim of reprisal is uncovered?

"Concern becomes, how do we really know we're doling out the correct, corrective action both to the service member who has suffered from the reprisal and the to the person who engaged in the retaliatory act?" Roth said.

Although the GAO investigation focused specifically on the program that applies to military service members alone, federal employees are covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act. Roth said concerns have been widespread across the Executive Branch whether a reliable mechanism exists to investigate reprisals within the federal workforce in a timely manner.

"Hopefully, for the whistleblower community, this is an incentive for Congress to act and strengthen the protections," Roth said.

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