IGs push for greater whistleblower protections for contractors

Wednesday - 12/7/2011, 4:26pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Walter Tamosaitis now works in a windowless basement office with two noisy copiers.

It's a far cry from his former job as the research and technology manager at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant, a $13 billion Energy Department project in Washington state that, when completed, will be the biggest nuclear waste treatment plant in the world.

He is being punished for raising safety concerns about the plant's construction, Tamosaitis told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight Tuesday.

"It's a very visible example of what happens if you speak up," he said.

The subcommittee is considering legislation to extend federal whistleblower protections to employees of any organization receiving federal funds, including local governments, contractors and subcontractors. Tamosaitis works for URS, a subcontractor on the Hanford project.

Subcommittee Chair Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who sponsored the legislation, called the lack of whistleblower protections for contractors a "dirty little secret people like to ignore."

"If the whistleblowers that work for contractors don't have the same protections as federal employees, we are saying to contractors, 'We don't think wrongdoing by you is that important,'" she said.

Deputy Inspector General for Administrative Investigations for the Defense Department IG's office Marguerite Garrison testified that gaps in current law leave whistleblowers at defense contractors vulnerable. Her office has received 68 complaints of reprisal from defense contractors and investigated four of them.

"The law fails to protect defense contractor employees from reprisal for reporting wrongdoing to company management. It also does not protect employees from actions directed by government officials, nor does it protect employees of subcontractors," she said.

Protections in the Recovery Act are much stronger, she said. It protects contract employees who disclose misuse of Recovery Act funds from being fired, demoted or discriminated against. Inspectors general have recovered $1.85 million in Recovery Act funds.

"Everybody has been very heartened by the low levels of fraud," said Small Business Administration Inspector General Peggy Gustafson, who sits on the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. She said the law's reporting requirements and Recovery.gov, which tracks Recovery Act funds, have helped prevent fraud.

In general, whistleblowers should have "an avenue to seek redress if someone was to retaliate against them for coming forward." She said. "But I think a lot of it is education, and letting them know what the avenues are for reporting, whether it be internally, to the IG or the RAT board for the Recovery Act."

The bill would extend Recovery Act protections to whistleblowers at all federal contractors, including those who complain of waste, fraud or abuse to their company supervisors.

"Given our finite resources for enforcement and investigation, we want to encourage strong private compliance efforts to detect and correct wrongdoing. Ideally, the law should encourage firms to be self-policing to the extent possible," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

He noted that the federal government spent $539 billion on contracts last year.

The full committee has favorably reported the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2011, which would extend protection to the intelligence and national security communities and block agencies from revoking whistleblowers' security clearances in retaliation.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has approved a similar bill, with a two-year pilot project for expanding DoD contractor whistleblower protections to all federal contractors.

But those measures do not apply to former Hanford Waste Treatment Plant research and Tamosaitis , the technology manager.

He said he blew the whistle on Energy Department contractor Bechtel because he was concerned that it was ignoring safety issues in its rush to complete construction and receive an additional $6 million from the agency. The $13 billion project was already severely overbudget and past construction deadlines.

He repeatedly raised his concerns to Bechtel and URS, he said, until URS fired him from the plant in July 2010. It demoted him to an office job with "no meaningful work," he said.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board substantiated his concerns in a report that said, "the WTP project is not maintaining a safety conscious work environment where personnel feel free to raise safety concerns without fear of retaliation, intimidation, harassment or discrimination," according to Tamosaitis' testimony.

The Energy Department found no wrongdoing in his treatment. He now is suing Bechtel.

"So the administrative remedies that we have in the law for whistleblowers completely failed you?" McCaskill asked him.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.

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