Whistleblower label carries false sense of security

Thursday - 2/10/2011, 9:31am EST

Debra Roth, partner, Shaw Bransford & Roth

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By John Buckner
Federal News Radio

What is a whistleblower? Defining what the term becomes a difficult issue often resulting in negative consequences for the well-intentioned employee.

Whistleblowing "is a reported disclosure of fraud, waste abuse, abuse of authority, gross mismanagement or violation of law," said Debra Roth, partner at Shaw, Bransford and Roth.

However, declaring yourself as a whistleblower and being viewed as a whistleblower under law are different things.

Roth told the Federal Drive that federal employees "are unaware that the law won't protect them. They think that if they declare themselves as a whistleblower … They have all this automatic protection under law."

This false sense of security tends to backfire on employees.

Roth said that "under the interpretation of the law, you have to have a reasonable belief that a law was violated. Is your belief reasonable?"

All this week, Federal News Radio's Jason Miller has been investigating allegations of whistleblower retaliation at the Small Business Administration. The Federal Drive checked in with Roth to highlight the legal considerations federal employees should keep in mind when pursuing these actions.

Roth said many employees have a difficult time proving beyond a reasonable belief that the agency violated the law or mismanagement happened.

Roth said investigations often take a long time, delaying when the law would kick in. By the time you are protected, retaliation already could become a problem.

A lot of times, workers resort to anonymous whistleblowing to protect themselves during the investigation process.

"One of the downsides to making an anonymous complaint is that sometimes the inspector general community, because it is anonymous, it's harder for them to investigate because they don't know where to start," Roth said. "A lot of those anonymous complaints go under-investigated."

Roth added, "Management can quickly figure out who blew the whistle on them" by determining who knows certain information in a department.

To read more on whistleblowing, check out Jason Miller's investigative report: Discouraged and Disrespected at SBA

John Buckner is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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