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Transparently bad: U.S. whistleblowers feel blowback

By   /   September 11, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

AP file photo

BLOCK IT: President Obama has stymied federal whistleblowers by expanding the “sensitive jobs loophole.”

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal employees who expose government waste, fraud and abuse are having a tough time in the “most transparent administration in history.”

Robert MacLean, a former air marshal, told a House subcommittee Tuesday that managers at the Transportation Security Administration “thumb their nose” at whistleblower protection laws.

MacLean, who complained that air marshals were improperly grounded by the TSA, is taking his termination to the U.S. Supreme Court after losing a series of lopsided proceedings at the agency. He said the TSA branded him “an organizational terrorist.”

Robert Van Boven, former director of a Veterans Affairs facility in Texas, said, “The (bureaucratic) culture fights transparency and degrades whistleblowers.”

The medical doctor was fired after alleging “fraudulent billing and ghost employees who didn’t help one single veteran.”

Nevertheless, whistleblowing is on the rise, according to Carolyn Lerner, chief attorney in the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

“The numbers are through the roof,” Lerner reported.

The outcomes aren’t necessarily good news for taxpayers or advocates of open government.

Of 2,900 cases last year, 1,400 involved retaliation against whistleblowers, and whistleblowers prevailed less than a quarter of the time.

“There is a new trend,” said Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project. “(Washington) is making it a crime to blow the whistle. You have the choice of resigning or facing charges. That’s chilling.”

Devine told the House subcommittee on the federal workforce that more agencies are exploiting and expanding a “sensitive jobs loophole” to keep government employees from speaking out about waste, fraud and abuse.

“Sensitive jobs,” he said, aren’t just held by the likes of NSA leaker Edward Snowden anymore. They can now include employees stocking sunglasses at military base exchanges.

“We’re changing from the rule of law to a national security spoils system,” Devine charged.

The 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act has been “enhanced” twice, most recently in 2012. But contrary to President Obama’s promise of unprecedented openness in government, news reports have excoriated “Obama’s war on whistleblowers.

Associated Press President Gary Pruitt said last year that whistleblowers “may be reluctant to talk to the press because they don’t want records kept on them or their phone number associated with a news gathering organization.”

Whistleblowers say they have less protection than ever.

“The law is frustratingly anemic,” said Van Boven. “If you blow the whistle, you want to be a masochist who will face financial ruin and a probable divorce.”

Richard Kelsey, assistant dean of the George Mason University School of Law, blames what he calls “the administrative state.”

“It’s become the fourth branch of government,” seizing power from Congress and the courts, Kelsey told Watchdog.org in an interview.

“These agencies are taking wide latitude to enforce laws in the ways they deem fit. In this world, rule-making authority equals lawmaking authority. That’s unconstitutional.”

Van Boven, coming from the epicenter of recent bureaucratic incompetence at the VA, said the system is incapable of policing and reforming itself.

“There should be outside, independent investigations to avoid conflicts of interest,” he recommended.

Van Boven dismissed the offices of inspectors general, which are attached to each agency, as “a comedy of errors.”

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

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Kenric Ward is the San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org. A California native and veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 and previously reported from Virginia. Kenric can be reached at [email protected]