Whistleblowers perform an essential role in providing government accountability. Just consider the array of life-threatening problems that agency employees brought forth at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
But for what they do for the taxpayers and people who are served by the bureaucracy, whistleblowers are routinely mistreated by the federal government.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the FBI’s record on that score is among the worst.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, amplified by hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, found that the nation’s premier, elite law enforcement organization routinely discourages employees who want to report fraud, waste and abuse.
Worse, it often retaliates against those that do, ruining careers and taking as long as a decade to resolve whistleblower complaints.
And unlike most other government agencies, FBI employees are not protected by the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Office of Special Counsel whose main mission is to help whistleblowers.
Instead, FBI employees who report what they perceive as wasteful or abusive procedures and expenditures to their supervisors create problems for themselves and their jobs. They have to go over the supervisor’s head to top-ranking officials who are difficult to access. The GAO found that the process discourages bottom-up reporting of inefficiencies and fraud.
It said: “By dismissing potentially legitimate complaints in this way, DOJ could deny some whistleblowers access to recourse, permit retaliatory activity to go uninvestigated, and create a chilling effect for future whistleblowers.”
The GAO reviewed 62 whistleblower complaints at the FBI from 2009 to 2013. More than one fourth of the complaints were arbitrarily dismissed because the whistleblower reported problems to a supervisor, not to the approved list of higher-ups.
The Justice Department took from four to ten years to review other complaints in which a whistleblower was demoted or fired. To make matters worse, when the FBI was asked to comment on the findings it defended its clearly dysfunctional system for reporting fraud, waste and abuse.
The Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved bipartisan legislation to strengthen whistleblower reporting rules and protections at the FBI.
The goal is to reform what the panel described as a “lengthy and opaque” process for judging whistleblower reports and complaints of retaliation.
Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Department of Justice Inspector General have all endorsed stronger protections “for employees who report wrongdoing to their supervisor.”
The Judiciary Committee’s unanimous decision to report a bill to reform FBI whistleblower procedures should get the approval of the full Senate.
Meanwhile, another Senate bill, with provisions endorsed by the Office of Special Counsel and two whistleblower watchdog organizations, would bolster the rights and protections of VA employees who report wrongdoing.
That legislation was recently stalled by Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but could come up for a vote when Congress returns.
By passing both bills, Congress can send a strong signal to those in the federal bureaucracy who would continue pulling the wool over the eyes of the taxpayer, sometimes with disastrous results.