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Guest Column: Real federal whistleblower protections in sight

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By The Staff

Congress is getting serious about attacking government corruption sustained by secrecy and enforced by fear.Before Christmas, the Senate unanimously matched House approval of legislation reviving the moribund Whistleblower Protection Act. The House and Senate versions need to be speedily reconciled and enacted.This would give federal employees genuine legal rights to be honest public servants on the job.Currently, they often face the daunting choice of acting conscientiously, risking their career and livelihood, or toeing the bureaucratic line, turning a blind eye to waste, fraud and abuse.Whistleblowers use freedom of speech to challenge abuses of power that betray the public trust.They change the course of history by refusing to sacrifice their own principles, unwilling to go along with corruption.Consider the work of recent federal whistleblowers. FDA scientist David Graham’s disclosures forced market withdrawal of the painkiller Vioxx, which caused more than 40,000 fatal U.S. heart attacks after our government labeled it safe.Climate-change whistleblowers like the White House’s Rick Piltz and NASA’s James Hansen exposed how gags, censorship and oil industry collusion turned some $2 billion of climate change research into anti-scientific propaganda and delayed urgently needed action.The consequences of gagging federal workers are clear.Actuary Richard Foster was threatened with termination if he exposed the Medicare prescription drug bill’s true price tag.Congress ended up passing a law (by one vote) that cost $200 million above its stated price.The Pentagon’s Ernie Fitzgerald called whistleblowing “committing the truth,” because you’re treated like a criminal, and subjected to public humiliation, isolation, stripped duties, termination and criminal investigation.In theory, harassment is illegal under the Whistleblower Protection Act which, after unanimous 1989 and 1994 votes, was the strongest free speech law in history – on paper.But hostile judicial activism has made it a trap that rubberstamps almost whatever retaliation is challenged.Through last October, the special court with monopoly power over the law ruled against whistleblowers in 183 out of 185 decisions on the merits.The revived law has four cornerstones:

1) restoring the original WPA rights to federal employees;

2) protecting government contractors, law enforcement and national security intelligence agency employees against all forms of reprisal, including loss of security clearance;

3) providing whistleblowers normal access to court, including jury trials; and

4) empowering Congress to receive national security disclosures, ending the corrupt tradition of sealing a cover-up by classifying it. Every presidential candidate endorses this government ethics reform. Unfortunately, President Bush has threatened four times to veto it.Congress needs to promptly finish what it started and stand up to the president.Supreme Court Justice Brandeis’ insight more than a century ago remains wisdom to keep learning from: “If corruption is a social disease, sunlight is the best disinfectant.”Tom Devine is legal director and Adam Miles is legislative representative for the Government Accountability Project, a national whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, www.whistleblower.org.