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DoD aiming to improve protection for whistle-blowers

Aug. 10, 2012 - 12:32PM   |  
By SARAH CHACKO   |   Comments
As the IG office increases its staff to handle more cases, it is also looking at what can be done to prevent retaliation against whistle-blowers in the first place, said Daniel Meyer, director of whistle-blowing and transparency for the DoD inspector general.
As the IG office increases its staff to handle more cases, it is also looking at what can be done to prevent retaliation against whistle-blowers in the first place, said Daniel Meyer, director of whistle-blowing and transparency for the DoD inspector general. ()

As officials focus on rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, the Defense Department is trying to better protect those who bring mismanagement to light.

As at other agencies, Defense civilian employees, military personnel and contractors who report misconduct in their agencies or companies and are then harassed, demoted or fired by their managers can seek protections through their department's inspector general's office.

Reports of fraud, waste and abuse have been up in the Defense Department because of all the activity involved in supporting two wars and national security activities in the wake of 9/11, said Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project.

Whistle-blower reprisal complaints filed with the DoD IG also have increased from 458 in 2007 to 655 in 2011, about 40 percent, according to IG reports.

“The more serious the government's misconduct, the more likely and the uglier the retaliation,” Devine said.

The increase also is due to 2008 legislative amendments that expanded the types of protected whistle-blower communications and to court cases that clarified what types of actions could be considered retaliatory, employment protection lawyers said.

The most common forms of reprisal alleged by complainants are unfavorable assignments or reassignments, poor performance evaluations, or disciplinary actions, according to a Government Accountability Office report earlier this year.

Despite the increase in reprisal complaints, the number investigated between 2007 and 2011 dropped 28 percent, from 162 in 2007 to 116 in 2011, according to IG reports.

Defense officials told GAO that the IG's office did not have enough staff to investigate complaints in a timely manner. In fact, whistle-blower reprisal cases take an average of 451 days — about 15 months — to close, according to a GAO review of cases between January 2009 and March 2011.

“Without timely resolutions, the reliability of evidence could suffer, and the careers of both the complainants and subjects could be negatively impacted,” GAO said in its report.

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The IG's whistle-blower reprisal directorate grew from 17 staff members in 2006 to 42 today, according to agency figures. The IG also changed some of its investigative processes to improve timeliness, such as eliminating a committee that reviewed whether cases should be fully investigated.

About a quarter of investigated complaints are substantiated, according to figures from the DoD IG's office.

For example, on the basis of the IG's findings, the department ordered a contractor to pay one of its employees nearly $60,000 in back pay and other expenses after the employee was fired for reporting potential misconduct on a defense contract funded with stimulus money.

In another example, an Army sergeant first class was reprimanded for threatening several soldiers who had filed IG complaints.

As the IG office increases its staff to handle more cases, it is also looking at what can be done to prevent retaliation against whistle-blowers in the first place, said Daniel Meyer, director of whistle-blowing and transparency for the DoD inspector general.

“A system of protection that comes after the fact is really not the best way of doing this because the poor whistle-blower has to get beat up in order for somebody to investigate,” Meyer said. “It would be far better if we got to the point where culturally our leadership, our supervisors and managers, refrained from reprising in the first place.”

Part of Meyer's job is helping managers understand that reports of misconduct are not personal attacks, but expressions of concern about what is best for the agency and government.

In the meantime, Congress is considering measures to expand whistle-blower protections throughout the federal government, such as a Senate bill that would extend protections to federal employees in the intelligence community and another Senate bill that would protect contractors from retaliation if they report contract waste and abuse to an inspector general.

Most of the proposed changes are focused on giving civilian employees and contractors similar protections already given to Defense employees and contractors.

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