DoD Expands Existing Whistleblower Protections
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 18, 2005 Blowing the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse at work seems like the last thing workers would do if they wanted to keep their jobs and advance their careers.
But that's exactly what servicemembers and federal civilian employees are required by executive order to do, and the Office of Inspector General has bolstered protections offered to ensure they don't suffer reprisals on the job as a result.
Federal laws protect so-called "whistleblowers" from adverse personnel actions they could feasibly suffer when reporting abuses within their organizations: getting fired, losing out on promotions or getting shuffled to lesser jobs. These laws also protect against less dramatic but equally career-damaging actions, from receiving bad evaluation reports or letters of counseling to getting temporarily suspended without pay.
New policies adopted by the Defense Department Jan. 7 broaden those protections even further, officials at the Office of Inspector General told the American Forces Press Service.
Based on an initiative by DoD Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, whistleblowers within the department are now protected from having their security clearances revoked or tampered with as a result, officials explained.
The new provisions also offer first-time protections to civilian members of DoD's intelligence community involved in whistleblowing activity. Previous protections for these employees were limited to reports made directly to Congress or reports involving violations of civil liberties.
Hollywood lionizes the lone employee who stands up to large corporations or bureaucracies to point out misdeeds or out-and-out crimes. Time magazine put three whistleblowers on its cover in 2002, heralding them as "persons of the year."
Yet despite federal protections, some people who report abuses within their organizations say they suffer reprisals as a result.
M. Jane Deese, director of the DoD Inspector General's Military Reprisal Investigations office, said she receives hundreds of reports a year of these incidents. And while the vast majority of these claims turn out to be unsubstantiated or not covered under whistleblower-protection laws, as many as 100 a year do, she said.
The Inspector General's most recent Semiannual Report for Transmission to the Congress included three examples of substantiated whistleblower-reprisal cases for the April 1 to Sept. 30, 2004, timeframe.
In one case, an Air Force master sergeant in Utah said he received an unfavorable enlisted performance report after reporting mismanagement by officers in his command to an inspector general. Following an investigation by Deese's office, corrective action was taken against the Air Force major and Navy captain involved.
In another case, an Army specialist in Hawaii reported that he was threatened with an Article 15 and involuntary separation after complaining to an inspector general about being tasked for a duty assignment. An Army investigation substantiated the complaint, and the first sergeant involved received corrective action.
A Naval Reserve lieutenant said she was issued a letter of instruction and downgraded fitness report in reprisal for complaining of discrimination to her chain of command and Equal Opportunity Office, and in testimony to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. Deese's office investigated and determined that two Navy captains had, in fact, reprised against the lieutenant. Both officials involved retired from active duty.
Reprisals against civilian employees are somewhat harder to track, because most cases are referred to the independent Office of Special Counsel.
However, the DoD Inspector General's Civilian Reprisal Investigations office investigates most of the highest-profile cases, explained Dan Meyer, the office's director. These cases involve civilian employees in the DoD intelligence community, participating in operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, associated with contractor fraud in excess of $1 million, or who are fired as a result of whistleblowing activity, he said.
While military members, civilian employees and DoD contractors all receive whistleblower protections under the law, Meyer said the guidelines for what constitutes a whistleblower differ.
For example, servicemembers who report waste, fraud or abuse through their chains of command qualify as whistleblowers. However, civilians who report these occurrences to their immediate supervisors don't.
Meyer recommended that would-be whistleblowers consult with their inspectors general to learn about their rights and protections before taking action.
While nobody wants to have to blow the whistle on waste, fraud or abuse, and those who do often face a social stigma, Deese and Meyer agreed that whistleblowers are a vital part of the Defense Department's effort to monitor itself.
"You have to have people willing to come out and speak out," Deese said. "It's critical to the goal of maintaining accountability and integrity in the system."