< Whistleblower update


Friday, January 07, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The new Congress convened this week after the break following a famously productive lame duck session. Of course, much was left unfinished. We'll focus on one item that died a quiet death, too quiet, in our view, given the stakes. I'm talking about the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. Last month, we spoke with Tom Devine, the director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, about his decades-long effort to win real substantial legal protections for whistleblowers in the United States, whistleblowers all too often punished by their superiors and whose only recourse is a federal kangaroo court that, since 1994, has decided for the whistleblowers only 3 times out of 210. Devine cited several jaw-dropping examples of injustice, among them, the case of George Sarris.

TOM DEVINE: And there’s the mechanic out in Kansas, blew the whistle on not doing basic maintenance on our intelligence aircraft for up to 30 years, in some instances. He, again, made a difference. He got the maintenance updated. But when he went to the IG to start their process, they said, well, you’ve got to have some more evidence for us before we’re gonna to act on this. He gave them the evidence. They then accused him of criminal theft of the evidence that they had demanded, and on that basis he had his security clearance yanked and doesn't have any duties anymore.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The new Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act seemed finally poised to address this and many other injustices by extending freedom of speech where the American people most need it. But on December 22nd, after the bill passed the House unanimously, a mystery senator put what is called an “anonymous hold” on the bill, effectively letting it die with the end of the legislative session. Tom, welcome back to the show.

TOM DEVINE: Thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pete Hoekstra, a lame duck Republican from Michigan, issued a missive about how the bill would help WikiLeaks. Does that have anything to do with this anonymous senator?

TOM DEVINE: Well, it set things up for the anonymous senator because the House needed to take out provisions that Mr. Hoekstra objected to. The Senate had to re-pass the same legislation it had unanimously approved the week before. It was only when there’s an opportunity for secret sabotage that couldn't be exposed because we were ready to run out the legislative clock that an opponent popped up.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would the bill have helped WikiLeaks?

TOM DEVINE: The bill actually would have frustrated WikiLeaks. By sabotaging the whistleblower legislation, the only game in town that’s left, which doesn't involve professional suicide, is anonymous leaks to outlets like WikiLeaks.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have any idea who this senator was?

TOM DEVINE: We don't want to speculate, but I can say that over the last eight years, the four times that the Senate has adjourned, a senior Republican senator has put a secret hold on this taxpayer reform, and we've been able to find out who it was in the following years. One was Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who was acting at the behest of the Department of Justice during the Bush Administration. In 2008, it was Senator John Kyl, whose office also said they were acting at the request of the Department of Justice, and Mr. Kyl is one of the top Republican leaders in the Senate.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the Justice Department, do you think, oppose the bill?

TOM DEVINE: The Justice Department traditionally has been opposed because they serve as counsel for the United States in lawsuits by whistleblowers that allege retaliation. And no lawyer worth his or her salt wants a fair fight. That has changed during the Obama administration, and this time the Republican senators can't say we were doing this for the Justice Department. The Justice Department was supporting the reform.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what would the motivation otherwise be?

TOM DEVINE: Well, it seems like there’s a little bit different agenda in the back rooms than there is on the political campaign trail. This last election we saw what’s been characterized as a political revolution because the taxpayers are fed up with government waste, fraud, abuse and deficits, and the breeding ground for all of that corruption is secrecy. And, for some reason, the same party that won an election based on those themes is the one that’s killing rights for people who risk everything to live them.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Darrell Issa, who is a California Republican, was a co-sponsor of the Whistleblower Protection Act, and yet at the last minute he seemed to side with Pete Hoekstra and opposed the bill for being weak on WikiLeaks.

TOM DEVINE: That’s very ironic because he’s pledged a very ambitious oversight agenda of hearings to go after corruption in the Obama administration. And it’s a lot more likely that people will want to stick their necks out and testify if he would stop blocking them having rights against the inevitable retaliation that occurs if they help him.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what becomes now of the Whistleblower Protection Act?

TOM DEVINE: Well, we did earn 534-to secret 1 mandate in the final day of Congress. The House passed it unanimously, and the Senate would have passed it again. So we don't really think that that’s a defeat for our reform. It’s a delay that’s frustrating the democratic process.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're going to ask our listeners to try and help us unmask the mystery senator by calling their Congressional offices. If they manage to do that, what do you think the fallout would be?

TOM DEVINE: That senator would have a lot of explaining to do to taxpayers, who ought to be very interested about the difference between political rhetoric and reality.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, thank you very much.

TOM DEVINE: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Devine is the legal director of the Government Accountability Project. If you would like to help us find out who killed the bill, go to wnyc.org/blowthewhistle. There you'll find a database with the contact information of the 87 senators that were held over from the 111th congressional session. If you contact them, email us at blowthewhistle@wnyc.org and tell us what they had to say. We will update our database as the information comes in to us, and maybe, just maybe, we'll smoke out the senator who deep sixed this vital bill.