Whistleblower protections axed from stimulus
John Byrne
Published: Thursday February 12, 2009

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So much for keeping the federal government from blowing millions in taxpayer money.

The Senate quietly stripped whistleblower protections from the final stimulus package Wednesday afternoon, as the bill's authors bragged of a bipartisan compromise. The removal is particularly significant because of the bill's $789 billion price tag.

Despite the ugly record of federal spending in Iraq -- where auditors found problems with $88 million in federal contracts, and couldn't account for 8.8 billion dollars -- senators quietly nixed the measure from the bill, without explanation.

Talking Points Memo, which cited a source close to the final bill, said the provision was removed by Republican Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), one of the senators brokering the compromise.

"According to a person following the bill closely, Collins used today's conference committee to drastically water down the measure, citing national security concerns as the reason for her opposition," TPM's Zachary Roth wrote. In the end, the protections were so weakened that House negotiators balked, and the result was that the entire amendment was removed."

Some Republicans take umbrage with the idea of blanket whistleblower protections, saying they could damage the US's ability to collect intelligence.

Project for Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, blasted the removal.

"Accountability got mugged today when congressional leaders stripped federal whistleblower protections from their compromise stimulus bill," the group said in a release.

Part of the reason for government mismanagement of massive federally-funded projects is that federal whistleblowers have few effective protections from retaliation under current law. Of 55 whistleblowers who've filed complaints with the Merit Systems Protection Board for being fired or demoted, just two have won their cases.

"Federal workers who expose lax oversight of drugs at the Food and Drug Administration, cozy relationships between FAA inspectors and certain airlines, hundreds of billions of dollars in conscious "underestimates" for the cost of prescription drug coverage, and billions of dollars wasted in no-bid defense contracts face intimidation and retaliation and often are fired or demoted," the Kennebec Journal wrote in a Wednesday op-ed column. "And their efforts to go through the chain of command or seek relief from retaliation by agency managers nearly always fail."

The Obama Administration hasn't spoken out about the whistleblower provision's removal. Thus far, they've been relatively accommodating to Republicans' requests -- for example, removing a provision that would have provided money for the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases.

Yet, the Administration said they'd be protectors of whistleblowers as recently as last week. During his Feb. 5 confirmation hearing, Deputy Attorney General designate David Ogden told a Senate committee that he was "a big believer" in whistleblowers.

I think what we need is a process that encourages whistleblowing in this administration and any other administration going forward. The business of making sure that were doing the right thing is an ongoing business, Ogden said.

The Center for American Media's Washington Independent bemoaned the measure's removal late Wednesday.

"Its an odd outcome, given that federal employees are often the first people to notice fraud and other abuses by government contractors, as exhibited in many of the House oversight hearings on the subject over the past few years," the Independent's Daphne Eviatar wrote. "(Remember Bunnatine Greenhouse, who lost her job after blowing the whistle on the no-bid contracts for Halliburton?)"

"The sticking point on the federal workers may be, as I explained before, the strong opposition from Republicans to providing whistleblower protection to intelligence employees," Eviatar added.