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Epstein: Culture Must Protect Fed Whistle-Blowers

Hollywood glorifies them, the media lauds them as heroes, and Members of Congress wave bills around asserting to protect them, but are federal whistle-blowers being retaliated against by their own agencies?

The recent General Service Administration and Secret Service scandals have shone a light on the lack of protection for whistle-blowers, despite laws in place that should safeguard them. GSA employees are afraid of retaliation, according to Inspector General Brian Miller. Administrator Jeff Neely threatened that his employees would be “squashed like a bug” if they spoke out against spending abuses.

Yet some insiders are choosing to brave the storm and stand up to the government to expose fraud and waste. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee received calls from agency insiders providing tips for the panel’s probe of the misbehavior of Secret Service agents in Colombia. Numerous federal agency insiders are contacting government watchdogs with information concerning waste, fraud and mismanagement. Are these signs that something is truly rotten in Washington, D.C., or only symbolic of a vain hunt for government carrion?

In the current administration, whistle-blowers should know the policies and procedures in place that offer them protection. As virtually his first act in office, President Barack Obama issued an ethics pledge to all executive branch appointees mandating that, “the head of every executive agency shall, in consultation with the Director of the Office of Government Ethics, establish such rules or procedures … as are necessary or appropriate to ensure that every appointee in the agency signs the pledge upon assuming the appointed office.”

Because of the president’s stated commitment to ethics, Cause of Action asked the Office of Government Ethics to disclose whether the GSA violated the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.

Neely’s Las Vegas boondoggle was clearly wasteful, but it may also signify something deeply unethical about federal employee conduct.

A system of accountability is only as effective as the employees charged with its use. Cause of Action continues to await disclosure by the Office of Government Ethics of any documents that may reveal violations of ethics rules by the GSA as well as disclosure by the Office of Special Counsel of complaints made against the GSA by current or former employees who were silenced or retaliated against for blowing the whistle.

The president entered office promising to “strengthen whistle-blower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud and abuse of authority in government.”

Although little-known even on Capitol Hill, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency exists to oversee and evaluate federal agencies in their accountability, including their maintenance of procedures designed to protect federal whistle-blowers. Jeffrey Zients, chairman of the council and acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, has been asked to conduct an agency-wide audit, evaluation and investigation to assess the state of whistle-blower protection within the federal government and respond to those violations of ethical rules and whistle-blower laws that have occurred.

Effective government cannot take place if whistle-blowers are threatened into silence. With the recent scandals that have come to light, it is time to determine whether agencies are committed to protecting whistle-blowers. If the government fails to defend those employees who blow the whistle on waste or fraud, then the government effectively endorses a culture of reckless spending and unaccountability.

As economic growth has slowed in an already economically embattled America, now is the key time to commit to government efficiency. As several Members of Congress recently pointed out, “Cutting the fat and tightening the belt are things that all American families do. It’s wrong if the federal government refuses to do the same.”

Investigating and exposing waste in the government not only has the salutary effect of increasing accountability, but it has a concomitant influence on the government’s culture of spending. While requests were made to 32 federal agencies for records on spending on commemorative coins and awards, one might label gift spending as negligible compared to, say, Department of Defense contracts yielding illegal kickbacks. Conceded, but spending taxpayer dollars on commemorative items reveals just how numb our tax-dollar-funded federal employees have become to the idea of self-stewardship.

Callousness toward wasteful spending and a corresponding vitriol toward whistle-blowers has become epidemic in Washington. A first step to curing Washington of its culture of waste is to treat the illness by promoting and maintaining a culture that protects whistle-
blowers. Only then will the president’s ethics pledge avoid what taxpayer-funded commemorative coins have turned out to be: of empty value.

Dan Epstein is executive director of Cause of Action, which seeks to expose waste, fraud and mismanagement in the federal government.

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