The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has presented new and significant challenges to policymakers at all levels of government, as they seek to fight some of the greatest economic and public health threats our nation has faced in recent history. However, federal lawmakers and agency heads still cannot ignore one of the most fundamental duties they fulfill for taxpayers: ensuring whistleblowers and inspectors general (IGs) have the capacity and comfort level to speak out when they see waste, fraud, abuse, or misuse of taxpayer dollars.
National Taxpayers Union (NTU) is the nation’s oldest taxpayer advocacy organization, and we have stood up for the rights of whistleblowers for decades. Evidence shows time and time again that whistleblower protections are taxpayer protections. Just a few months ago, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it had recovered $3 billion from False Claims Act cases in FY 2019, and more than $62 billion since Congress strengthened the law in 1986. This law “[increases] incentives for whistleblowers to file lawsuits alleging false claims on behalf of the government” by letting those whistleblowers share in a small portion of the recovered dollars. This is just one part of the federal government’s whistleblower infrastructure, but has already saved taxpayers billions of dollars.
Another part of that infrastructure is the nation’s system of IGs, who have the ability to independently investigate how federal agencies operate and to identify potential sources of waste or fraud. According to a recent op-ed by Jonathan Bydlak of the R Street Institute, “every dollar invested in inspectors general returns more than $22 in potential savings.”
Still, we have seen some worrying developments in whistleblower rights and in the IG community over the past few months, which have nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the intelligence community IG matter:
- Former Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told a group of sailors that Navy Capt. Brett Crozier was “naive” and “stupid” for raising concerns about a COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Roosevelt, which is currently stationed in Guam and has hundreds of sailors with positive COVID-19 cases. To make matters worse, former Secretary Modly’s trip to Guam and back to address the sailors cost taxpayers almost a quarter of a million dollars.
- The former leaders of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP), ironically created in 2017 to encourage reforms at the agency, were cited in an IG report late last year for having “engaged in misdeeds and missteps that appeared unsupportive of whistleblowers while also failing to meet many of the other important objectives” of the law empowering OAWP in the first place.
- Recently several IGs were removed and re-shuffled in their positions, including the IG who was to oversee how the federal government spends the more than $2 trillion in taxpayer dollars through the CARES Act.
These developments are on top of concerns NTU and others have raised for months about the lack of a quorum at the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which protects federal employees from retaliation for blowing the whistle, and the troubling lack of protections for military whistleblowers in particular.
Fortunately, stakeholders both inside and outside government are stepping up on behalf of whistleblower protections:
- NTU recently joined a coalition letter led by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), asking Congress “to expeditiously pass for-cause removal protections for inspectors general.”
- Shanna Devine, the House of Representatives’ first Director of the Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman, is beginning her work to educate House Members and staff on how Congress can and should properly handle whistleblower complaints. At the time of Devine’s appointment in February, NTU President Pete Sepp wrote that “[t]axpayers will be grateful for Shanna Devine's leadership in making this vital initiative the success it needs to be.”
That said, more can be done for whistleblowers and IGs, especially now that trillions in taxpayer dollars are on the line. In addition to passing for-cause removal protections for IGs, Congress can and should:
- Align military whistleblower protections with those in place for federal employees at civilian agencies, just one of several recommendations our friends at POGO made in response to the USS Roosevelt incident.
- Ensure that Congress’ next relief package includes explicit whistleblower protections for all emergency spending, expanding those protections beyond just employees facing workplace harassment and to others who have knowledge of waste, fraud, or abuse, or intimidation in connection with these expenditures.
- Restore a quorum at the MSPB by confirming two of the Board nominees that can immediately achieve bipartisan support in the Senate.
We stand ready to work with lawmakers and other federal officials on all of the above recommendations, because whistleblower and IG protections cannot wait until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, these protections need to be strengthened and enhanced during this political, economic, and public health emergency.