The Justice Department has a rather embarrassing track record when it comes to how it treats whistleblowers who shine a light on wrongdoing within its agencies.
In the age of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, reform advocates, lawmakers and even some federal departments have aggressively moved to broaden existing protections for workers who report questionable or unethical practices in the federal government.
The government routinely offers incentives to whistleblowers – including hundreds of millions of dollars to expose tax fraud at the Internal Revenue Service. But whistleblowing comes at a high risk, and employees who do come forward often become victims of retaliation. So the government is working on extending protections to prevent that.
The Defense Department, for example, broadened its whistleblower policies last year to expand the same protections to sub-contractors. Under the new rule, sub-contractors can report government waste, fraud or abuse without fear of reprisal by federal employees.
Similarly, reform advocates are trying to extend whistleblower protections to contractors and patients at the Veterans Affairs Department, after the scandal involving hidden wait times and cover-ups at agency hospitals surfaced last year.
Right now, the DOJ rejects nearly 90 percent of complaints by FBI employees who fear retaliation for coming forward with information about misconduct within their department, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
Between 2009 and 2013, 55 of the 62 complaints reviewed by the GAO were rejected.
“The FBI and Department of Justice, in particular, have a vested interest in investigating wrongdoing, yet when an FBI employee uncovers misconduct within the agency’s own ranks, it’s not so easy to sound the alarm without the risk of retaliation,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who requested the report.
One problem at Justice, say auditors, is that the department’s policies only protect employees from retaliation if they go to a specific group of top officials within the agency. If they go to the wrong people – which is what happened in at least 17 of 62 cases – they completely forfeit any protections.
Even if they do go to the right people, it could take years to resolve the problem. In one example, GAO said it took Justice literally 10 years to rule on a case in which a former FBI agent claimed retaliation after she told superiors her colleagues had stolen things from Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks.
“Unlike employees of other executive branch agencies, FBI employees do not have a process to seek corrective action if they experience retaliation based on a disclosure of wrongdoing to their supervisors or others in their chain of command who are not designated officials,” auditors said in their report.
The GAO recommended that Justice develop new guidelines that instruct employees about where they can direct their complaints and how long it will take them to get a decision.
In the Justice Department’s response, it said it wouldn’t exclude FBI whistleblower protections to employees complaining to the wrong people.
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