Vern Buchanan calls for federal whistleblower protections

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Congressman Vern Buchanan today called for passage of whistleblower protection legislation, saying the Veterans Affairs scandal might have remained hidden if not for employees exposing government fraud.

“We should reward people who disclose government abuse, not punish them,” Buchanan said. “Whistleblowers have saved lives by exposing gross negligence and misconduct at veterans’ hospitals, airports and hospitals, among other places.”

Buchanan noted the U.S. House passed, with his support, legislation protecting whistleblowers against retribution. The Congressman said the Senate needs to approve the bill and send it to the president’s desk.

Specifically, the Thoroughly Investigating Retaliation Against Whistleblowers Act provides much-needed funding for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent agency tasked with investigating allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers and enforcing the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989.

The OSC is addressing a “substantial and steady surge” in the number of federal employees alleging prohibited personnel practices, such as retaliation for whistleblowing, according to a recent report conducted by the agency.

The bill also makes it easier for OSC to investigate allegations of retaliation or misconduct by agencies withholding information and documents during an investigation. The measure clarifies that OSC is authorized to access any record or information available within its jurisdiction.

“Intimidation of whistleblowers must not be tolerated,” Buchanan said. “The men and women who expose government misconduct are helping us make the bureaucracy work better for the American people. Congress needs to make sure that they’re protected from retaliation.”

The Obama administration has been criticized for its treatment of federal employees who reveal instances of wrongdoing in government agencies.

Whistleblowers across the federal government continue to face unlawful retaliation, such as harassment, demotion or firing, after coming forward under the Obama administration, according to a recent report in the Washington Examiner.

In April 2014 Dr. Katherine Mitchell blew the whistle on unsafe conditions in the Phoenix VA emergency department and manipulation of wait time data to conceal the amount of time veterans waited for medical care. In the months to come numerous employees across VA facilities followed Dr. Mitchell’s brave lead, testifying before Congress about secret wait lists and the widespread manipulation of patient wait time data. As many as 40 patients died at a facility while on these wait lists, which resulted in the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the worst scandal in the VA’s history.

The OSC experienced an “unprecedented rise” in its caseload over the last few years, due in large part to new whistleblower disclosures, which involve employee reports of gross mismanagement, waste, fraud, abuse or illegality. The agency received 2,000 new whistleblower disclosures in fiscal year 2015, a 171 percent increase from the fiscal year in which President Obama took office.

Some examples of whistleblowers who faced reprisal under the Obama administration include:

  • Brandon Coleman, who worked at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, reported the mishandling of care for suicidal veterans in 2015. After Coleman raised concerns with his supervisor he was suspended from his job, as reported by the Washington Post.
  • Andrew Rhoades, assistant federal security director with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), blew the whistle on security lapses at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 2015. When Rhoades brought the issue to his supervisor, he was falsely accused of leaking information to the media and ordered to be transferred to Tampa, Fla., as reported by the Washington Times.
  • Peter Forcelli, agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), blew the whistle on the botched “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking operation along the U.S.-Mexican border, which led to thousands of guns ending up in the hands of organized drug gangs and the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Forcelli faced retaliation from the government after testifying before Congress in 2011, as reported by NPR.