Whistle-blowing gains wider acceptance

July 07, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

When somebody blows the whistle these days, people listen.

Backed by a sea change in public attitudes and expanded help from Congress and the courts, whistle-blowers are having a greater impact and gaining wider acceptance, their supporters say.

"Public opinion has changed over the past few years to value these people instead of viewing them as tattletales or malcontents," said Louis Clark of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, which has been defending and advocating for whistle-blowers since 1977.

President Bush swiftly signed a federal employee whistle-blower protection law in 1989, a year after his predecessor vetoed the measure. Legislation to extend broad protection to private-sector workers is expected to come before Congress this year.

More whistle-blowers who lose their jobs and suffer retaliation for exposing corruption and malfeasance are getting to tell their stories to juries and settling with employers for damages, Mr. Clark said.

The Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, and the subsequent reprisals against engineers who told the nation how their company had blocked them from exposing the potential dangers, gave new impetus to the whistle-blower movement, he observed.

"That event changed the landscape of whistle-blowing in this country," he said, as the Morton Thiokol Co. employees were vindicated and their demotions reversed as a result of public pressure.

A decade ago, whistle-blowers came to the Government Accountability Project after their employers fired them or otherwise retaliated, Mr. Clark said. "Now, most people haven't blown the whistle yet and want to find out what to do. We think we can help them do it more effectively, often without identifying themselves."

In some ways, whistle-blowers have even become a Washington institution, he noted. Members of Congress have encouraged these inside informers to promote causes, and

even some Cabinet officers are welcoming these sources of hidden information.

Federal employees today often keep their jobs, if they act promptly to formally challenge reprisals within the 30-day time period, he said. Private-sector employees usually have to find work elsewhere, but they can sue for punitive damages.

Court decisions offer more hope to the private employee than does legislation, says Stephen M. Kohn, a lawyer who heads the non-profit National Whistle-blower Center in Washington. "Whistle-blower law has taken off in the judicial arena" in recent years, he said, as court rulings in most states have allowed whistle-blowers to sue employers for wrongful firing and to collect money awards.

"Courts have become more sensitized to whistle-blower lawsuits and employers more sensitive to the heavy costs of firing a whistle-blower," he said.

The progress of case law is not always smooth, however. In Maryland, the 1986 case that established the principle that an employee can sue for raising public policy concerns was eventually lost by the man who brought it; an appeals court ruled he didn't prove his case.

The patchwork of federal laws aimed at protecting private-sector employees who blow the whistle con

tains a lot of loopholes, says Mr. Kohn, who has written three books on the subject. "A lot of employees in the private sector don't have the constitutional right to blow the whistle."

Another course open to whistle-blowers is the recently amended False Claims Act that allows private individuals to file fraud suits against government contractors and, if successful, to share in the recovery of big money.

These so-called qui tam cases encourage bounty hunters who have considerable financial resources to bring suit, critics contend. But Uncle Sam has recovered more than $70 million by this method since 1986.

Despite all the publicity and expanded legal protections, Mr. Kohn said, "Most people who blow the whistle don't know there is a law."

Whistle-blower support groups, such as GAP or NWC or Donald Soeken's Integrity Assistance Fund in Laurel, can offer advice.

Document the problem and keep a log or diary, lawyers advise. Be patient in seeking a solution within the organization. Maintain good relations with supervisors while pursuing the matter. But Dr. Soeken is skeptical of government hot lines for whistle-blowers, which he says may be more interested in covering up than in correcting problems.

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