How to blow the whistle isn't often taught

Federal workers

December 23, 1992|By Ellen J. Silberman | Ellen J. Silberman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- If your boss at the Social Security Administration is ripping off the government, whom would you call to report the problem?

The inspector general at (800) 368-5779.

If you didn't know the answer, you're not alone, according to a recent General Accounting Office report on Whistleblower Protection.

The GAO asked 14 federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, what regular seminars they put on to explain the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act. The answer in all cases was none.

Under current law, agencies don't have to give their employees the information they need to become effective whistleblowers.

But, as part of its new employee orientation, the SSA offers information on how to report misconduct and what to do if an employee thinks he's being punished for blowing the whistle. The agency also sends around annual reminders telling workers to familiarize themselves with the law.

"That's a good start," says Hugo Wolter, a GAO evaluator who worked on the whistleblower report. But Wolter would like to see regular refresher courses. "Do you remember everything that you were told once?" he asks. He wonders about employees who arrived before the law took effect in 1989.

Still, SSA is better at whistleblower education than some other agencies. In general, employees are left to discover the rules on their own.

As a result, 70 percent of federal employees don't know where to report fraud and abuse in their agencies. Seventy-three percent don't know that under the Whistleblower Protection Act they can't be fired, demoted, denied promotion, transferred or RTC reassigned just because they've reported fraud, a GAO survey governmentwide has found.

The survey report recommends that Congress change the law to require every government agency to give whistleblower seminars under the guidance of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the agency charged with protecting federal employees, particularly whistleblowers, from discrimination and other abuses by management.

The GAO recommends modeling a new whistleblower bill after the Ethics in Government Act, which requires every federal employee to attend at least one ethics seminar and requires most civil servants to take a refresher course every year.

The OSC supports the idea of mandating education "in principle" but has yet to determine what specific training it would like to see, says Laura Blades, a public affairs specialist for the office.

Last session, a bill that would have required federal agencies to include whistleblower information in their ethics seminars was introduced in the Senate but didn't make it out of committee. House and Senate aides expect similar legislation to become law next year.

But some whistleblower advocates worry that managers will use the sessions to teach employees to get around whistleblower laws.

"If [seminars are] conducted by management I'm completely against it. Having management talk to employees about blowing the whistle on management is ridiculous. It's like putting the Ku Klux Klan in charge of discrimination," says Steve Kohn, chairman of the National Whistleblower Center, a non-profit advocacy group. Kohn believes that management-run seminars will turn into sessions on how to get around whistleblower laws. He also opposes OSC-run seminars because he sees the OSC as just another branch of management.

But Kohn would like to see a law requiring agencies to hand out information on whistleblowing that includes the phone numbers of advocacy groups such as his as well as the local union. He also favors seminars run by unions or advocacy groups.

The Senate aide agrees that unions might run more informative sessions but notes that their actions can't be legislated. He says management-run seminars would at least make employees aware of their rights and calls any session "a step forward." He also says that blatant anti-whistleblower training is unlikely. "I would think they would get in a lot of trouble for doing that," he says.

To report fraud at the SSA, whistleblowers can call the hot line, Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. They can also write the HHS OIG Hotline at P.O. Box 17303, Baltimore, 21203-7303.

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