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Whistle-blower protection efforts advance despite White House 


The San Diego Union-Tribune


October 3, 2004

WASHINGTON Over strenuous objections from the White House, Congress is moving to increase protections for federal employees who expose fraud, waste and wrongdoing inside the government.

Lawmakers of both parties say the measures are needed to prevent retaliation against such whistle-blowers, who reveal threats to public health, safety and security. But the Bush administration says the bill unconstitutionally interferes with the president's ability to control and manage the government.

On Sept. 29, a House committee approved a whistle-blower protection bill. In July, a Senate committee approved a similar measure offering more extensive protections to whistle-blowers.

Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., the sponsor of the House bill, said: "We need to protect public servants who expose fraud and intentional misconduct. Court decisions in the last 10 years have eroded whistle-blower protections, so that if you're a federal employee, you're often risking your job and the wrath of your superiors if you come forward with evidence of wrongdoing."

The Senate bill gained momentum when Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, joined Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in pushing it.

"The campaign for this legislation went from dormant to active when Senator Collins embraced the bill a few months ago," said Thomas Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group that works with whistle-blowers. "That was the turning point."

As evidence of a need for legislation, lawmakers cited dozens of cases, among them:

 Federal investigators found that two Border Patrol agents, Mark Hall and Robert Lindemann, were disciplined after they disclosed weaknesses in security along the U.S.-Canadian border.

 Teresa Chambers was dismissed from her job as chief of the U.S. Park Police after she said the agency did not have enough money or personnel to protect parks and monuments in the Washington, D.C., area.

 The nation's top Medicare official threatened to fire Richard S. Foster, chief Medicare actuary, if he gave Congress data showing the cost of the new Medicare law, which exceeded White House estimates.

Airport baggage screeners say they have been penalized for raising concerns about aviation security. But in August, an independent federal agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board, ruled that they have none of the whistle-blower rights available to other federal employees. The government, it said, can "hire, discipline and terminate screeners without regard to any other law."

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which investigates complaints of reprisal before they go to the board, has a large backlog of whistle-blower cases, including many pending for more than a year.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have made the government more secretive, but also have prompted more whistle-blowers to come forward. "They feel they can no longer stand by knowing that people's lives are at risk," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, another watchdog group.