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Sounding Off, for the Public

July 19, 2001



A bill being introduced in the US House of Representatives will, if passed, do much to revive the original Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), which won unanimous approval in Congress in 1989.

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Sadly, people working for the federal government or for organizations receiving federal funds need protection against retaliation if they reveal abuses threatening the public welfare. (See related story, page 3.)

Sometimes, such good deeds are rewarded. Consider the case of a public servant award given this week by the US Office of Special Counsel to Martin Anderson. He successfully blew the whistle on systematic corruption in the Department of Justice's program to train police in other countries - a program, ironically, intended to counter corruption.

The WPA has been weakened over the years by various court rulings, and the proposed bill attempts to put it on firmer legal ground.

In a 1999 case, for instance, a federal circuit court ruled that an Air Force whistleblower who challenged a program with apparent earmarks of being pork-barrel spending had not met the standard of "reasonable belief." In other words, the court said that unless the whistleblower could present "irrefragable" (incontrovertible) proof of wrongdoing to counter a presumption that the government had acted in good faith, there was no basis for the allegations. (The whistleblower, however, was successful, in that the program was eventually canceled by the Air Force.)

That ruling alone virtually stripped all protection from whistleblowers. Indeed, the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based watchdog group, aptly said last month in a press release that the court ruling amounted to "a tougher standard to qualify for protection than to put a criminal in jail."

Reviving the WPA's legal standing marks a good first step; protecting all private-sector employees should be the next issue in this area for Congress to take up.

The thousands of federal employees who work - mostly behind the scenes at hundreds of federal agencies - deserve to be protected for lawful disclosures of wrongdoing.

After all, they're public servants first, and the public has an "irrefragable" right to know its money has been wisely spent and its collective standards upheld.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor