WASHINGTON — Call her the golden girl of whistle-blowers. After months of challenging the veracity or judgment of top managers of her company, Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins hasn't been fired, demoted, or dubbed a crank. No charges have been filed against her, and her professional reputation is intact.
That's not the experience of most employees who raise concerns about their management on issues ranging from nuclear safety to airport security. Some 90 percent of whistle-blowers face reprisals or threats, according to the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group.
"Ms. Watkins followed the approach we advise all whistle-blowers to adopt - changing the dynamic from finger pointing to constructive problem solving and warning," says Tom Devine, GAP legal director.
Watkins isn't the classic whistle-blower: She went public after being subpoenaed. Nor did her August memo warning that Enron might "implode in a wave of accounting scandals" prevent precisely that outcome.
Still, the Enron affair appears to have encouraged would-be whistle-blowers to step forward in other industries and government agencies. It is also prompting lawmakers to push for new shields against retaliation.
"We've been getting calls from many more people than we can help, especially since Enron," says Stephen Kohn, a Washington-based attorney who works with whistle-blowers.
The National Whistleblower Center in Washington reports that its calls are up tenfold this year. "Since September 11, there has been a tendency toward restricting information and making everything secret. Since Enron, we've seen an opposite effect," says Kris Kolesnik of the center.
Although more than 30 federal laws govern whistle-blowing, recent judicial loopholes mean that most employees have no protection from retaliation.
Congress's renewed focus on bolstering protections fits a familiar pattern. In the past, Congress made such moves in the wake of scandals or disasters, such as the 2000 Alaska Airlines crash that spurred new protections for airline employees. The Sept. 11 attacks are providing a similar impetus for new laws protecting national-security whistle-blowers, lawmakers say.
"Since September 11, government agencies have placed a great emphasis on secrecy ... understandably so in some cases. But with these restrictions comes a greater danger of stopping the legitimate disclosure of wrongdoing and mismanagement," says Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa.
This week, he and Rep. Steve Israel (D) of New York announced that they will introduce bills that will give whistle-blowers the freedom to report security concerns without fear of retribution. The "Paul Revere Freedom to Warn" act plugs a gap in a 1912 law that made it illegal to retaliate against whistle-blowers who are federal employees, but gave those whistle-blowers no legal remedy.
For example, there is currently no protection for federal employees exposing securities fraud, experts say. Nor do laws or administrative remedies yet cover whistle-blowers at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Yesterday, Grassley and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont introduced the FBI Reform Bill to address the issue at an agency that has been rocked by criticism of standards in its crime lab.
Such laws could change the climate for federal employees.
"I decided to take the risk that something good could come out of what I had to say, and I'll take the consequences," says Bogdan Dzakovic, a Federal Aviation Administration agent who went public this week with complaints that the FAA ignored warnings of security breaches at airports.
Some worry that the Bush administration has not extended whistle-blower protection to the newly created Transportation Security Administration.