High cost of conscience: guidelines on prudence

If a legitimate whistle-blower, particularly a federal employee, decides to point out government abuses, he or she can expect a protracted legal battle, often too costly to pursue. Bertrand Berube, who has counseled other whistle-blowers and works closely with the Government Accountability Project (GAP), gives the following rule of thumb:

If you are fired or demoted after alleging that your boss was involved in waste, fraud, or mismanagement, you can expect to pay $20,000 to $50,000 in legal fees and spend six months to a year pursuing your case.

If you challenge the government agency you work for, as Mr. Berube did in 1977 and '81, expect to spend $50,000 to $200,000 and six months to 2 years on the case.

If you take on the federal administration, the case may cost $400,000 to $700,000 and could last six years or longer.

A.Ernest Fitzgerald of the Air Force spent about half a million dollars on his 5-year case. (The American Civil Liberties Union helped defray his expenses.)

Berube has spent nearly $400,000 on his General Services Administration case thus far. It is now in federal district court.

``I'm lucky,'' he says, ``I would have gone bankrupt without GAP,'' which charges only expenses.

Even the Office of Special Counsel acknowledges the cost to whistle-blowers.

Former special counsel William O'Connor told the Washington Post in 1984: ``I'd say that unless you're in a position to retire or are independently wealthy, don't [blow the whistle]. Don't put your head up, because it will get blown off.''

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