July 30, 2009— -- Public interest groups yesterday praised a Senate committee for approving a bill to expand protections for federal workers who blow the whistle on government corruption, waste and fraud, but expressed concerns that the new provisions fall short of protecting some law enforcement and intelligence employees.
The Senate bill would allow certain federal workers to bring claims of retaliation for whistle-blowing to a federal court before a jury.
"That's a landmark breakthrough that the government and employee rights activists have been seeking for 30 years," said Tom Devine, the legal director at the Government Accountability Project in Washington.
Federal whistleblowers who have faced retaliation sometimes have to wait years to have their cases heard by an appointed board in the current system. Under the new bill, government employees like former federal air marshal Robert MacLean – who was fired in 2006 for blowing the whistle on plans to eliminate Air Marshal protection on coast-to-coast flights to save money – would be able to take their grievances to court before a jury to fight for lost wages or reinstatement if the board has not acted within 270 days, according to Danielle Brian, the executive director for the Project on Government Oversight.
Employees of the FBI, CIA and other agencies that deal with the nation's most sensitive information would not have access to the new jury system provided by the bill, instead their claims would continue to be examined by a special board appointed by the President.
Brian lauded the bill's passage, but cautioned that in its current form, intelligence workers have no adequate protections against reprisals for whistle-blowing.
"We want everyone to have jury trials … so that national security whistleblowers can get their job back when they win," said Brian.
Former Federal Air Marshal
MacLean, who was part of a contingent of whistleblowers who descended upon Capitol Hill in March to press lawmakers for further protection, said that while the bill is a good step, intelligence workers should be able to take their cases to court as well.
"Intelligence matters can be conducted in a federal jury trial. It can be done and there would be no security lapses or threats to national security if intelligence workers also get jury trials," said Maclean, who has been fighting for three years to win his job back to no avail.
Devine said whistleblower advocacy groups will press the House of Representatives to pass a more aggressive version of the bill next month, containing provisions for intelligence workers.
Yuliya Talanova is a 2009 Summer intern with the Brian Ross Unit. She is a student at Long Island University.