Will Obama Keep His Promise to Federal Whistleblowers?

Former federal employees encouraged by recent signs but still wary.

ByABC News
August 3, 2009, 3:49 PM

August 4, 2009— -- Will Barack Obama, a champion of whistleblower protection when he was a state senator, act as strongly to protect them when they blow the whistle on his administration?

Whistleblowers tell ABC News they are encouraged by recent signs from the White House about possible efforts to protect them from retaliation. But, they say, they are still wary after years of brutal confrontations that left many of them jobless, financially drained and emotionally spent.

Late last week, President Obama appointed two individuals to the Merit Systems Protection Board, an administrative panel that hears employment appeals from federal employees, including cases that fall under the recently-passed Whistleblowers Protection Enhancement Act of 2009.

The picks - Susan Grundmann, general counsel for the National Federation of Federal Employees, and Anne Wagner, general counsel for the Personal Appeals Board of the U.S. Government Accountability Office – were hailed by whistleblowers and watchdog groups as a first step in overhauling federal whistleblower protection laws.

"Unlike Bush administration appointees who compiled a 1-44 track record against whistleblowers, these leaders are seasoned veterans with a proven track record of commitment to the merit system throughout their careers," said Tom Devine, legal director of the nonprofit public interest group Government Accountability Project.

Devine called the appointments "a weathervane that the Obama Administration is serious about its good government rhetoric."

As an Illinois senator, Obama was responsible for passing legislation to protect government employees who come forward and risk their jobs to expose waste, corruption and national security lapses. And during his 2008 election campaign, Obama promised to protect whistleblowers, saying their "acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled."

Last week, a Senate committee unanimously approved a bill to expand protections for federal workers, which would allow them to bring claims of retaliation for whistle-blowing to a federal court before a jury. Under the current system, federal whistleblowers sometimes wait years to have their cases heard by an appointed board.

An even more significant test for clues to the new administrations intention's will be the handling this week of an appeal in the case of Robert MacLean, who is appealing his dismissal from the Federal Air Marshal Service. MacLean's attorneys plan to file a motion to dismiss "without prejudice" a case against MacLean, who was fired in 2006 for coming forward with TSA plans to eliminate air marshal protection on coast-to-coast flights to save money, in the hopes this administration will break the ranks and declare the firing unlawful.

Robert Bray, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, recently told the Washington Post that MacLean is "still twisting in the wind," which he characterized as "very unfair."

These are some of the headline-making men and women who put their federal jobs on the line, some of whose cases may be impacted by strengthened whistleblower protection laws: