Recent forced departures of the Intelligence Community inspector general Michael Atkinson, and the shuffling aside of Defense acting IG Glenn Fine haven’t sat well with one group. Namely the defenders of whistleblowers. For one view of what this all might mean, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, John Kostyack.
Read the organization’s full statement here.
Tom Temin: John, good to have you on.
John Kostyack: Good morning, Tom. Thanks for having me on.
Tom Temin: All right. So you have written that there are some legal requirements to letting go of an IG that were not followed by the Trump administration. Describe what you feel should happen.
John Kostyack: Well, the inspector general system was created by Congress so the Congress would essentially have eyes and ears into ethical breaches that are happening in the executive branch. So they added a provision to the inspector general law that essentially says you may not terminate someone without giving 30 days notice to Congress so the Congress can step in if they see something going awry. Here the president basically ignored the spirit of the law and placed Atkinson on 30 days administrative leave effectively taking them out of the position right away. Obviously it’s very problematic. We count on inspectors general to potentially ensure that the government acts ethically and avoids corruption. And they play a critical role in partnership with whistleblowers because whistleblowers need somewhere to go with their information about corruption and wrongdoing. Congress would prefer that they go through protected channels as opposed to going to the media and leaking information. And the system now is at great risk because the inspector generals essentially service those protected channels. They work with whistleblowers to inform Congress about what’s happening, and we’re now seeing some pretty significant attacks to that system.
Tom Temin: Sure, and now the firing of Atkinson came at some time after all of the events were more or less concluded that culminated in the impeachment trial, and then the acquittal, but when you have the situation of Glenn Fine, who was a career guy and acting IG at the Defense Department let go in anticipation of oversight of a law that’s barely even out the door yet. What’s your take on that one?
John Kostyack: Well, that one is extremely problematic. We have a situation where the government has never spent this kind of money before. We’re talking trillions of dollars. And our long history with government spending is that the more money that goes out the door the greater opportunities for fraud. Some of our most important whistleblower laws were created. At a time where the government was spending money in response to a national crisis. Our first whistleblower law happened in 1777 in the middle of the Revolutionary War, and the next day when the False Claims Act came along in the midst of the Civil War, where defense contractors were fleecing taxpayers. And so we’re fully expecting now to be the moment where less than ethical companies step forward and attempt to fleece the taxpayers and we are in desperate need of whistleblowers and inspectors general. So to have the first step taken after the passage of this large scale spending bill known as the cares act to be the removal of one of the inspectors, generals, who was a career inspector general had an outstanding reputation for no other reason that apparently he was not a Trump loyalist. And Trump has announced that he intends to install somebody who he considers to be more loyal to him. So it’s a fairly blatant attack on our system of checks and balances.
Tom Temin: But in general, IGs occupy a kind of a strange place because they are nominated by presidents and confirmed by the Senate. They have a responsibility, they report in statute to the agency head, but they also have this kind of strange connection to Congress and to the President, the way they’re triangulate it in. Should that be reviewed you think?
John Kostyack: Well, it’s always going to be some tension there because yes, they are in the executive branch chain of command. They ultimately report to the President, cabinet officials. But there is very clear language that Congress wants a line into these folks. They want to be hearing directly from them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing in the constitution that suggests that the President gets to control every single message that gets sent over to Congress. In fact, it’s a very healthy thing for Congress to be hearing from multiple sources to make sure it’s actually getting accurate information. And so that, you know, the fundamental concepts of the inspector general system are sound. And it’s only now where we’re seeing these attacks on the core of that system. I mean, presidents from both political parties have supported the inspector general system for years. And, you know, we don’t think it’s time to evaluate the soundness of the system. I think it’s time to hold the president to account and our big focus right now is getting Congress to exercise its roles under the Constitution to provide the kind of oversight and accountability that we are at risk of losing.
Tom Temin: Now, your recent statement also mentioned the termination of Captain Crozier from the USS Theodore Roosevelt. And of course, his dispatcher himself had to quit because of some unfortunate misunderstandable comments that he made in public. What’s your take on that situation? How does that mix in with whistleblowers do you think?
John Kostyack: Oh, it fits right into the pattern that has been established here, which is people who want to survive in this administration apparently feel like they need to curry favor with the president and suck up to the president. So what will happen with this Acting Navy Secretary Modly, who is the one who fired Crozier was he apparently thought that the president would be embarrassed by the statements made by Crozier, who is doing nothing more than fulfilling his ethical duties to look out for his shipment. So when Modly fired Crozier, he had been getting signals from Trump that anything embarrassing about how the coronavirus pandemic was being handled should be dealt with by eliminating the people putting out embarrassing information. And Trump initially signaled that was the right thing to do and then there was some political blowback, and Trump suddenly reversed himself and said, no, maybe Crozier’s a good guy after all. And within hours after that, the Acting Secretary of the Navy Modly was gone. So this is also in the pattern of who is most loyal to the president is the one who survives. That is not a healthy system we have in place right now. We think people who are ethical and are complying with our laws are the ones we need in our government, not the ones who do nothing more then suck up to the president.
Tom Temin: All right. We’ll leave it there. John Kostyack is executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Thanks so much for joining me.
John Kostyack: Thank you for having me.