The staff of a Member of Congress are often on the front lines of interacting with whistleblowers. These whistleblowers, most often federal employees who have blown the whistle on fraud and corruption, and who as a result have experienced retaliation for their bravery, reach out for help to their Senator or Representative. Staff members of all levels and expertise receive these whistleblowers, and do their best to listen to the whistleblower and help them in their struggle.
However, despite the fact that Congressional staff interact with hundreds and thousands of whistleblowers each year, the current system for Congress receiving information from whistleblowers is inconsistent and offers inadequate support for the offices of the Members of Congress. Each Congressmember’s office may have different procedures and training on the issue, and may interact with whistleblowers in a different way. An office may not adequately keep the confidentiality of a whistleblower, even as they in fact are doing their best to assist. Staff members may have different expertise and experience, and for the whistleblower, the likelihood that they may not get help is too high.
In May 2019, after nearly a year of research and review, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) has released a report outlining best practices for how Congressional staff should appropriately handle information from whistleblowers. Titled “Key Practices for Congress to Consider When Receiving and Referring Information,” the report focuses on what happens when federal whistleblowers reach out to their representatives in Congress, whether in the House or Senate, for help. The GAO produced the report on the request of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch.
Stephen M. Kohn, leading whistleblower law expert and Chairman of the Board of the National Whistleblower Center, has represented whistleblowers for over 30 years. Kohn noted that,
“The risk of reprisals that whistleblowers continue to face when their identity is exposed is unacceptable. From the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Continental Congress to the 116th Congress today, the data proves that whistleblowers are the best way to stop fraud and corruption. It’s encouraging to see this report take seriously the risks faced by whistleblowers, and the entire whistleblower community looks forward to seeing Congress enact further reforms to help federal whistleblowers. The best practices and key issues highlighted in the GAO report should serve as guideposts for whistleblowing to Congress moving forward.”
One of best practices highlighted by the GAO report is the creation of a Whistleblower Ombudsman Office, a suggestion strongly supported by the National Whistleblower Center. In collaboration with several other whistleblower and good governance groups, NWC has advocated to Congress to create such an office. The House has already committed to doing so. Read the letter in which whistleblower advocates praise the creation of the House office and cite the need for an independent leader here.
The Whistleblower Ombudsman will work to assist the staff members who work for Congress. The creation of this position will ensure that staff have sufficient training and resources to ensure that they know the best practices for interacting with whistleblowers. And, whistleblowers will have stronger protections from Congress while the system becomes more efficient and effective.