Washington, D.C. November 3, 2011. During today’s mark-up of H.R. 3289, a bill amending the Whistleblower Protection Act, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted to strip federal employee whistleblowers of a right to jury trial. The committee voted to approve the reform amendments without fixing other significant defects including limits on appeals and authorizing an administrative board to summarily dismiss whistleblower cases.
An amendment offered by Rep. Braley (D-Iowa) would have restored language to provide jury trial access to federal employee whistleblowers. The language for the amendment was pulled directly from bills approved by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in 2007 and 2009, including a vote on the full House floor.
In support of the jury trial amendment, Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Cummings, stated that the stripped-down whistleblower bill would treat federal employees, “like second-class citizens.”
The Braley amendment was rejected by a vote of 20 to 13 by a primarily party-line vote, with the Republican majority stripping the jury trial provision. Jury trials are currently included in a Senate version of the bill.
During the debate, the Chair of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Issa, one of the prime opponents of the jury trial provision, stated that the Senate is also intending to strip out jury trial rights.
National Whistleblowers Center Executive Director Stephen M. Kohn responded to Issa’s comments as follows, “I am startled to learn from Chairman Issa that the Senate, behind closed doors, has decided to abandon their longstanding support for jury trials. This is another setback in a series of setbacks that have rendered this current reform effort toothless and counterproductive. Access to jury trials is a hallmark in all modern whistleblower laws and an absolutely essential provision to ensure that whistleblowers can have a fair hearing. The Braley amendment tried to restore what the House had accomplished with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in the past. The current shift in position demonstrates a dangerous anti-whistleblower bias in the current Congress.”
In its current form, H.R. 3289 would:
- Cut out the right to a jury trial for federal employees.
- Empower the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) to summarily dismiss whistleblower cases.
- Block whistleblowers from access to more “liberal” U.S. Courts of Appeal (such as the 9th Circuit). Instead, the government would be able to force their cases into a special court.
A number of prominent civil rights groups have signed a letter to Congress demanding immediate changes to the legislation. Their requests include ensuring full appeals court access for federal workers and blocking the ability of the MSPB to summarily throw out whistleblower claims.
The NWC has issued an Action Alert calling on all Americans to ask their Representative to fix the bill.