NWC board chair analyzes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly released rules governing whistleblower rewards

by Nick Younger, Communications Associate

Published on February 24, 2021

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NWC board chair analyzes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly released rules governing whistleblower rewards

After Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by online newspaper Whistleblower Network News made the rules governing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)’s whistleblower reward system publicly available, the FWS published the rules for the first time.

In a recent article in the National Law Review, National Whistleblower Center (NWC) Board Chairman and leading whistleblower attorney, Stephen M. Kohn, analyzed the recently publicized regulations.

In his article, Kohn touches upon the widespread application of these rules to illegal fishing, logging and wildlife trafficking, all prohibited under the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act (ESA), noting the immense scale of these illicit trades.

Kohn also provides background on the laws that govern the FWS, namely a 1981 amendment to the Lacey Act that allows the Secretary of the Interior, who oversees the FWS, to pay rewards to whistleblowers, pointing out that the FWS’ rules cover payments under the ESA, the Fish and Wildlife Revenue Enforcement Act and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act. Per these rules, the FWS “recognizes the importance of rewarding whistleblowers.”

Parsing the FWS whistleblower reward regulations, Kohn analyzes fundamental aspects of these rules including the types of disclosures that qualify whistleblowers for rewards, how FWS pays the awards including award amount determinations and eligibility standards, and confidentiality measures, or lack thereof.

As his analysis makes clear, the FWS rules do not contain the most important features of other successful whistleblower laws like the False Claims Act or the Dodd-Frank Act that allow whistleblowers to remain anonymous, remain protected from retaliation, or bring issues to a central whistleblower office – all critical to a powerful whistleblower program.

Due to the weaknesses in the Lacey and ESA reward laws to properly support wildlife whistleblowers, Kohn points to bipartisan legislation introduced in past congresses aimed at modernizing these aging laws. However, he notes that it is incumbent upon the FWS to publicize this reward program and lean on this critical law enforcement tool, as Congress intended back in 1981, even before program modernizations are enacted. As Kohn says, “the public release of the FWS rules is a step in the right direction.”

The promulgation of these rules will aid and educate whistleblowers with original information looking to stop fraud, waste, and corruption. Rewards and the knowledge of how to obtain them are proven to incentivize whistleblowers to step forward despite the personal risks to expose wrongdoing.

Whistleblowers, anti-trafficking advocates, wildlife protection groups, and law enforcement must be made aware of the FWS whistleblower reward regulations and ensure qualified whistleblowers with original information of illegal wildlife, lumber, or fisheries trafficking know their rights under these rules. The public release of these rules is a crucial step for wildlife whistleblowers.

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