Most would agree the federal government needs more leaders like Susan Brita. Yet the woman who many might hold up as a hero for blowing the whistle on internal financial abuses within the General Services Administration also serves as a reminder that calling attention to such abuses continues to carry its share of risks.
Clearly, no one wants the kind of spotlight shone on Jeff Neely, the architect behind the pricey GSA conference that led to the recent scandal and to Neely being the latest to lose his job as a result.
But fear of retaliation and confusion about how, where and to whom problems should be reported are among the reasons we don’t see or hear about more federal workers like Brita, according to government ethics experts.
Jason Zuckerman, Senior Legal Advisor for the US Office of Special Counsel, said the recent hearings regarding the GSA scandal suggest that a lot of employees in Region 9 must have known about wasteful spending at the agency, but may have been afraid to disclose the abuse.
“Whistleblower retaliation is a big problem,” Zuckerman said during a panel discussion on ethics last month. “A lot of (GSA) employees knew things were being done at the highest levels that clearly weren’t okay. … When we have a scandal like that we have to ask why more employees don’t come forward.”
(GSA declined our request to interview Brita or to comment for this story.)
According to the most recent National Business Ethics Survey, one-third of all employees aware of unethical or illegal conduct don’t speak out; 22% who reported wrongdoing said they experienced some form of retaliation.
With systems in place to foster transparency, taxpayers to answer to, and rules and laws to follow, one might think federal workers would come forward more willingly than those in private industry.
But a recently released U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board report suggests otherwise.
According to the report, 36.2% of federal workers surveyed in 2010 indicated suffering reprisals or threat of reprisal by management for having reported an activity within the prior 12 months. That was virtually unchanged from a comparable survey taken in 1992, despite the fact that the perception of wrongdoing had dropped by more than a third between the 2010 and 1992 surveys.
Zuckerman said the fact that the responses to this question remained virtually unchanged is significant. It suggests that while there may have been less wrongdoing to report in 2010, among those who made such reports, perceptions of retaliation and threats of retaliation remained a serious problem.
The report also suggested that may be the case regardless of encouragement from leadership.
Soon after news of the GSA scandal broke, GSA Acting Director Dan Tangherlini and Inspector General Brian Miller asked staffers to speak up if they have encountered things that “don’t seem right” within the agency. They also said GSA workers will be protected if they sound the alarm on internal issues.
Some federal workers scoffed at the claim, however, and said they did not feel comfortable speaking out. Mark Hammer, a public sector analyst, told the Washington Post:
“Your agency could lay out a gold-embroidered welcome mat for whistleblowing, but ultimately anyone who points a finger is obligating others to either side with them, or side with the proposed offender. There is rarely any neutral ground, unless one is very far removed from the actions or unit being disclosed. The law certainly dictates what is and isn’t acceptable legally, but it has no means to manage or finesse the etiquette surrounding intra-group relations.”
GSA Deputy Administrator Susan Brita is credited with raising concern about overspending at a regional GSA conference. She is pictured with GSA Chief of Staff Michael Robertson at a training class.
And a TSA employee was quoted as saying: “The GSA scandal will not lead to more whistleblowers. Yes, it’s true, there are many conscientious federal employees. These same employees have seen numerous cases of fraud, waste or abuse throughout their agencies and careers. But when a federal employee blows the whistle on fraud, waste, or abuse, a large target is placed on the employee’s back. By blowing the whistle, the employee enters the cross-hairs of the agency. And most agencies will dedicate large sums of taxpayer’s money and conduct investigations that may last for years to get the whistleblower and more importantly, to ‘set the tone for anyone thinking of becoming a whistleblower in the future.’
“The bottom line: Be cautious, whistleblowing offers no protection for the employee and remains second to politics of the agency. A whistleblower will be harassed and isolated from information necessary for them to perform their duties, and therein begins the cycle of a poor performer and the first step towards removal from service.”
We can protect people who blow the whistle. Employees don’t have to go through the chain of command. They don’t have to say where they got allegations. They don’t have to reveal identity.” – Zuckerman
That view, however, is not entirely correct. Whistleblowers are afforded some protection. And the movement to provide that protection appears to be growing.
The Office of Special Counsel is authorized to investigate whistleblower retaliation claims and seek corrective action for the whistleblower and disciplinary action against officials who engage in retaliation.
As an example, Zuckerman cited OSC’s investigation of retaliation against whistleblowers who disclosed wrongdoing and mismanagement at the Air Force’s Port Mortuary concerning the handling the remains of fallen soldiers. OSC obtained relief for the whistleblowers who suffered reprisal and the Air Force is acting on recommendations from OSC to discipline the supervisors who retaliated against the whistleblowers. Zuckerman noted the importance of holding officials accountable for retaliation or other prohibited personnel practices.
“We can protect people who blow the whistle,” Zuckerman said. “That’s so important as we can see form the GSA scandal. … Employees don’t have to go through the chain of command. They don’t have to say where they got allegations. They don’t have to reveal identity.”
Barbara Mullen-Roth of the Office of Government Ethics, which handled the Watergate scandal, said unclear rules involving conduct and behavior as well as confusion about whose jurisdiction they are under may have contributed to the issues at GSA. But she also said federal workers don’t always have a good example to follow and suggested they become informed about how to report wrongdoing.
“Ethics starts at the top of the organization,” she said. “We have to walk the talk. We have to be authenticate and demonstrate and be visible doing the right things so that our employees do the right thing so that the ethical culture can permeate everything we do on a day to day basis.”
Zuckerman said the GSA scandal clearly calls leadership into question.
“When we see these scandals we’ve got to ask why employees didn’t speak out sooner?” he said. “Jeff Neely was known to actually beat up on people who blew the whistle. He would make life unpleasant for any employee. Part of an ethical culture is acting on those people.”
Employee training, policy implementation and compliance are key, he said. Legislation, such as the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), helps too. The legislation, approved by the Senate earlier this month, provides federal workers with rights and protections in order to safely report corruption inside government.
Government Accountability Project (GAP) Legal Director Tom Devine applauded the move and encouraged further action.
“This is the fourth time the Senate has unanimously approved similar legislation to restore protections for federal whistleblowers,” he said in a statement. “The spotlight now shifts to the House of Representatives, where action is long overdue. Despite unanimous approval last November, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has not yet reported the bill to the full House.”
Over the past 12 years, GAP advocated for passage of the WPEA. Last Congress, the legislation – after passing both the Senate and House by Unanimous Consent in some form – was killed by an anonymous Senator’s “secret hold” in the remaining hours of the session, according to GAP.
Meanwhile, others said they expect good change to come out of the problems at GSA, whether it’s legislation or an executive order or a greater resolve by the other Susan Britas throughout the federal government.
“Watergate created a whole new way of looking at government. Government in the sunshine,” Mullen-Roth said. “I expect there will be something, but I don’t think we’ll know what that something is for a while.”
Zuckerman said he hopes the effect is more immediate.
“As a result of this, I think more people will speak out,” he said. “I think it’s going to become more obvious to people that they don’t ever want to be called as a witness or have their name all over the news. You really have to ask the hard questions as you go about your job and if you see unethical conduct you have to speak out.”