WASHINGTON—When Lockheed Martin engineer Michael DeKort found dangerous faults in the remodeling of U.S. Coast Guard vessels, he informed the Lockheed joint venture company handling the refit. The company, shared with Northrop Grumman Corporation, first ignored him and after he persisted, fired him.
DeKort filed a lawsuit in 2006, and one year later, the Coast Guard decommissioned the boats on safety grounds.
It was four years later, however, before DeKort settled with Lockheed for an undisclosed amount and his claims were substantiated. DeKort’s story was one of a number of stories cited by Angela Canterbury, director of Public Policy, at a Senate hearing on whistle-blower protection for government contractors late last year.
There are around 12 million government contractors in the United States. Around one-half of the federal budget in fiscal year 2011 was spent on prime awards to contractors and grantees, states and localities, and others, Canterbury said in her statement at the hearing.
That constituted “a whopping sum of $1.9 trillion in taxpayer dollars,” she said, adding that it was money “spent without protecting those on the front lines who come forward when they witness waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Tom Devine is the legal director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Government Accountability Project (GAP), based in Washington, D.C. He said that corruption in government contracting is a huge issue not only in the United States, but also worldwide.
“Government contracts are the magnet for corruption,” Devine said. Corruption is rife because of the secrecy surrounding contracts, which are “without the normal checks and balances of a government institution,” he said.
The GAP and other advocates for whistle-blower protection are rallying support for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (S. 1867), which was proposed by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
“As long people with power are abusing it, there will be a timeless, endless struggle to keep indefensible behavior secret.”
—Tom Devine, legal director, Government Accountability Project
Congress is expected to vote on the amendments before the end of the year, and the changes are designed to protect government contractors who speak out about transgressions like waste, fraud, or public health and safety threats.
The passing of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 743), which was signed into law by President Obama on Nov. 27, has been a source of encouragement for advocates for whistle-blower protection. The new law strengthens previous whistle-blower legislation to include protection for federal workers reporting on government corruption and wrongdoing.
The legislation, authored by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), received unanimous support in the Senate and the House.
Akaka, who is 88 years old and retiring this year, said that he worked for over a decade to see the legislation enacted. “We must protect public servant whistle-blowers who risk their careers to disclose waste, fraud, and abuse,” he said in an official statement. “They make the federal government more effective and save taxpayers money.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a co-sponsor of the bill, welcomed the update, saying that it would help those “who risk their careers by sticking their necks out to simply tell the truth,” according to a statement on his website.
Grassley warned that there is still more work to do in protecting whistle-blowers.
“Improvements are still needed to ensure that intelligence community whistle-blowers receive the protection they deserve for uncovering fraud deep within the bureaucracy,” he said.
Devine said that keeping checks and balances on private and public institutions is a constant process.
“As long people with power are abusing it, there will be a timeless, endless struggle to keep indefensible behavior secret,” he said.
He noted anti-leaking legislation presently in the Senate, which has been put on hold by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) over concerns that it will restrict free speech.
The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (H.R. 5743) is aimed at preventing leakage of classified information. According to Wyden, the law is overly restrictive on former national security workers who are already bound by law not to divulge classified information, and it prevents them from providing background for media organizations.
According to Devine, the anti-leaking legislation is concerning because it has the power to override the whistle-blower protection legislation by declaring an issue classified.
“Agency heads can say virtually all information is classified,” Devine said, and in that respect, the anti-leaking legislation “can be used almost as a blank check for cover-ups.”
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