Pentagon IG Seeks to Raise Awareness of Contractor Whistleblower Rights
An employee of a Defense Department contractor or subcontractor may not be discharged, demoted or discriminated against as a reprisal for disclosing suspected fraud or waste.
This is the law that was enacted a year ago, following a lengthy debate within Congress and the Obama administration on how the government could better protect industry whistleblowers. The office of the inspector general — which investigates not the actual fraud but reprisals against whistleblowers — worries that many defense contractors are not aware of these new protections.
The Defense Department's inspector general for years had argued that federal whistleblower laws had huge loopholes because they only protected prime contractor employees from reprisals, but subcontractors were not covered.
"Subcontractors are doing the bulk of the work and see a lot of things, and might be afraid to come forward from fear of losing their subcontract work," says Rich Leatherman, outreach official for whistleblower reprisal investigations at the Defense Department's IG office.
The 2013 legislation extends protection to subcontractors. "Getting the subs covered was huge," Leatherman said during a recent meeting of IG officials and reporters.
Marguerite Garrison, deputy inspector general for administrative investigations, said the changes in the law have not been sufficiently publicized, so the IG office is stepping up its outreach campaign. As more contractors become aware of their legal protections, she said, they might be more inclined to expose fraud, waste and abuse within government programs.
"Inspectors general need sources," the IG website states. "Our investigators, auditors, evaluators and inspectors rely on whistleblowers to provide information as a source of allegations and as original and corroborating evidence."
Garrison said it is too early to tell whether the new law is prompting more industry employees to blow the whistle.
The IG office has relied on traditional and social media to get the word out, Leatherman said. IG hotline posters are sent to contracting officers who must ensure that any company that has more than $5 million in Defense Department contracts displays that poster at work sites. Contractors are required to notify every employee in writing of their whistleblower rights.
The outreach efforts appear to be working, said Patrick Gookin, whistleblower ombudsman and hotline director. Before he joined the IG office in August 2013, the ombudsman received four to six contacts per month on average. The number has jumped to 270 so far this year.
An amendment to Title 10, United States Code, Section 2409, in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, called, “Contractor Employees: Protection From Reprisal for Disclosure of Certain Information,” expanded whistleblower protections to employees of subcontractor firms that receive federal funds either from Pentagon contracts or grants.
Another significant provision is that contractor employees who report suspected waste, fraud and abuse to their company’s chain of command, rather than directly to the government, also are protected by the new statute.
“There is a lot of whistleblower protection out there, but [this amendment] moved the Defense Department into modern standards of whistleblower protection that already exist for federal employees,” said Garrison. The provisions in the law make it “easier to prove whether there was reprisal" for disclosing improprieties.
Since the late 1980s, Congress has authorized the Defense Department IG office to investigate or oversee investigations of allegations of whistleblower reprisal.
While the False Claims Act provides a financial reward for those who disclose wrongdoing in government contracts, the whistleblower law offers no such incentives. It only assures employees that if they disclose illegal activities, they will still be able to keep their jobs.