Whistleblowers take Heart from Laws

posted on:
January 22, 2007

author:
Staff

Allen Jones was being watched.

In July 2002, Jones, then an investigator in Pennsylvania’s Office of the Inspector General, had been assigned to determine whether a state official took money from drug companies trying to do business with the state. Jones said that when he tried to investigate the drug companies, his bosses told him to back off.

He didn’t. Jones said his investigation of the companies resulted in harassment from his superiors and silence from his friends in the office. His supervisors began checking his phone records. The last straw came when his boss, with whom he’d worked for years, pulled him aside and told him to “quit swimming against the stream.”

“I had made the decision, sitting in that chair, that day, to be a whistleblower,” said Jones, of Beaver Springs, Snyder County, who later lost his job for going public with what he’d found—information that led to the indictment of one state official.

Though protected by Pennsylvania and federal law, whistleblowers can lose jobs, friends and, sometimes, their families, said Dylan Blaylock, spokesman for the Government Accountability Project. The Washington-based nonprofit is among the most prominent advocates for whistleblowers.

“It’s a life-changing event. They’re risking a lot,” Blaylock said. In cases where whistleblowers make headlines, employers usually wait for news coverage to fade before retaliating, Blaylock said. “If there’s a lot of light on you, then it’s hard for people to come out and get you.”

A series of high-profile cases during the last two years brought renewed efforts by watchdog groups to strengthen whistleblower protection laws. The cases—including former federal employee Rick Piltz, who quit because a Bush administration appointee was editing scientists’ global warming reports to the administration’s policies—prompted U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, to propose legislation to strengthen protection for federal whistlebowers. The bill was introduced Jan. 11.

A day earlier, Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly used Pennsylvania’s whistleblower protection law to get her job back, at least temporarily. McNeilly, 48, of Brookline, argued she was demoted to lieutenant in retaliation for exposing improper behavior by Dennis Regan, then Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s top aide. U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose ordered McNeilly reinstated until the trial wraps up on her lawsuit, which claims she was wrongfully punished as a whistleblower.

“I tried to bring things to the attention of people who could make them right,” McNeilly said in court.

Acting City Solicitor George Specter said the state’s whistleblower law doesn’t apply to McNeilly because she wasn’t acting as a private citizen and she sent confidential information to her husband, former city police Chief Robert W. McNeilly, and brother, police chaplain the Rev. Lou Vallone, as well as City Council.

The federal False Claims Act entices whistleblowers to step forward by allowing them a cut of whatever waste they recover for the government. It has been used in more than 4,000 lawsuits since it was last updated in 1986, according to the Montgomery, Ala.-based law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, which specializes in defending whistleblowers. Under the law, the government has recovered about $6 billion and whistleblowers received $960 million, according to the firm.

August “Bill” Arnold is using the False Claims Act to go after hundreds of thousands of dollars in overbilling he exposed at PennDOT, which receives federal money. In December 2005, PennDOT agreed to pay Arnold $500,000 to settle a separate whistleblower lawsuit filed as a civil rights violation. Arnold, a construction manger, said he was demoted for exposing connections between PennDOT officials and contractors that led to those contractors overbilling PennDOT in 2000 and 2001. He is now retired from the state agency.

A series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings during the past four years made state laws more important, because the court has ruled federal whistleblower protections apply only to federal employees, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Ruch’s group, a Washington-based nonprofit government watchdog group, studied state whistleblower laws and ranked Pennsylvania’s as 18th, tied with three other states. State employees can seek economic damages, but not more lucrative punitive ones, and violators can be fined $500, the law states.

Pennsylvania’s law—which applies only to employees of state and local governments, including school districts—doesn’t protect people who blow the whistle on matters of public safety, Ruch said. However, it protects employees who report unethical behavior, he said.

Jones filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state in 2005 alleging he’d been the victim of retaliation for pointing out wrongdoing. The suit was settled in March 2006. Jones said the settlement bars him from talking about it.

The state Office of the Inspector General refused to comment.

In one of the best-known whistleblower cases, tobacco industry executive Jeffrey Wigand told the television news show “60 Minutes” in 1994 about industry coverups. Wigand’s disclosures cost him his job. Tired of being subjected to death threats and the tobacco industry’s assault against Wigand, his wife divorced him, Blaylock said.

“There has always been an element of courage these folks have, compared to some other people who see the same things but choose not to go forward,” said Timothy O’Brien, a Downtown attorney who has worked on several whistleblower cases, including McNeilly’s. “More times than not … there is no personal gain. It’s not as if they report this, and then they’re going to get a promotion.”

“It’s a difficult thing. It takes some guts to go ahead and blow the whistle.”

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