Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced that he is working on new legislation to strengthen protections for whistleblowers, saying that calling out fraud and abuse has “never been more important than it is right now” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addressing the Senate on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, which the government observes every year on July 30, Sen. Grassley also took aim at the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney General Barr for dismissing several whistleblower cases without explanation.
“I can think of no better way of remembering and honoring whistleblowers than doing exactly as the Continental Congress did on this day back in 1778,” Sen. Grassley said, alluding to the passage of the nation’s first whistleblower protection law.
Whistleblowers are patriots
He called on fellow legislators to renew and resolve their commitment “to pass laws that encourage, support, and protect whistleblowers,” adding that stronger laws and protections will send a message to whistleblowers “that they are patriots, and that Congress and the American people have their backs.”
The federal government is spending an unprecedented amount of money to keep states, businesses, and individuals solvent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to widespread shutdowns, supply chain disruptions, job loss, and economic hardship for millions of Americans.
“The massive increase in government funding to address the Covid-19 crisis has created new opportunities for fraudsters trying to cheat the government and steal hard-earned taxpayer dollars,” Sen. Grassley said.
Economic relief and more opportunities for fraud
The U.S. normally recovers billions of dollars in taxpayer funds every year from pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other health care organizations that submit false claims to Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care programs.
But 2020 is anything but a normal year, and many of the claims made to Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE during the pandemic could be fraudulent. The government maintains Medicare Fraud Strike Forces in several major cities that watch for bogus billing activity and other wrongdoing. But only whistleblowers with first-hand knowledge of fraud can provide the government with the “inside scoop.”
Sen. Grassley expressed concerns that the Justice Department is failing in its responsibility to investigate whistleblower claims without any explanation, potentially allowing wrongdoers to continue to cheat taxpayers.
Strengthening the False Claims Act
“… It’s especially ironic that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been continuing its recent practice of dismissing charges in many of the False Claims Act cases brought by whistleblowers without stating its reasons,” he told the Senate. “This is not the right approach. If there are serious allegations of fraud against the government, the Attorney General should have to state the legitimate reasons for deciding not to pursue them in court. That’s just common sense.”
The senator said that his legislation aims to stop the U.S. Justice Department from undermining the False Claims Act by requiring it to state its reasons for turning down a case. The bill also allows the whistleblowers whose lawsuits have been dropped a chance to address the DOJ and “be heard.”
SEC and CFTC whistleblowers
In addition to the False Claims Act Se. Grassley introduced legislation to strengthen protections for whistleblowers who report fraud, waste, abuse and other violations to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).
“During the pandemic, there’s also been a dramatic increase in whistleblower complaints filed with the SEC. Whistleblowers have been calling attention to scam artists peddling counterfeit and substandard medical goods and phony cures to consumers,” the senator said.
Under the Whistleblower Programs Improvement Act, which Senator Grassley introduced last year, SEC and CFTC whistleblower protections would be bolstered, and both Commissions would be required “to make timely decisions regarding whistleblower rewards.”
Sen. Greasley said that law enforcement is another area in which whistleblower protections need to be strengthened, as evidenced by documented episodes of police brutality, including the recent incidents that led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
He is currently working on legislation that would provide “timely, critical protections to whistleblowers” working in law enforcement.
Law enforcement officers “are there to protect the Constitutional rights of our citizens and never, of course, to do harm or infringe upon those Constitutional rights,” Sen. Grassley said. “For decades, it’s been unlawful for law enforcement officers working at any level to infringe on the Constitutional rights of Americans. And whenever the Attorney General has cause to believe law enforcement is overstepping its bounds and infringing on those rights, he has the legal authority to intervene and pursue action on behalf of the United States to stop the practice and hold those responsible accountable.
“Of course, the Attorney General can’t prosecute what he doesn’t know about. And it’s law enforcement officers themselves who are on the front lines.”
Sen. Grassley said that the American people depend on law enforcement officers to “be vigilant and speak up if they see something happening that they know is wrong.” He added that any officers who risk their careers and reputations by reporting wrongdoing within their ranks deserve to have federal whistleblower protections and said his legislation would guarantee that.
The Criminal Anti-Trust Anti-Retaliation Act
Lastly, the Criminal Anti-Trust Anti-Retaliation Act, introduced by Sen. Grassley last October, would strengthen protections for private-sector whistleblowers who report violations of anti-trust laws.
Among other things, the bill prohibits employers from punishing employees or contractors who report potential criminal antitrust violations and provides a framework of corrective action to be taken when employers violate whistleblowers’ rights.
Sen. Grassley urged lawmakers to act on the pending whistleblower bills, saying they need “to take a cue from the strong actions taken by the Congress during the American Revolution – a body that saw the need, took the time, and devoted the resources to stand up for whistleblowers in the midst of a war for the very existence of our nation.”
If you have any questions about whether you qualify as a whistleblower, contact one of the lawyers on our firm’s Whistleblower Litigation Team for a free and confidential evaluation of your claim. Beasley Allen lawyers Larry Golston, Lance Gould, Paul Evans, Leslie Pescia, Leon Hampton, Tyner Helms and Lauren Miles are working in this area of law known as “qui tam” cases. A lawyer on the team will be glad to discuss the potential claim with you either in person or by phone.