Full disclosure first: I work for a nonprofit that often hears from federal agency whistleblowers. I also have a very positive and longstanding relationship with the staff of the Project on Government Oversight, POGO for short. (Heck, their executive director even publicly praised my book.)
POGO is a big-time advocate for and communicator with whistleblowers. During its 33 years of existence, its work with whistleblowers has helped raise media visibility and Congressional attention to issues ranging from gross underpayment of royalties by oil companies drilling on federal lands to the Navy and Marine Corps’ refusal to disclose toxic water contamination at the U.S. Army base at Camp Lejeune, to the newest scandal plaguing Washington, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ cover-up of delays in treatment.
It is that latest scandal that has put POGO in the crosshairs of agency’s Acting Inspector General, Richard Griffin. Griffin has subpoenaed all POGO records “from current of former employees” of the VA “relating in any way to wait-times, access to care and/or patient scheduling issues.”
Griffin’s request has major ramifications. POGO has been soliciting VA employees to report on fraud and mismanagement at the agency, at a special website. POGO promises that it “will work to protect your identity” while trying to “expose and remedy” the VA’s problems while “lowering the risk of jeopardizing your career.” The website says the information submitted “will be encrypted and anonymous.”
Griffin wants the records to facilitate its investigation. But what he doesn’t seem to understand is that his desire for more complete information is jeopardizing something much more important – the freedom of whistleblowers to find a safe harbor to report their concerns about government waste, fraud and abuse.
The IG’s quest is ironic for at least two reasons. First, POGO’s work helped prompt the media and the Congress to take this scandal seriously and helped stir Congressional demands for accountability. Secondly, POGO has been a great advocate for federal inspectors general.
POGO refuses to comply, defending itself in part by contending ”the First Amendment reporter’s privilege and legal precedents afforded to those who investigate and report the news apply to POGO. “ It has solid grounds for that assertion. POGO has journalists on staff, does comprehensive investigative reports, and recently won accolades from the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for its work.
But there is a more fundamental reason for the Inspector General to lay off. POGO, as many other nonprofits, is a safe harbor for whistleblowers. They often trust the nonprofits they know more than the media outlets or reporters they may not.
And in this era of diminishing resources and time to do good journalism, when investigative reporters are an endangered species, nonprofits like POGO increasingly are the intermediaries between whistleblowers and the mainstream media.
Nonprofits not only are trusted by whistleblowers. They also work hard to frame their stories in ways that will make them easier for reporters to use. And they usually do the initial pass at verifying the information and filling in the gaps. As a result, many media outlets rely on this pre-digested information for their stories.
Good reporters will always do their own fact-checking and enterprise reporting. But it’s a heck of a lot easier because of the work POGO and other nonprofits do.
Whistleblowers need and deserve safe harbors. They have to be willing to trust that when they supply sensitive information, their identities will be kept confidential. If they can’t trust that confidentiality will be maintained, they will not share their stories. While we have stronger whistleblower laws that offer federal workers legal rights to fight back if they suffer retaliation, those rights to due process are not foolproof. And fighting retaliation may take months, if not years.
Even if a whistleblower ultimately wins his or her case, speaking truth to power can often be tantamount to career suicide. Just ask Franz Gayl, whose efforts to protect soldiers in Iraq by pressing for better armored vehicles led to his being reprimanded and denied a security clearance, or Bunnatine Greenhouse, a senior federal contracting official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who blew the whistle on waste and fraud and was demoted. Being vindicated does not restore years of struggle and exile from the federal workforce.
Journalism, the public and whistleblowers will benefit if the VA drops its demand for POGO’s records. Let’s hope that the agency’s Inspector General gets the message.