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CONGRESS MUST PROTECT WHISTLEBLOWERS



Published: Thu, September 19, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



CONGRESS MUST PROTECT WHISTLEBLOWERS

Dallas Morning News: The Senate continues to work on its version of a homeland security agency, which it must wrap up by month's end to avoid having the debate spill over until after the November elections.

Before it can finish, however, senators must resolve several issues. They include protection for whistleblowers in the new department.

The simple answer is that whistleblowers deserve strong protection. If the Enrons and WorldComs have taught the country anything, it is that honest people can save the public time and money by coming forward. But if they fear reprisal, then the nation suffers along with them. We learn of problems after the fact -- to our own detriment.

The same phenomenon applies to government. Congress and taxpayers alike deserve to know whether waste, fraud and abuse exist within an agency. That includes within the homeland security agency. But if concerned workers fear retaliation, truth-tellers may not come forward.

President Bush wants flexibility when it comes to hiring and firing the new department's workers. We support that request since the agency must be able to pivot quickly to protect Americans. But the president should not misconstrue the meaning of flexibility. It should not stifle honest criticism. The administration needs to support -- and legislators should establish -- clear parameters for the rights of those who blow the whistle about wrongdoing at the homeland agency.

Retaliation

The Government Accountability Project in Washington has identified several whistleblowers who have suffered after presenting damaging data about their agencies.

For example, the public interest law firm reports that Mark Hall, a senior Border Patrol agent, faced internal retaliation for telling Congress about problems along the U.S.-Canadian border after Sept. 11, 2001. Unfortunately, his agency and his case are not unique.

The Senate has a chance to provide whistleblowers a set of rights. Among other items, it should give them job protection after stepping forward to detail a problem at the new agency.

After the Enron scandal erupted, Congress passed legislation that secured the rights of corporate whistle-blowers. It makes sense to offer the same security to workers at the homeland security agency. Employees and taxpayers alike deserve that consideration.

OPEN RECORDS, BUILD TRUST

Los Angeles Times: Governments will go to amazing lengths to keep public information away from the public. California's Freedom of Information Act is routinely ignored, in part because there's no penalty for refusing to release data. One study showed that 80 percent of the requests to local governments were denied when first made.

Around the country, legislatures are imposing more secrecy in the name of security. Fortunately that has not happened in California. But the state repeatedly has failed to put teeth into the California Public Records Act. The only recourse when information is denied is to sue, a long and costly process.

Senate leader John Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco, sponsored a sorely needed constitutional amendment to give the people a fundamental right of access to government information. SCA 7 passed the Senate 32 to 0 but died on the Assembly floor, in part because of opposition from local government.

Into the breach came Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Shelley with the revival of an open records reform that passed in 1999 and 2000 but was vetoed each time by Gov. Gray Davis. Shelley's AB 822 provides that when a state agency or local government denies a request for public information, the decision can be appealed to the state attorney general. His office would have 20 days to declare whether the information should be released. An agency that still refused to cough up the information could be fined $100 a day, up to a total of $10,000. AB 822 whizzed through the Legislature without a single "no" vote.

Conflict of interest

Davis had objected that the legislation put the attorney general in a conflict of interest since he also represented the state agencies. And he complained of the cost. Now, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca opposes AB 822 because it would "create additional burdens on public agencies." Sponsors say there is no indication that the bureaucracy would be overwhelmed by frivolous requests for information. In fact, the legislation would help speed the resolution of cases that now end up in court for months or years.

The Shelley bill fixes the conflict problem in any case where the attorney general already is representing the agency involved. Any cost in paper handling is likely to be far less than the legal fees that agencies pay to defend their denials in court.

Citizen access to public records is a fundamental right in a democracy, whether it's the content of a highway construction contract or the musings of a consultant's report. Most denials probably are made just because officials don't want to be bothered. But there are plenty of documented cases in which information is kept secret to cover up mismanagement or wrongdoing. The more light that shines on government, the more people will be able to trust it. Davis can help bolster trust significantly by signing AB 822 into law.




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