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Protecting government whistleblowers — or not

Marketplace Staff Sep 11, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: In Washington today, House and Senate negotiators sat down. They’re trying to hammer out some differences over a bill for next year’s Pentagon funding. As happens with lawmakers sometimes, there are a few off topic items in the huge spending package. One of them would beef up protection for government whistleblowers. Not everybody thinks that’s a great idea, though. Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL GENZER: Consider the case of whistleblower Michael Maxwell. He was a top official in the Homeland Security Department. He says he discovered his staffers were accepting bribes in exchange for citizenship papers. The government says Maxwell wasn’t retaliated against but he says after he blew the whistle, he was given an ultimatum.

MICHAEL MAXWELL:“Keep your mother shut. There’s been bad press. You embarrassed us. You know, they would tell me, ‘If you’re going up to Congress to talk, we expect you to be professional.’ Of course I’ll be professional, I’d say, but I’m going to tell the truth.”

The Senate amendment might have helped Maxwell. It gives most government whistleblowers the right to a jury trial. Right now, they can only appeal to a government administrative board that usually rules against them.

The Justice Department has been leading the charge against the whistleblower amendment. In November of 2003, Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler told a senate committee that more rights for whistleblowers could jeopardize national security. Keisler said whistleblowers should check with higher-ups before giving freewheeling testimony to Congress.

PETER KEISLER:“The prudent thing would be for them to go back and find out whether that’s appropriate.”

Michigan Democrat Carl Levin bristled at that.

CARL LEVIN:“That is a very extreme position. When Congress asks questions in a proper setting that’s cleared, we have a right to that information.”

Supporters of the Senate’s whistleblower amendment will be making that argument over the next several days.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer, for Marketplace.

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