Whistleblower protections expanded to include government contractors

A bill to strengthen protections for employees who blow the whistle on fraud, waste and mismanagement in government contracts has gained congressional approval and now will head to the president’s desk to be signed into law.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, permanently expands whistleblower protections to nearly all contractors and subcontractors for the federal government, except for those who work in the intelligence community.

It also prohibits the use of taxpayer dollars to reimburse companies for legal fees incurred to defend themselves from whistleblower retaliation.

Whistleblowers act as the eyes and ears of taxpayers across the federal government, McCaskill said.

“We’ve got an enormous contracting work force in the federal government, and we’ve got to make sure that all of our contractors have the same whistleblower protections as the government employees they work alongside — because these folks are the ones raising the alarm on waste, fraud, and abuse of power,” McCaskill said after the U.S. House of Representatives gave final approval to the bill.

McCaskill told reporters that support for her legislation solidified among members of Congress after the publication of an audit that found the Department of Energy rarely held contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation against whistleblowers. The DOE relies more heavily on contractors than any other civilian federal agency.

The audit released in July found the DOE almost never took action against contractors responsible for creating chilled work environments at nuclear sites across the country. Only two violation notices had been issued in the past 20 years, according to the GAO.

McCaskill, along with Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, asked the Government Accountability Office to get to the bottom of persistent incidents of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers reported at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state.

The scope of the GAO’s review soon broadened to the handling of 87 contractor employee complaint files at 10 of the DOE’s largest nuclear facilities, including Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.

Most recent Hanford cases have reached settlement agreements with no fault admitted by defendants.

AECOM settled a retaliation claim brought by Walt Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager for the vitrification plant at Hanford, for $4.1 million in 2015. Tamosaitis and two other former Hanford managers also filed a claim unrelated to retaliation that alleged materials not meeting nuclear standards were accepted at the plant.

The Department of Justice joined the case in part and settled with AECOM and Bechtel National in late November for $125 million.

Also in 2016, two computer specialists suspended from their jobs with Computer Sciences Corp., the former Hanford medical contractor, prevailed in a six-day trial before a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge. The judge found that medical record software which could jeopardize safety was put into use despite concerns reported and awarded the two workers $216,000.

Tom Carpenter, who heads the public watchdog group Hanford Challenge, praised McCaskill’s bill but said he hopes other reforms will follow.

​“Protecting whistleblowers ​who disclose fraud, waste and abuse and mismanagement in government contracts has never been more urgent or more timely. The scope of coverage in this bill, and the remedies available, are historic, unprecedented and sorely needed.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise