Washington, DC — New Jersey’s law protecting state employees who blow the whistle on official wrongdoing has serious weaknesses, according to a national study released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In New Jersey, government workers who report threats to public safety, waste and mismanagement are not protected under state law and risk dismissal or other discipline.
PEER ranked each state whistleblower law on 32 factors affecting the scope of coverage, usefulness and strength of remedies. By these measures, New Jersey, ranks 12th out of 51 (50 states and the District of Columbia); its law is on a par with that of Arizona but weaker than the whistleblower laws in states such as West Virginia, Idaho, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
The New Jersey whistleblower law is limited to reports of violations of law or regulation, as well as criminal fraud; it does not protect employee disclosures of –
- Threats to public health and safety. Such as the recent “Kiddie Kollege” scandal where toddlers in day-care were occupying a dangerous, mercury-contaminated former thermometer factory;
- Waste and mismanagement. Such as the loss of tens of millions of dollars from failure by the state to collect rents, easement fees and other payments owed to state parks; and
- Manipulation of science. Such as the watering down of scientific reports on the danger of chromium contamination in the soil of supposedly rehabilitated industrial “brownfield” sites.
“If ever a state needed a strong whistleblower law it is New Jersey because there is so darned much to blow the whistle on,” stated Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official who now heads the New Jersey chapter of PEER, noting that the state allows agencies to impose gag orders forbidding employees from speaking with reporters. “A state worker could blow the whistle on 60 Minutes but under New Jersey law that person is not officially recognized as a whistleblower.”
The importance of state whistleblower laws has been magnified by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (Ceballos v. Garcetti) stripping government employees of all First Amendment protection when speaking within the scope of their duties. In addition, over the past few years, the Supreme Court has also denied state workers coverage under federal whistleblower laws. Consequently, state statutes are increasingly the only defense for government workers in state agencies who face reprisal for reporting wrongdoing.
In the PEER study, California and the District of Columbia have the most complete whistleblower laws. Connecticut, Alabama, Georgia and South Dakota have the weakest laws while Virginia, New Mexico and Vermont have no laws at all.
“Public servants should not be forced to risk their careers to serve the public by sounding the alarm about major problems,” Wolfe added. “Even in the narrow band of circumstances where New Jersey accords legal protection to state workers, there is no requirement that the state follow-up by investigating the underlying wrongdoing.”
Revisit recent scandals involving—
The “Kiddie Kollege” day-care toxic clean-up failures
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.