Washington, DC — Washington’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 Washington, government workers who report scientific fraud, ethical breaches or mismanagement are not legally protected 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, Washington, ranks 34th out of 51 (50 states and the District of Columbia); its law is on a par with that of Alaska and Louisiana but substantially weaker than Oregon and less effective than the whistleblower laws in states such as Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
The central weakness of the Washington whistleblower law is that it limits protection to reports filed with the State Auditor. Consequently, it does not protect employee who disclose “inconvenient truths” in –
- Testifying before the state legislature;
- Reporting a crime to the police or prosecutors; or
- Filing reports with federal funding or oversight agencies.
“Whistleblower laws are a key measure of government accountability and transparency, but by that measure Washington gets a failing grade,” stated Washington PEER Director Sue Gunn, noting that the state law fails to protect civil servants who publicly reveal problems. “A state worker could blow the whistle on ‘60 Minutes’ but under Washington law that person is not considered 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 face retaliation for trying to make state government work better,” Gunn added, pointing to a recent audit that criticized the effectiveness of the state whistleblower program. “All of our citizens have a stake in ensuring that our scientists, engineers, foresters, inspectors and other professionals can be truthful even when that honesty is impolitic.”