Olympia,WA — Legislation to close major loopholes in Washington’s law protecting state employees who blow the whistle on official wrongdoing has its debut tomorrow. The legislation, Senate Bill 5406 by Senator Adam Kline (D-37- Seattle), would transform Washington’s law from one of the weakest in the nation to one of the strongest.
“Whistleblower protection is simply good government,” stated Sen. Kline. “Public servants should not suffer reprisal because they are trying to serve the public.”
As presented tomorrow before the Senate Committee on Government Operations and Elections, Sen. Kline’s legislation would cure three big deficiencies in state law:
- Narrow Coverage. The bill extends whistleblower protection to employees who report mismanagement of state programs or abuse of authority;
- Un-workability. Currently, only confidential disclosures made by state employees to the State Auditor are protected. SB 5406 would protect employees who testify before the Legislature, report to law enforcement, or file complaints with a state ethics commission or licensing board; and
- Manipulation of Science. The bill would protect scientists when they communicate technical conclusions or opinions. If enacted, it would make Washington the first state to shield scientists who report distortion of data or other scientific misconduct.
In addition, SB 5406 would clearly state that public servants cannot be punished for failing to follow a clearly illegal order. Identical legislation, House Bill 1911 by Representative Joe McDermott (D-34-West Seattle) is awaiting hearing before the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Affairs.
According to a national study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) assessing the strength of whistleblower laws, Washington ranks 34th out of 51 (50 states and the District of Columbia). Washington law is on a par with that of Louisiana but substantially weaker than Oregon and less effective than the whistleblower laws in states such as Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
“Washington’s whistleblower law is so bad that it is almost worse than having no law at all because it serves as a beacon of false hope,” added Washington PEER Director Sue Gunn, noting that current and former state employees will tell their experiences at tomorrow’s hearing. “Honesty should no longer be a firing offense in Washington state government.”
The importance of Washington’s state whistleblower laws has been magnified by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision (Ceballos v. Garcetti) stripping government employees of all First Amendment rights 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.