Auditor proposes identity protection for whistleblowers

State Auditor Doug Hoffer, right, with Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell. Photo by Roger Crowley

State Auditor Doug Hoffer, right, with Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell. Photo by Roger Crowley

State Auditor Doug Hoffer visited the House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday with a request: He wants to protect the identities of state employees who pass on information or tips about problems within state government.

Commonly known as “whistleblowers,” the identities of state employees who suggest avenues for further investigation, or who provide information about serious fraud or wrongdoing, are not protected under any state laws, Hoffer told VTDigger.

Hoffer said he couldn’t protect the name of a whistleblower even if he wanted to, because no law now provides him such authority. And if government records are presumed to be public records unless they’re specifically exempt, names of whistleblowers could be unearthed via public records requests.

“Obviously we want to encourage whistleblowers – good faith whistleblowers,” Hoffer told the committee.

“I think it’s odd that there is no specific whistleblower protection today,” he continued.

“That’s unbelievable; that is unbelievable,” committee members murmured. One lawmaker said that she’d already received emails from two constituents, complaining about the lack of protection.

But existing state statute does protect state employees, at least, from direct retaliation for reporting on “waste, fraud, abuse of authority, [and] violations of law,” without necessarily protecting their identities.

Even if there’s immunity from retaliation, merely revealing the identity of whistleblowers could potentially chill an atmosphere of open dialogue and prevent whistleblowers from coming forward, Hoffer said.

“Anything that tends to limit or prevent whistleblowers should be considered a problem,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger. “It’s impossible to know if (or the extent to which) disclosure has a chilling effect but it’s not unreasonable to assume that it does.”

Assistant Attorney General Bill Reynolds broadly confirmed Hoffer’s reading of the law. He said that although there could be indirect ways to shield identities using other laws, there’s no explicit provision protecting the names or personal information of whistleblowers.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, who chairs Government Operations, told VTDigger she wants more time to give this issue its full airing, so the topic won’t be discussed this session. She called the issue “too complicated,” leaving it as a topic for another year.

Hoffer welcomed pushing back the debate for now, telling VTDigger: “If it’s to be done, it should be done well the first time.” He’s dropped his request for now.

Hoffer originally requested protection only for state employees, but added that it’d be reasonable to broaden protection, to include others who may have information or an interest in clean state government.

“We want all whistleblowers in good faith to come forward, not just state employees. And that could include, for example, employees of grantee organizations, or sub-recipients,” Hoffer told the committee. “There’s a lot of folks down the chain from where the money starts.”

According to Allen Gilbert, director of Vermont’s American Civil Liberties Union branch, this debate isn’t new. Legislation related to whistleblowers surfaced in 2004, 2008 and 2011, passing only in 2008, which resulted in the current laws protecting state employees.

“Some state employees were tussling with their bosses in the Douglas administration about their right to speak out on certain issues,” said Gilbert, recalling the history of S.201 back in 2008.

Gilbert believes protection from retaliation, which now only state employees explicitly enjoy, is more important and practical than hiding someone’s identity.

“Frankly I’m wondering: Is it always possible to protect a person’s identity when they’ve blown the whistle on a government practice? … I would think, especially in a small state like Vermont, it’s pretty easy after a while to figure out who has been speaking out about something,” said Gilbert.

 

Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • Christian Noll

    Mr Hoffer is correct to bring this to our attention.

    According to the Better Government Association’s Alper Integrity Index, Vermont scored a very low 49th IN THE NATION for Transparency, Ethics and Accountability in state government.

    http://www.bettergov.org/2008_bga-alper_integrity_index_/

    According to the BGA Alper Integrity Index, our state’s poor grade was because Vermont scored a flat ZERO in Conflict of Interest Policy and Whistle Blower Protections which are two of the five grading criteria states are evaluated on in designating their over all grade.

    Any legislation for whistle blowers in Vermont should include everyone especially former AND non state employees.

    Thank you Doug.

    This is long overdue.

    • Wendy Wilton

      I agree with Mr Hoffer and Mr. Noll this is long overdue. Vermont does not have transparency on many fronts, including financial information and protection for those who could come forward with important information to prevent fraud, mismanagement and abuse.

      Several current and former employees of the state treasurer’s office contacted my campaign for state treasurer because they had no where else to turn with their concerns, which weighed on them. Due to a lack of protection they wouldn’t speak openly to other state officials or the press, out of fear, and Beth Pearce’s overtime mis-management went largely unreported.

      They felt strongly enough about their experiences which soured their view of the state. Before I ran for treasurer I did not know the depth of the problem in this regard.

      State employees are often unfairly criticized because they see problems but are powerless to take action in order to retain their job. That needs to stop. They want it to stop. Several state employees told me this last year, from AOT to Corrections to the Treasurer’s Office. When I ran for City Treasurer 6 years ago, city employees had similar concerns from the previous administration. I made it my job to be a reformer on transparency and fairness which has been appreciated by the employees and the public.

      If Auditor Hoffer is serious and the legislature passes a bill, then he should contact me. I heard an earful in the summer and fall of 2012.

  • timothy price

    More secrecy is not helpful to anyone. Sure, protect the whistleblower as much as possible for a person who has been placed into a difficult situation, but concealing their identity is NOT the way to do it. Protect their rights, insure their equality of fair treatment, but do not conceal their names. People always have the right to know who the accuser is… and rightly so.

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