OLYMPIA, Washington - February 8 - A new performance audit of the state whistleblower program finds disturbing vulnerabilities in its operations, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). While the audit found the overall program to be adequate, its inability to protect whistleblowers from retaliation and the lack of follow-through on substantiated reports of wrongdoing are limiting the effectiveness of the only official channel for state employees to blow the whistle.
The Office of the State Auditor operates a program that investigates disclosures of waste, violations of law and threats against public health and safety. The number of employee disclosures has been sharply climbing, with 300 whistleblower investigations during the 2005 Fiscal Year.
Despite greater usage of the Auditor whistleblower program, there are growing doubts about its effectiveness. The Office of Financial Management oversaw the performance audit of the whistleblower program, which was released earlier this month. The audit found that the fact and perception of reprisal against whistleblowers could cripple the program:
“Retaliation against whistleblowers is perhaps the most serious threat to the program’s effectiveness – retaliation can erode state employees’ confidence in filing assertions. As was indicated by this audit and the prior audit of the program, whistleblowers responding to surveys report that retaliation occurs.”
“Whistleblowers act as the public’s first line of defense against government malfeasance and they deserve protection,” stated Washington PEER Director Sue Gunn, a former federal scientist, who this month took over the state chapter of the national whistleblower protection organization. “Washington’s current laws are inadequate to ensure that government remains transparent to the public it is supposed to serve.”
The audit also determined that the Auditor’s Office –
- Ignores reports from employees about lack of enforcement and poor performance by state agencies;
- Fails to follow up on matters it refers back to the agencies to investigate; and
- Does not adequately review many of the anonymous disclosures it receives.
“Strengthening the whistleblower program requires moving its focus away from the small change of minor infractions, such as the personal use of state computers, and focusing instead on the major cases where agencies are not complying with or implementing the law,” Gunn added. “We will be monitoring the Auditor to see if he can make the program effective in protecting Washington’s environment.”