Column: Honoring America's truth-tellers
By U.S. Sen. Chuck Grasslet
WASHINGTON — It was Feb. 19, 1777. The seeds of democracy were just taking root in America. Aboard the warship Warren, 10 sailors who were putting their lives on the line to help win America’s independence also determined it was their patriotic duty to blow the whistle on wrongdoing.
Understanding that reporting misconduct against their commanding officer would put their careers and good names at risk, the sailors plunged into uncharted waters. With no legal protection or court precedent to shield themselves against reprisal, these brave men ultimately became what we believe to America’s first whistleblowers.
The commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy sought retaliation and filed a criminal libel suit against two of the whistleblowers. The Continental Congress authorized legal expenses and full release of government records to enable the sailors to defend themselves in court.
Fast-forward 200-plus years, and it’s clear, America owes generations of whistleblowers a debt of gratitude. While Congress has the constitutional authority to conduct oversight, trillions of tax dollars are sprinkled among some 2,000 federal departments, agencies, commissions and bureaus.
Thanks to the eyes and ears of citizens who have witnessed, investigated and reported waste, fraud and abuse occurring under their very noses, the federal government is forced to run a tighter ship and work harder to protect the integrity of government services and programs funded by taxpayers.
As a longstanding champion of whistleblowers, I’ve secured legislative protections and financial incentives to encourage private citizens to come forward with information that strengthens good governance, accountability and stewardship of tax dollars. Since passage of my 1986 whistleblower updates to the federal False Claims Act, the federal government has recovered more than $30 billion that otherwise would be lost to fraud.
Whether it’s ripping off the taxpaying public or ignoring the rule of law, whistleblowers stand on the front lines of defense to root out misconduct.
Inside government, too often, federal agencies try to suppress information, shoot the messenger or stonewall efforts for full disclosure and transparency. Landmark updates were enacted earlier this year to permanently extend protections for whistleblower communications with Congress and internal agency watchdogs. Without the good work of whistleblowers, Congress would be less able to identify and solve mismanagement and fraud.
Since the earliest days of our republic, whistleblowers have stuck their necks out for the public good. Instead of looking the other way, they risk it all for the good of their country. Consider whistleblowers at:
n the Department of Defense who exposed a too cozy relationship between defense contractors and the Pentagon. Remember the $700 toilet seat?
n the FBI who exposed a culture of intimidation and mismanagement, including Dr. Frederic Whitehurst who revealed flawed forensic science at its crime lab that undermined the integrity of our criminal justice system.
n the FDA who exposed potential conflicts of interest between drug companies and the public interest, alleging the agency was caving to companies seeking regulatory approval.
n the ATF who exposed the flawed gun-walking program known as “Operation Fast and Furious.”
The list cuts across the entire spectrum of Washington’s alphabet soup. From the GSA to HUD and the IRS, both private and public sector whistleblowers let the sun shine in on wrongdoing.
One week after the sailors’ petition was presented to Congress 236 years ago, lawmakers passed a resolution that encouraged all citizens to expose misconduct. On July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress enacted the nation’s first-ever whistleblower legislation.
“Resolved that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States … to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any persons in the services of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”
In salute to our nation’s truth-tellers who in good faith and accordance to federal law come forward with information to uphold the people’s business and hold government to account, I authored a Senate resolution designating July 30, 2013, as “National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.”
Whistleblowers are pivotal pieces of the oversight puzzle. Their work ensures that our system of checks and balances operates effectively. I’ve asked Presidents to host a Rose Garden ceremony to honor these truth-tellers. Nobody has taken me up on the suggestion. It would do a lot of good to show these courageous Americans that, by telling the truth, they are continuing an important legacy to keep America strong. Let’s honor the whistleblowers who have helped change the course of history for the better.