In early July 2021, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) found that a senior Biden administration official violated federal law by retaliating against a whistleblower who reported concerns about COVID-19 restrictions being lifted for migrant children in Texas. The OSC is an independent government agency that is responsible for investigating and prosecuting violations of federal laws related to government employees and contractors.
The OSC’s investigation began after a whistleblower reported that a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had retaliated against them for raising concerns about the safety and well-being of migrant children in federal custody. The whistleblower had reported that COVID-19 restrictions were being lifted for the children, putting them at risk of exposure to the virus.
The senior official, who has not been named publicly, took retaliatory action against the whistleblower by canceling their contract and barring them from future employment with the HHS. This action violated federal whistleblower protection laws, which prohibit retaliation against employees who report misconduct or raise concerns about health and safety in the workplace.
The OSC found that the retaliation was “so obviously concerning” that it recommended that the senior official be suspended for 14 days without pay and undergo training on whistleblower protection laws. The OSC also recommended that the HHS implement policies and procedures to ensure that whistleblower complaints are promptly and effectively addressed.
The Biden administration has taken steps to address the OSC’s findings and implement the recommended corrective actions. In a statement to CNN, the HHS said that it “takes whistleblower complaints very seriously” and that it has “taken steps to ensure that whistleblower complaints are promptly and thoroughly investigated and that appropriate remedial action is taken where necessary.”
The OSC’s findings highlight the importance of whistleblower protection laws and the need for government agencies to take these laws seriously. Whistleblowers play a critical role in exposing misconduct and wrongdoing in government organizations, and they should be protected from retaliation when they come forward.
Unfortunately, whistleblower retaliation is not uncommon in government organizations. A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than a third of federal employees who reported misconduct experienced some form of retaliation, such as being demoted, fired, or subjected to harassment.
The OSC’s investigation also sheds light on the challenges facing the federal government as it responds to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has placed enormous strains on government agencies and their employees, who are often on the front lines of the response effort. It is essential that these agencies prioritize the health and safety of their employees and the public, and that they have adequate policies and procedures in place to address concerns and complaints.
The OSC’s findings are particularly concerning in light of the Biden administration’s promises to prioritize transparency and accountability in government. President Biden has made a clear commitment to rebuilding public trust in government, and has taken steps to strengthen federal ethics rules and whistleblower protections.
However, the OSC’s findings suggest that there is still work to be done to ensure that government agencies are held accountable for wrongdoing and that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation. The Biden administration must continue to prioritize transparency and accountability in government, particularly in the context of the ongoing pandemic.
The OSC’s investigation also raises questions about the role of government contractors in federal agencies. Contractors play an important role in many government organizations, particularly in sectors like healthcare and defense. However, they are not subject to the same whistleblower protections as federal employees, which can make it difficult for them to come forward with concerns about misconduct or safety.
This lack of protection for government contractors is particularly concerning in the context of the ongoing pandemic. Many contractors are essential to the COVID-19 response effort, and they should be able to raise concerns about health and safety without fear of retaliation.
The OSC’s findings underscore the need for Congress to strengthen whistleblower protections for government contractors. Several bills have been introduced in Congress that would provide greater protections for contractors who report misconduct or raise concerns about safety in federal workplaces.
For example, the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act, introduced in May 2021, would provide protections for federal employees and contractors who report COVID-19-related misconduct or safety concerns. This bill would give whistleblowers the right to a hearing before an administrative law judge and provide remedies such as reinstatement, back pay, and compensatory damages.
Overall, the OSC’s findings highlight the critical importance of whistleblower protection laws and the need for government agencies to take these laws seriously. Whistleblowers play a vital role in exposing wrongdoing and protecting the public interest, and they must be protected from retaliation when they come forward.
The Biden administration has taken steps to address the OSC’s findings and implement the recommended corrective actions, but more needs to be done to ensure that government agencies are held accountable for wrongdoing and that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation. Congress must also prioritize strengthening whistleblower protections for government contractors to ensure that they can raise concerns about misconduct and safety without fear of retaliation.
As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that government agencies and their employees prioritize transparency and accountability in their response efforts. The findings of the OSC’s investigation underscore the need for continued vigilance and a commitment to protecting the public interest.