September 26, 2016

Wyden, Markey, McCaskill to Introduce Bill to Expand Whistleblower Protections at the Energy Department

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., today will introduce legislation to expand protections for whistleblowers after a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showed examples of retaliation and intimidation against whistleblowers at the Department of Energy (DOE).

The Department of Energy Whistleblower Accountability Act would add whistleblower disclosures about waste, fraud and abuse to legally protected whistleblower activities at the DOE. Currently, whistleblower protections under the Energy Reorganization Act are limited to disclosing safety violations.

The bill would also require contractors to pay legal and administrative costs in wrongful termination cases unless the contractors can show the DOE contributed to or caused the retaliation. Currently, the DOE usually pays legal costs on behalf of its contractors when whistleblowers file complaints against the agency, which has the effect of removing the incentive for the contractor to resolve employee complaints. Additionally, the bill would allow the Department of Labor to assess punitive damages against contractors found to have retaliated against whistleblowers. 

“I’ve been at this a long time, and it has become clear that the Department of Energy is not going to change its culture of retaliation against whistleblowers, so it’s up to Congress to change it,” Wyden said. “This bill beefs up the penalties for contractors who retaliate, relieves taxpayers from picking up the tab for contractors’ legal costs, and gives whistleblowers more power to challenge violations of their rights.”

“Instead of protecting whistleblowers from retaliation by contractors, the Department of Energy has indiscriminately reimbursed contractors for their legal fees, even though the law limits such awards,” Markey said. “Whistleblowers should be treated as heroes, not vilified and harassed. This legislation expands the types of whistleblower disclosures that are protected under law, forces DOE to stop issuing blank checks to contractors who retaliate against whistleblowers, and imposes real penalties on those that do.”

“Whistleblowers help guard against the waste of taxpayer dollars, and serve as critical watchdogs for safety and accountability,” McCaskill said. “But the Department of Energy continues to fail at protecting whistleblowers from retaliation, and since the agency won’t make the changes necessary to increase accountability and protect folks who raise concerns—we’re going to have to legislate those changes ourselves.”

The bill would also extend the amount of time employees can file a complaint with the DOE from six months to one year and allow whistleblowers to seek a jury trial in federal court if the DOE does not complete its investigation of an employee complaint within a year.

In July, the senators were joined by two DOE whistleblowers at a press conference to release a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that showed that disregard for, and retaliation against, whistleblowers by Energy Department contractors was widespread, while the Department did little to monitor or stop those abuses.

The two whistleblowers were fired by contractors at the Department of Energy. Sandra Black, a contractor employee at DOE’s Savannah River site in South Carolina for more than 30 years, was fired for cooperating with the GAO during its collection of information for the GAO report.

Walt Tamosaitis was fired after raising safety and design concerns at a multi-billion dollar construction project to treat high-level radioactive waste at the DOE’s Hanford Reservation in Washington.

The senators requested the report from the Government Accountability Office in 2014.

Click here for a one-page summary of the bill and here for text of the bill. 

Related Files