Sarris’ trouble began when he noticed what he believed were potentially hazardous mechanical procedures on the RC-135. After his supervisors brushed off his concerns, he sent them to members of Congress and eventually to the news media in 2008.
All of a sudden, Sarris’ previously exemplary performance reviews took a negative turn. In time he lost his security clearance, meaning he was no longer able to work as a mechanic. Oddly enough, though his supervisors punished him for blowing the whistle, Sarris’ concerns were partially backed up by a 2009 government internal review, which noted his efforts had been “helpful in bringing many concerns to light.”
This case illustrates the ineffectiveness of U.S. law covering government whistleblowers. According to the Government Accountability Project, over the last 17 years, the federal courts have sided with the government 210 times while siding with whistleblowers only three times. While not every would-be whistleblower has a legitimate case, the current 210-3 ratio defies the odds.
Whistleblowing is jargon for a very simple concept, accountability. Government agencies spend taxpayer money and thus are in need of watchdogs. Reliable whistleblowers can save money and lives. This is a good thing.
As evidenced by Sarris’ case, government employees and contractors need better protection. They need assurances that they won’t be harmed for acting on behalf of the best interests of the U.S. taxpayer.
Others have agreed, including hundreds of advocacy groups spanning the ideological spectrum. All that’s left is for Congress to pass a law.
Versions of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act breezed through the House and Senate without dissent during the last session of Congress. When the 2010 session was winding down, the only things keeping the act from becoming law was Senate approval of a reconciled version and the president’s signature. At the last moment, a senator exercised a secret method called a “hold” on the bill, which prevented that vote and killed the legislation.
Holds are a shameful little secret of the Senate. Imagine a shrine to democracy that at the same time lets senators secretly halt legislation, and you’ve imagined the U.S. Senate. The secret hold is a power any despot would leave to wield.
Earlier this year, the public radio program On the Media and the open-government advocates at the Government Accountability Project sought to reveal which senator put the kibosh on the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.
The Blow the Whistle campaign (www.wnyc.org/blowthewhistle) asked citizens to contact their senators asking if they had killed the bill. All but three senators have denied placing the hold. The holdouts are James Risch, R-Idaho, John Kyl, R-Ariz., and Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican from Mobile.
When contacted last week by a Star reporter, a spokeswoman for Sessions said, “As an office policy, we do not comment on holds.” This means Sen. Sessions is protecting his own backside or the backsides of one of two Senate colleagues or the undemocratic process of holds.
We can’t see any of those three scenarios becoming a chapter in the next edition of Profiles in Political Courage.