August 14, 2012

Taking Internal Whistleblowers More Seriously — The DOJ’s New Whistleblower Ombudsperson Position

By Gordon Schnell

In a hopeful sign that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will be taking internal whistleblowers more seriously, the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced last week the creation of a Whistleblower Ombudsperson position.  The new ombudsperson will be responsible for educating DOJ staff on the role and importance of internal whistleblowers in uncovering agency abuse and mismanagement and the serious repercussions for retaliating against them.  The ombudsperson will also ensure that whistleblower complaints are handled by the OIG promptly and thoroughly, and serve as the OIG liaison to other U.S. agencies with whistleblower responsibilities.

The OIG’s creation of this new position follows in the wake of the DOJ’s so-called Fast and Furious scandal and the harsh treatment the DOJ leveled at the whistleblowers who reported on this gun-running plan gone amuck.  In his official statement applauding the OIG move, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pointed to the Fast and Furious debacle as a reason why the ombudsperson position was “especially  necessary” at the DOJ.  He further reaffirmed the critical role whistleblowers play in uncovering agency wrongdoing and the need to protect them from the retaliation to which they are routinely subject. 

Echoing the Senator’s strong statements of whistleblower support, the head of the OIG, Michael Horowitz, delivered an equally powerful message of support in his announcement of the ombudsperson position:

Whistleblowers play a critical role in uncovering waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement and this new position will enable the OIG to continue its leadership as a strong and independent voice within the Department of Justice on whistleblower issues.  . . .  I have seen first-hand how whistleblowers have advanced the OIG’s efforts to address wasteful and improper spending, improve the Department’s operations, and protect the public’s safety. 

This represents quite a turn-around for an agency that has a history of attempting to discredit internal whistleblowers.

Some may argue that the DOJ’s new whistleblower ombudsperson position is more pomp than circumstance since the OIG is already tasked with supporting internal whistleblowers in their efforts to identify agency fraud and abuse.  Furthermore, under the proposed Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act — which already passed in the Senate with strong bipartisan support — the Inspector General of each federal agency would be required to have just the type of whistleblower ombudsperson that the DOJ just introduced.  And, of course, there is the specter that the DOJ is simply trying to clean up its whistleblower image after its Fast and Furious failure. 

No matter how you slice it, however, if the DOJ is serious with its new ombudsperson position, and gives it the authority and resources to do the job it is supposed to do, this is an important step in the agency’s recognition of the importance of whistleblowers in government oversight.  Given the statements of Inspector General Horowitz , and his selection of long-time federal prosecutor Robert Storch as the first ombudsperson, all indications are that the DOJ is not only serious about turning a new leaf in its treatment of internal whistleblowers.  It also hopes to set the stage for other federal agencies to follow suit.

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