Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously declared today Whistleblower Appreciation Day.
Every year, we honor whistleblowers on July 30th.
Why is that?
It was on July 30, 1778, at the height of the American Revolutionary War, that the Continental Congress passed the first whistleblower law.
It did so in support of American soldiers who had decided to blow the whistle on their supervisor – an American Naval commander.
It seems this commander had not been following the rules of war, and had been brutally torturing British soldiers.
Knowing his actions were against the Navy’s code of ethics, the soldiers decided to blow the whistle to Congress.
When they did, they got the full whistleblower treatment. The kind I hear about far too often.
They were sued for libel and were thrown in jail.
Well, Congress wasn’t hearing of it.
In response to what had happened, on July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress passed the first whistleblower law, stating its unequivocal support for the soldiers and affirming that it is the duty of every person in the country – not just government employees but every single person – to report wrongdoing to the proper authorities.
Congress even covered the legal fees of the jailed sailors.
Today, 242 years later, we find ourselves in the midst of another crisis: the Covid-19 pandemic.
And today, Congress and the American people depend on whistleblowers to tell us about wrongdoing, just as much as our founding fathers did.
In fact we depend on them more. Because as the government gets bigger, the potential for fraud and abuse gets bigger. So does the potential for cruel retaliation against the nation’s brave truth-tellers.
But here’s the good news.
For every rogue commander or manager, this country is filled with good, honest, hardworking people like those sailors – patriots who are unafraid to step forward and blow the whistle – to do the right thing.
I can think of no better way of remembering and honoring whistleblowers than doing exactly as the Continental Congress did on this day back in 1778.
By renewing our resolve and our commitment here and now to pass laws that encourage, support and protect whistleblowers.
By telling whistleblowers through strong legislative action that they are patriots, and that Congress and the American people have their backs.
I myself have several critical whistleblower bills pending before this session of Congress that are especially crucial in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
First and foremost, there’s the legislation I’ve been working on to strengthen the False Claims Act.
As we all know, the False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to file lawsuits and sue fraudsters on behalf of the federal government.
Since I led the effort to amend that law back in 1986, False Claims Act cases have recovered more than $62 billion for taxpayers.
And the False Claims Act has never been more important than it is right now in 2020.
That’s because the massive increase in government funding to address the Covid-19 crisis has created new opportunities for fraudsters trying to cheat the government and steal hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
So it’s especially ironic that the Department of Justice has been continuing its recent practice of dismissing charges in many of the False Claims Act cases brought by whistleblowers without stating its reasons.
This is not the right approach. If there are serious allegations of fraud against the government, the Attorney General should have to state the legitimate reasons for deciding not to pursue them in court. That’s just common sense.
My legislation clarifies ambiguities created by the courts and reigns in this practice that undermines the purpose of my 1986 amendments to the False Claims Act, which was to empower whistleblowers.
And it requires the Justice Department to state its reasons and provide whistleblowers who bring the cases an opportunity to be heard whenever it decides to drop a False Claims Act case.
During the pandemic, there’s also been a dramatic increase in whistleblower complaints filed with the SEC. Whistleblowers have been calling attention to scam artists peddling counterfeit and substandard medical goods and phony cures to consumers.
The Whistleblower Programs Improvement Act, which I introduced last year, strengthens protections for SEC and CFTC whistleblowers. It requires the SEC and CFTC to make timely decisions regarding whistleblower rewards.
We’re now waiting for the Senate Banking Committee to sign off on the SEC portion of bill, which the SEC supports.
I’m also working on legislation that will provide timely, critical protections to whistleblowers working in our nation’s law enforcement agencies.
Of course, we’ve been having a national conversation lately about the role of law enforcement in our country.
I firmly believe that law enforcement officers play a critical role in maintaining our system of justice.
They are there to protect the Constitutional rights of our citizens and never, of course, to do harm or infringe upon those Constitutional rights.
For decades, it’s been unlawful for law enforcement officers working at any level to infringe on the Constitutional rights of Americans.
And whenever the Attorney General has cause to believe law enforcement is overstepping its bounds and infringing on those rights, he has the legal authority to intervene and pursue action on behalf of the United States to stop the practice and hold those responsible accountable.
Of course, the Attorney General can’t prosecute what he doesn’t know about. And it’s law enforcement officers themselves who are on the front lines.
Congress and the American people depend on them to be vigilant and to speak up if they see something happening that they know is wrong.
Those who do choose to step forward and report violations in accordance with our federal laws deserve federal whistleblower protections.
That’s why I’m working to ensure that law enforcement whistleblowers who report violations of the Constitutional rights of American citizens to Congress and the Justice Department are guaranteed whistleblower protections.
Another whistleblower bill currently awaiting passage is my Criminal Anti-Trust Anti-Retaliation Act. This legislation strengthens protections for private sector whistleblowers who report violations of anti-trust laws. The bill was passed by the Senate last October and has been pending before the House of Representatives ever since.
The House tries to argue the Senate is the legislative graveyard. It’s delayed action on this bill suggests otherwise.
Each of these bills fills a critical void in our current whistleblower laws, and each one ought to receive consideration and an up or down vote before the end of this Congress.
Of course, if that’s going to happen, Congress needs to pick up the pace.
It needs to take a cue from the strong actions taken by the Congress during the American Revolution – a body that saw the need, took the time, and devoted the resources to stand up for whistleblowers in the midst of a war for the very existence of our nation.
So today, let’s all take a moment to reflect on the high standard that those early Americans set for us back on July 30, 1778. And let’s remember never to let excuses or partisan differences keep us from pursuing our common interest in passing strong, meaningful whistleblower laws.