Story from Sen. Charles Schneider’s newsletter:
More than a year ago, former state Representative Rob Taylor and I asked former state Auditor Mary Mosiman to investigate the Waukee School District after media reports and anecdotal evidence indicated that a school official was using school property for personal use. There were also concerns about the treatment of employees who raised questions.
Auditor Mosiman found more than $130,000 in questionable spending. This was widely reported in the media. However, this sum is dwarfed by the more than $1 million that the district has paid to former employees in the form of settlements for wrongful termination. The district could be on the hook for more as at least one lawsuit continues to work its way through the legal process.
As a state legislator, my thoughts immediately turned to opportunities for improving state law to address situations like the one in Waukee. One of my goals was to protect people who report activity they think may be illegal. That’s why this week I introduced legislation to improve Iowa’s whistleblower laws that apply to cities, counties, school districts and all other political subdivisions of the state.
My bill (SF 400) does three important things to clarify and strengthen Iowa’s whistleblower law:
- First, it specifies that whistleblowers can go to human resource professionals to report their claim. Human resource professionals are not explicitly included under current code. I want to make it abundantly clear to local governments, the courts, and public employees like teachers and school officials, that human resource officials are appropriate people to turn to with whistleblower complaints.
- Second, the bill increases the amount of damages a whistleblower can be awarded if they are fired in retaliation for reporting a claim. It is not my goal to open the flood gates for increased litigation, but fear of losing a job should not be a barrier to doing the right thing.
- Finally, it requires local governments to notify their employees that they can file anonymous whistleblower complaints with the state ombudsman through an 800-number. In talking to constituents who work for local governments, I’ve found that most of them do not understand this opportunity is available. They deserve to know about this resource without having to look through the voluminous Iowa Code.
This bill is not a proverbial silver bullet, but I believe it increases the likelihood that well-intentioned people will come forward to report an issue at a school district, or in city and county governments. Whistleblowers already bear a heavy burden when they report waste, fraud and abuse. In many cases, they are reporting on their friends and colleagues. As a state, we should do everything we can to encourage and support those who exercise this small act of courage.