A bill passed by the N.C. Senate last week to provide greater protections for government whistleblowers is a move in the right direction. Government employees who reveal illegal actions among government agencies, especially when those agencies do harm to the public, deserve to be rewarded for their courage, not suffer retaliation.
The Protecting Government Accountability Act passed unanimously, 44-0, after adopting two amendments that strengthen it. One requires heads of state agencies, departments and institutions to inform their employees about the law. The other clarifies that the protections cover state employee testimony to agents or employees of legislative inquiry panels appointed by the House speaker or Senate president pro tempore.
The bill puts us in the company of at least 27 other states that have similar whistleblower protections.
Previous statutes protected employees who share information about violations of law or misappropriation of state resources, but they hadn’t specifically spelled out employees sharing protected information with the legislature or its surrogates outside traditional public hearings. That gap could leave employees open to intimidation from government agents.
“The question here is whether public agencies can fire public employees for sharing information protected under the whistleblower statutes simply because of the way that employee chooses to convey the information,” Sen. Harry Brown, one of the primary sponsors, said in a news release after the bill passed. “We think the answer is pretty clear: No public employee should face retaliation for sharing information with the legislature, regardless of how or to whom that information is communicated.”
Though the bill passed unanimously, its primary sponsors were Republicans. Some Senate leaders told The Associated Press that their motive wasn’t partisan, but they acknowledged that the bill’s provisions would apply to a current political battle they’re having with Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — a fact that Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger emphasized in a news release after the bill passed. The legislature has hired investigators to look into the Cooper administration’s negotiations with utilities about the pipeline, but Cooper has thus far refused to allow them to talk to career environmental regulators. The Cooper administration has said it’s willing to see these interviews happen in public hearings, but calls investigators’ attempts to interview them an “extraordinarily open-ended political fishing expedition.”
That language sounds uncomfortably familiar.
Even if the bill’s passage was motivated by partisan politics, it stands on its own merits. Whistleblowers play an important role in government and provisions should be strong enough to protect the public’s health and prevent government corruption committed on taxpayers’ dime and time. More information is always better than less.
It can take courage to speak up about abuse. It can even cost government employees their jobs and reputations when those responsible for the abuse retaliate.
But whistleblowers are necessary to our democracy. When they step forward, they deserve a fair hearing and sound protections.