The U.S. Special Counsel on Wednesday warned that agencies could be reprimanded for targeting whistleblowers and monitoring emails that report wrongdoing.
In the memo, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said that targeting emails between whistleblowers and the OSC or inspectors general for surveillance is “highly problematic.” Agencies that deliberately target whistleblowers’ submissions or draft submissions to OSC or IGs could be accused of retaliating against the employees, Lerner said.
“This is the first finding that we are aware of in which a government agency has stated that there are limits on how federal agencies can monitor employee email,” Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said in an interview.
The guidance comes fives months after six current and former Food and Drug Administration whistleblowers, whom Kohn represents, filed a lawsuit claiming that top FDA managers monitored and seized emails from their personal email accounts.
FDA fired two employees and did not renew contracts for two others.
The matter is pending in the U.S. District Court of Washington and at the OSC, which launched an investigation to determine whether the FDA broke personnel rules
The FDA case alone didn’t prompt OSC to release the memo, OSC spokeswoman Ann O’Hanlon said in an interview. The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency had requested guidance from OSC about electronic monitoring policies.
While agencies have a right to monitor employee emails and business conducted on government-issued devices, “federal law also protects the ability of workers to exercise their legal rights to disclose wrongdoing without fear of retaliation,” Lerner said.
She also urged agencies to ensure their electronic monitoring policies do not interfere with or deter employees from reporting fraud, waste and abuse.
“There has to be a bottom line that you can’t target whistleblowers,” Kohn said.
June 21st, 2012 at 9:22 am
Sadly you would be surprised how many people are afraid of email and will not send a message thinking it’s being monitored and they will lose their jobs. A former VA manager tried this stunt years ago and when the Director shut down my email and found nothing offensive but work exchanges he had to apologize (she had a massiver stroke). I was surprised how many of my coworkers were honest (seems everyoen hated this Senior Exec who abused position) during an EEO investigation which is still ongoing. I will NEVER be afraid to report fraud and abuse and that is probably why my life is so wonderful (positive karma).
June 25th, 2012 at 7:35 pm
Same at IRS. Even a former union president says he won’t use the phones or e-mail at IRS. People are scared to death since there is no oversight over the corrupt management at IRS.
Michael Coots Says:
June 26th, 2012 at 11:09 pm
A double stack of information to prove retaliation as well as waste and abuse was faxed to atturney at the o.s.c and offered audio tapes from upper mannagment threatening , if I were to continue with the chain of command I would pay dearly, she didnt ask to hear the tapes from o.c.p.m. or the forged appraisels. and sent me an e-mail to say that these things were not enough. So what are they or who are they really here for, The I.G office is also on tape saying that they cant help civillians. Who do we go to? That is who gave me the o.s.c’s number (FUNNY!)
June 27th, 2012 at 9:16 am
As the Project On Government Oversight has noted, this is a move in the right direction as far as protecting whistleblower rights goes. Granted, it may anger a lot of the agencies that do this sort of monitoring, but acknowledgement of the problem is the first step towards exploring solutions for it. Kudos to the OSC for making this statement.