WASHINGTON – Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee heard accounts of current and former federal agency whistleblowers during a standing room-only hearing on Thursday. The accounts came just days after the committee heard testimony from two witnesses who blew the whistle on failures at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and are facing retaliation from federal agencies as a result.
Jason Luke Amerine, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army who has raised concerns to Congress about hostage recovery efforts, testified that, “After I made protected disclosures to Congress, the Army suspended my clearance, removed me from my job and sought to court-martial me. … Now I am labeled a whistleblower – a term that’s both radioactive and derogatory.”
Taylor Johnson, a senior special agent in the Homeland Security Investigations Department who raised concerns about national security and criminal risks in the EB-5 visa program to her managers and to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, testified that law enforcement officers know there are harsh consequences to being labeled a whistleblower. “You usually ride the wave and keep your head down and your mouth shut,” Agent Johnson said, “and I actually did that in this case until I was contacted by the Inspector General’s Office, and we are required to cooperate with them, and I did.”
Chairman Johnson said that when hearing news of whistleblowers facing retribution, he wonders why. “Coming from the private sector I’m always looking for individuals to let me know what’s going on so I can address problems,” he told the witnesses.
Thomas Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit public interest group, said he thinks federal agencies display the “institutional equivalent of an animal instinct” when dealing with whistleblowers. “An animal’s instinct is to destroy anything that threatens it, and organizations behave the same way,” he said.
“Is it protecting an individual or people in power?” asked Chairman Johnson.
Devine said that a whistleblower’s complaint works its way up through the chain of command in an organization and may reach a specific person responsible for the wrongdoing. A conflict of interest occurs. “That’s why it’s so important that when there is that conflict, and when it’s not just a mistake that everybody wants to fix, but somebody’s engaged in wrongdoing, that they have access to safe, clear access to Congress to circumvent the conflict of interest and get some independent response to their concerns.”
Chairman Johnson asked the other witnesses, all who have suffered personally, professionally and emotionally, “What has it cost you?”
Michael Keegan, former Associate Commissioner for Facilities and Supply Management at the U.S. Social Security Administration, who raised concerns about waste within the Social Security Administration, said his last performance review destroyed a 44-year career of outstanding performance ratings, awards and promotions. He added that he lost wages and has not been able to get a new job consistent with his background and experience. “I think the cost … the cost has been inordinate and enormous,” he said.
Amerine cited the damage done to the Army. “When you go after people who are reporting significant issues and crimes … you end up setting a terrible example for all the other people who are seeing the retaliation.”
“I think that really is, in the end, the final answer of why. Whether it’s an organization or it’s protecting somebody else, it’s really trying to make an example of somebody so the next person doesn’t step forward,” Johnson said.
Jose Ducos-Bello, chief officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), also testified at Thursday’s hearing. He is facing retaliation after raising concerns about overtime abuse at CBP to the Office Special Counsel (OSC). In October 2013, the Office of Special Counsel substantiated Officer Ducos-Bello’s claims and described the overtime abuse as “a gross waste of government funds.”
Chairman Johnson’s full written opening statement can be found here.
The full hearing can be viewed here.