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Whistleblower Protection:
DOD Needs to Enhance Oversight of Military Whistleblower Reprisal Investigations

GAO-15-477, Published: May 7, 2015. Publicly Released: May 7, 2015.

Summary
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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) did not meet statutory military whistleblower reprisal 180-day notification requirements in about half of reprisal investigations closed in fiscal year 2013, and DOD's average investigation time for closed cases in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 was 526 days, almost three times DOD's internal 180-day requirement. In 2012, GAO made recommendations to improve investigation timeliness, and DOD has taken some actions to address those recommendations. However, based on a random sample of 124 cases, GAO estimated that there was no evidence that DOD sent the required notification letters in about 47 percent of the cases that DOD took longer than 180 days to close in fiscal year 2013. For cases in which DOD sent the required letter, GAO estimated that the median notification time was about 353 days after the servicemember filed the complaint, and on average the letters significantly underestimated the expected investigation completion date. DOD does not have a tool, such as an automated alert, to help ensure compliance with the statutory notification requirement to provide letters by 180 days informing servicemembers about delays in investigations. Without a tool for DOD to ensure that servicemembers receive reliable, accurate, and timely information about their investigations, servicemembers may be discouraged from reporting wrongdoing.

DOD's Office of Inspector General's (DODIG) newly developed case management system, which it established to improve monitoring, is separate from the service IGs' systems, limiting DODIG's ability to provide oversight of all military reprisal investigations. GAO found that DODIG's system did not have a record of at least 22 percent of service-conducted reprisal investigations that were closed in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 and investigations open as of September 30, 2014. DODIG officials stated that they plan to expand DODIG's case management system to the service IGs by the end of fiscal year 2016 to improve DODIG's visibility over investigations. However, DODIG does not have an implementation plan for the expansion, and service IG officials stated that they have unique requirements that they would like to have incorporated into the system prior to expansion. Expanding the case management system to the service IGs without developing an implementation plan that, among other things, addresses the needs of both DODIG and the service IGs, puts DOD at risk of creating a system that will not strengthen its oversight of reprisal investigations.

DOD does not have formalized processes to help ensure effective oversight of military whistleblower reprisal investigations conducted by service IGs. DODIG established an oversight investigator team to review service IG investigations, but it has provided oversight investigators with limited guidance on how to review or document service IG investigations. Specifically, GAO estimated that for about 45 percent of service investigations closed in fiscal year 2013, the oversight worksheets were missing narrative to demonstrate that the oversight investigator had thoroughly documented all case deficiencies or inconsistencies. GAO also found that these files did not include documentation of DOD's analysis of the effect of noted deficiencies on the investigation's outcome because DOD has provided limited instruction on how to review service IG cases. Without additional guidance on oversight review procedures and documentation requirements to formalize the oversight process, it will be difficult for DOD to ensure that reprisal complaints are investigated and documented consistently.

Why GAO Did This Study

Whistleblowers play an important role in safeguarding the federal government against waste, fraud, and abuse. However, reporting wrongdoing outside the chain of command conflicts with military guidance, which emphasizes using the chain of command to resolve problems. Whistleblowers who make a report risk reprisal from their unit, such as being demoted or separated. DODIG is responsible for conducting and overseeing military whistleblower reprisal investigations. GAO was asked to examine DOD's oversight of military whistleblower reprisal investigations.

This report examines the extent to which (1) DOD met statutory notification and internal timeliness requirements for completing military whistleblower reprisal investigations, (2) DODIG's whistleblower case management system supports oversight of reprisal investigations, and (3) DOD has processes to ensure oversight of service IG-conducted reprisal investigations. GAO analyzed DODIG and service IG data for cases closed in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 and cases open as of September 30, 2014, and reviewed a generalizable random sample of 124 military reprisal cases closed in fiscal year 2013.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD develop a tool to help ensure compliance with the statutory notification requirement, develop an implementation plan for expanding DODIG's case management system, and issue guidance governing the oversight process, among other things. DOD concurred, but raised issues with GAO's presentation of its findings. GAO disagrees and addresses these issues in this report.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov.

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