Whistleblower Complainants Rarely Qualify for Office of the Special Counsel Protection

GGD-85-53: Published: May 10, 1985. Publicly Released: May 15, 1985.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the responsiveness of the Merit Systems Protection Board's (MSPB) Office of the Special Counsel to the complaints of whistleblowers, those federal employees who have taken career risks to expose fraud, waste, mismanagement, or illegality.

GAO found that, while the Special Counsel does not believe his role is to represent the interests of individual whistleblowers, some employee representatives believe that the Office was established to support individual complainants. The Office's policies and procedures for processing and investigating complaints from federal employees emphasize timeliness and responsiveness. GAO found that whistleblower reprisal complaints rarely qualify for Special Counsel protection because exacting standards of proof are required to secure a judgment against an agency or a supervisor for taking whistleblower reprisal, and the Office did not close any of the cases it reviewed without reasonable grounds to do so. GAO found that the Office's measurable results are primarily settlements at the agency level. In late 1984, the Office prevailed in a case before the MSPB with the argument that supervisory officials are subject to discipline for prohibited personnel practices even if there were valid independent grounds for taking adverse action against an employee. Finally, GAO failed to find a specific legal hurdle that makes the Office's protections inapplicable to most complainants and that protections should be made stronger for individual whistleblowers or other employees who allege that they are victims of prohibited personnel practices. Ultimately, Congress must weigh the objective of stronger protection for whistleblower disclosures against the objectives of management authority and accountability.

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