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Whistleblowers in Government: Administrative Ethics As Seen Through the
Constitution, Legislation, and Case Law
December 1, 2008
Whistleblowing falls under ethical decision-making, where an employee chooses to expose
illegal, unethical, or fraudulent practices within the organization, whether from a supervisor or another
coworker. These practices range in severity, but often reach a point at which the employee decides to
“blow the whistle” on these actions, leaking the information to the police, media, or appropriate
authorities. The reasoning behind this decision resides primarily in one’s ethical code, but also evolves
out of a person’s prior experiences and rationale, specifically in regards to similar situations. This paper
seeks to explore the act of whistleblowing, the motivation behind it, and its effects on government as seen
in theoretical concepts of discretion, whistleblowing legislation, as well as an evaluation of administrative
ethics principles. Furthermore, through this analysis, each of these components possesses strengths and
weaknesses that will be evaluated in order to present recommendations for future legislation and
administrative reforms of managing whistleblowing in government.
Whistleblowing in Government
The whistleblower is some one whose actions are meant to protect others not themselves, looking
first towards the framework within the organization to find a means to rectify the situation, and holding
the proof any person with reasonable understanding could be convinced (Alford 2001 Whistleblowers:
Broken Lives and Organizational Power). Regardless of which sector a person is employed, the potential
for unethical, illegal, or deceptive behavior exists at all levels of an organization. As a consequence,
employees are often placed in direct conflict with their inner ethical code, forcing them to choose how to
reconcile this discord – to disclose or not to disclose those actions. Out of this tension, whistleblowing is
a discretionary act, where the administrator must use his or her discretion to determine the best
appropriate option to resolve this friction. The key to understand whistleblowing as a decision is inherent
in examining its implicit and explicit reasons of discretion, getting to the heart of ethics and determining
right actions from wrong ones.
As public servants, government workers are expected to fulfill their duties with the utmost regard
for the public good. Typically, public servants are held to a higher code of principles, driven to serve a
cause higher than the self. Whistleblowing in government occurs for various reasons, ranging from self
perseverance to concern over “doing the right thing.” At the same time, corruption varies at all levels of
government and is seen as a “cooperative crime” because it takes two parties to come together
cooperatively in the corrupt act, such as nepotism, bribery, or financial distortion (deLeon 2005). In
“Cowboys and the New Public Management,” Peter deLeon points to the motivations for those who stand
against corruption, as predominantly revolving around money, public opinion, and a duty to societal
values. Corruption often elicits a distinct response from government workers who act in accordance to
their values and the call to a privileged service, and find themselves those caught in the middle and those
Corruption occurs on a spectrum with varying degrees of offenses and unethical activity, much
like a whistleblower’s decision when a situation warrants public. All ethics occurs on a continuum, where
even whistleblowing has less than altruistic motives at times, stemming from retribution or personal gain.
On the opposite end, whistleblowing is crucial to the accountability of government and policy makers,
where a public administrator regards the “violation of one’s ethics an even greater impropriety” over any
potential consequences that may result (Ventriss and Barney 2003). These consequences include putting
the whistleblower’s job, family, and other coworkers’ livelihoods at risk. Despite this risk, the
whistleblower believes his or her responsibility is to the greater public good. According to C. Fred Alford,
whistleblowers are not considered whistleblowers until some sort of retaliation occurs against him or her,
so that the decision to complain or report the corrupt act alone is not whistleblowing. Once the
organization or a supervisor who carried out the misconduct retaliates against the person reporting the
corruption, then at this point that person becomes a whistleblower (Alford 2001 Whistleblowers: Broken
Lives and Organizational Power).
In “The Making of a Whistleblower and the Importance of Ethical Autonomy: James F.
Alderson.” Curtis Ventriss and Shane M. Barney refer to the case of a financial officer, James Anderson,
at a hospital, who blew the whistle on the worst scandal in the Medicare system. The authors are quick to
point out that Alderson did not choose to blow the whistle for fame or fortune, though his courageous
actions were ultimately rewarded with both, including several millions of dollars. In fact, Alderson’s
choice boils down to his ethical code with the position he was placed in by the management company that
took over the hospital’s administration where Alderson worked. He chose to expose the corruption, even
suing the private company on behalf of the federal government, at great expense to his career and family
In 1990, the Quorum Heath Group promised the hospital large financial gains through the federal
government’s cost reporting system, and so was hired. Two months after Quorum took over the hospital’s
administration, Alderson met with a consultant who assisted in preparing the hospital’s cost reports to the
government. During this meeting, a Quorum official entered the meeting, asking the two men if they
prepared two cost reports. The men replied that they only prepared one report, not realizing that Quorum
intended to submit two reports for the Medicaid reimbursement detailing the largest amount possible and
the other, a more conservative amount if the first one was rejected. Alderson and the consultant refused to
do two cost reports, and mentioned this practice was fraudulent to the consultant once the administrator
left. As a result, Alderson’s refusal to compose two cost reports led to Quorum terminating his
employment with the hospital several days later.
Despite finding a new job in another small town, Alderson was unable to find a reprieve from his
frustrations over the course of events with Quorum, and so he began researching both Quorum and its
former parent company, Columbia Healthcare/HCA Healthcare to see if there were other similar
fraudulent occurrences between the two companies. From this research, he discovered a tort provision
that allowed him, as an individual, to sue another entity on the government’s behalf. Unwittingly, he sent
a letter of his intent to file suit against Quorum and Columbia Healthcare to the U.S. Attorney General,
Marie O’Connell, who subpoenaed Quorum’s cost reports, and were reviewed by Alderson and a
Medicare auditor. They found Alderson’s initial evidence was correct, in that the companies instituted a
systematic fraudulent scam extorting the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars. The scope of
this Medicare and Medicaid fraud exceeded both Alderson and O’Connell’s original knowledge,
involving more than two hundred hospitals in thirty-seven states.
Despite the initial fervent opposition from government investigators and representatives,
Alderson continued his suit on behalf of the federal government, believing that Quorum and Columbia
Healthcare/HCA Healthcare “needed to pay back the government” because these actions were not only
wrong, but also violated the public’s trust. Ten years after his original dismissal from the hospital,
Alderson’s professional and personal sacrifices were justified when Quorum settled Alderson’s suit and
were forced to repay the government $745 million dollars, followed by another $77.5 million to Alderson.
Though not directly a government worker, Alderson recognized the public interests he served in his
position as a financial officer in charge of government funded healthcare assistance programs, Medicare
and Medicaid, at the hospital. In this way, along with his decision to continue his suit against the
healthcare companies on behalf of the government at his own expense, Alderson was a government
whistleblower, exposing the worst case of cost reporting fraud in the history of government healthcare
assistance programs (Ventriss and Barney 2003).
Whistleblowing – A Background
More times than not, choosing the right or ethical decision leads to an action that requires a high
price, such as losing one’s job and livelihood or the threat of retaliation. In another work by Alford,
“Whistleblowers and the Narrative of Ethics,” the author elucidates a comparison between a rescuer and a
whistleblower, as a means to better understand what ethical decision-making goes into whistleblowing.
Alford compares whistleblowers to rescuers because both characters become a type of liberator and are
often mistaken for one another. On the one hand, rescuers risk their lives in order to save others or their
surroundings. However, a whistleblower puts his or her livelihood on the line, preserving ethical ideas.
The distinction between the two character types is evident in the attachment each forms to what they are
saving. A whistleblower cannot be a rescuer because he or she does not form attachments directly to
people, but rather to an ideal or code of ethics. Conversely, a rescuer cannot be a whistleblower as they
trust and set out to achieve certain moral expectations from their childhood, forming their decisions based
on their attachment to people and their surroundings (Alford 2001).
These attachments to people and the environment by the rescuer, as well as the whistleblower’s
attachment to ideals are one way to view the motivations behind the rescuer-whistleblower dichotomy.
Another way to view this dichotomy is through Kantian ethics, a universal set of moral codes that remains
intact even with a world that is spinning wildly out of control. For Kant, “common human reason” was
quite capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, morality and immorality because this ability is
already built into human mentality (Thorpe 2007). Kant’s human rational supersedes any need to look
toward philosophy or science for answers concerning morality, with the intention that moral decisions are
innately wired into the human psyche. An inner moral code guides each person, according to a set of
Kantian ethics provides us with the direct ability to establish and subscribe to a moral code within
ourselves, transcending any philosophy or dictated command of right and wrong actions. Regardless of
where ethics originates, whether innately hardwired or environmentally influenced, a code of ethics
resides within each person, guiding the individual in making decisions. In looking at ethics, the idea of
the self emerges as it is the individual guiding principle inherent to every person. Understanding these
“universal principles” is the governing rationale behind whistleblower protection legislation, along with
the Supreme Court’s reasoning behind certain case laws revolving around whistleblowers, which will be
discussed later in this paper.
Another way to apply Kantian ethics is what Aleksandra Jokic refers to as “supererogatory acts,”
including those actions or decisions which go beyond one’s duty and do not guide an individual by a set
of universal moral principles. For Jokic, Kant’s common human reason cannot extend to actions such as
rescuing or charitable activities, since supererogatory actions have a moral worth that are not inclined to
act out of duty. In this way, rescuers’ morality differs from whistleblower morality, which is derived from
a set of intrinsic ethical values placed upon their duty within their organization. In situations where a
person is faced with rescuing another person or providing a charitable service, this decision is optional,
regardless that performing the actual rescue falls under supererogatory actions without moral obligation
(Jokic 2002). On the other hand, whistleblowers, particularly those in government, are held to a certain
moral obligation who upholds the public trust, and for this reason specific legislation and court decisions
protect those exposing corruption.
This distinction between whistleblowers and rescuers or other actions that fall under
supererogatory acts illuminates the obligation exists to a set of moral values present within each person.
Under supererogatory actions, the whistleblower or rescuer finds themselves compelled, at least initially,
to act rather than deliberate over consequences or ethics. A whistleblower’s actions are classified into
four narratives on how they make the “choiceless choice,” including what Alford refers to as imagined
consequences, an inclination to historical moment, victim identification, and the inability to live a double
life. The choiceless choice is the whistleblower’s perception that his or her choice is no longer their
choice, but rather already decided for them by an inner code of ethics and the narrative explanation they
tell themselves to reconcile this decision. These narratives exceed the whistleblower’s reasoning behind
their actions, in that their explanation resides in how they were compelled by the situation where they had
no choice, but to blow the whistle. The act of whistleblowing is the end result, or a choice a person
makes, which provides a dangerous sense of freedom from a situation that seems impossible otherwise.
Actions that are compelled cannot be held accountable to specific reasoning that guides the
whistleblower. This freedom puts them at risk and often ruins the whistleblower’s life, including their
career, home, and family by their decision to expose corruption (Alford 2001).
All narratives share one common element, where the one inner voice instructs the other voice
why there is one choice, blowing the whistle. In the first narrative, the imagination foresees the
consequences of the unethical or corrupt action, projecting from an “enlarged mentality” of virtue that
leaves the whistleblower feeling burdened rather than virtuous. While the rescuer, continuing the rescuer-
whistleblower dichotomy, forms an attachment to the other person, the whistleblower’s attachment is
more abstract. Through this abstraction, the whistleblower acts against a portion of human nature,
breaking perceived alliances within the organization because the attachment to a person or group does not
exist. The rescuer sees his or her role, along with the one they are rescuing, as an alliance, two against the
world. Whistleblowers, on the other hand, may risk less in terms of life and limb, but he or she is alone in
their action, even though the attachment is to an abstraction versus an actual person (Alford 2001).
Whistleblowers, like rescuers find themselves in the situations where they recognize they become
the main part of a historical moment. History in this sense is not the type of history that necessarily makes
newspapers or textbooks, but rather a sense of history or a role in the course of time in regards to the
events at hand. For whistleblowers this awareness of their role as a central point in the course of events
attaches them to his or her actions, rather to another person. When a whistleblower exposes the
corruption, even in the interest of the public good, he or she is more focused on their own role in the
corruption and unethical events that led them to this point, than having an interest in the public they serve.
Alford goes on to point out that the whistleblower’s actions become a companion, as they reconcile with
themselves the risk to their job, family, and livelihood with their moment to change the course of history.
Whistleblowers act alone, forging an alliance with the “self” and his or her ethical principles. They carry
their justifications and reasons for their choice as solitary agents to disclose corrupt, unethical actions or
policies within their organization (Alford 2001).
Alford’s third narrative of the whistleblower, victim identification, occurs when the
whistleblower moves beyond the organizational culture they are immersed in to see those who are
affected by the unethical or corrupt policies they play a part in. At this point, “moral maturity is reached,”
turning criticism towards the self and making the decision between the transgressor and the victim.
Alford’s case studies places the whistleblower in a position where he or she is incapable of choosing sides
between the aggressor and the victim, reluctant to be aligned with the aggressor, and so choose to act on
behalf of the victim. In this way, the reluctance serves as their choice to identify with the action more so
than the victim, seeing themselves as victims, not simply an understanding of the victim, but the victim’s
fight becomes his or her own fight (Alford 2001).
The final narrative that Alford provides is the whistleblower’s inability to “double” or exist in
two realities, no longer focusing only on his or her job. In a way, the whistleblower takes the blinders off
to the corruption around them, putting an end to any doubling they participate in, where he or she ignored
their ethical concerns while at work. At some point, the voices between the two realities, the
whistleblower in the corrupt or unethical situation at work and his or her home life, begin to converse,
whereas before these voices were kept separate, known as doubling. In each voice a different moral
language is spoken, and other realities exist, indicative of the modern world that separates morality into
other forms such as art and religion, as well as organization and bureaucracy. Social organization speaks
with one voice of “instrumental reason,” assimilating individuals into an organization or bureaucracy, yet
when the organization fails, becoming corrupt, the whistleblower makes a choice to no longer double in
his or her realities, and thus becomes a blunder on modern society, detaching from the social
organization. With this end to the two realities, where the whistleblowers is alone with his or her ethics,
the only choice is to blow the whistle (Alford 2001).
Each of these narratives serves as a distinct voice of the whistleblower’s reconciliation with his or
her decision to expose the organization’s corruption and unethical practices. Each whistleblower comes to
a moment of reckoning and “transcendence,” where the person may have to choose an inner ethical code
in order to reconcile the selves, despite a great cost to their career. Through these narratives, a set of
Kantian universal moral principles does not fully explain how these whistleblowers find themselves in
similar positions to expose corruption, where morality does not necessarily depend upon moral virtues. In
fact, morality for whistleblowers is based on “excellences of character” to do what is right, born out of a
solemn compulsion or necessity in their actions, working with the imagination’s ability to account for the
consequences of corruption on those most affected by it, the public (Alford 2001).
In another instance of whistleblowing, which also presents another side of whistleblowing,
known as guerrilla government, an employee under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported
illegal and unethical acts committed by then politically appointed director of the Region 10 division, John
Spencer, to the Inspector General’s Office. Spencer began his tenure from his appointment by President
Ronal Reagan in 1981, promising a “pragmatic response” to environmental concerns. According to
several of his subordinates, who also happened to be career civil servants with the EPA, Spencer
committed several acts that went against federal guidelines, inappropriately spending public money.
Spencer sought to buy his division a membership with a lobbying group, strictly against federal
procedures and ultimately had to drop the idea as this move was disparaged by senators and
environmentalist who accused him of putting the EPA in “bed with big business.” Furthermore, during his
two years as the regional director, he spent public money on trips that were for his personal business,
requested a personal driver, and pursued changes to the EPA office building without following the proper
chain of approval by the General Services Administration (O’Leary 2006).
On top of these earlier ethics concerns, the EPA whistleblowers went to the Inspector General
again with more reports of corruption, including illegally lobbying the Army Corps of Engineers on
behalf of a private corporation, and using official EPA stationary. Spencer acted in his official capacity as
the regional administrator when committing these corrupt acts. Consequently, Spencer resigned and took
a position with a private company, posing one whistleblower with a dilemma as to whether he should
continue voicing his concerns over Spencer’s actions or end his pursuit. In the end, the whistleblower
decided to continue to expose Spencer’s corruption for the main purpose to get these instances on public
record and in case Spencer was up for future political appointments. In this example, Spencer’s corrupt
activity created a vagrant distrust throughout the whole agency, creating a distinct culture of low morale
and low productivity for this regional division (O’Leary 2006).
While guerrilla government has its favorable actions, such as whistleblowers that expose
corruption and maintain public interests, government workers take a significant amount of power that
goes beyond their job description into their control. Public servants possess a great deal of power already
through their daily policy decisions and drive to fulfill their official job functions, so that holding
government guerrillas accountable for stepping out of their official roles and calling into question certain
corrupt or unethical behavior is difficult. Though whistleblowers intend to uphold the public trust and put
an end to government corruption, guerrilla government leaves a wide gap in accountability for other
actions by public servants that do not necessarily seek to promote ethical government practices. Guerrilla
government activity is dangerous, in that bureaucrats possess a certain amount of expertise in their
official positions with varying degrees of discretion, so that these public guerrillas often work behind the
scenes. Whistleblowers are the face of guerrilla government, where regardless of the reasoning for
exposing corruption, the ultimate good and government accountability are served.
The brief discussion of government guerrillas provides another lens in which to view government
whistleblowers, providing a comparison of ethical discretion that has the potential for less than upright
intentions. On the other hand, as government guerrillas, whistleblowers do have great capability to hold
public officials and government policies responsible for corruption. In her book, The Ethics of Dissent:
Managing Guerrilla Government, Rosemary O’Leary points to twelve ethical obligations to determine a
common set of ethical principles among bureaucrats that vary in degrees of intensity relative to the
individual, forming an internal framework of an ethical code. Obligations to the self and public interest
have already been discussed as seen through Alford’s four narratives of government whistleblowers. For
the remainder of this paper, the whistleblower’s obligations to the Constitution, legislation, and Supreme
Court decisions will be discussed in relation to organizational-bureaucratic norms. Other obligations
include a duty to serve the nation, the democratic process to serve the people’s will, a sense to uphold
specific professional code of ethics, and the principle that neither family nor friends should surpass one’s
obligation as a public servant. These remaining obligations are important in that each whistleblower
experiences these obligations in different priorities (O’Leary 2006).
The history of whistleblowing can be broken down into four distinct areas, including well-known
cases, law as found in the Constitution, federal legislation, and Supreme Court rulings, as well as
administrative ethics, and finally government policies that have or do exist. One of the most famous
instances of whistleblowing is that of the Watergate scandal and the once anonymous “Deep Throat,”
Mark Felt, who confirmed facts, supplied leads, and sketched a conspiracy with the president at the helm
to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Another well-known whistleblower, Linda
Tripp, secretly recorded private conversations between herself and a coworker, Monica Lewinsky,
detailing Lewinsky’s physical relationship with President Bill Clinton that occurred while he was in
office. Tripp not only exposed the Clinton-Lewinsky affair that occurred in the White House, but also
revealed that Lewinsky had falsified her affidavit in the Jones v. Clinton suit and further attempted to
convince Tripp to lie under oath.
While corruption exists in any sector, its occurrence in government is far more consequential and
drastic compared to corruption in private industry. Each of the above cases involved whistleblowers who
exposed varying degrees of corruption in government. When the term corruption is presented, images of
opulent private executives trading financial stocks based largely on insider tipping appear. However,
when corruption is applied to government or a representative’s actions, the response is often far more
severe due to the expectation for public administrators to meet a higher standard of ethical values. Public
officials are given the public trust, which carries a far greater price than can be counted into a monetary
sum as in private industry. In effect, you cannot put a price on the amount of trust and good faith that goes
into public service work, and as such whistleblowing is encouraged, as well as provided with appropriate
recourse to report corruption in government (Rohr 1998).
Constitution Principles and Competence
The U.S. government has grown from a fledgling democracy into the world’s global leader in
economics, politics, and government administration. The United States’ status in the world derived from a
small group of men, forging a government that served the people under one constitution that governed all
laws and constitutions in the union. For civil employees, who are neither politically elected nor appointed,
the Constitution is the oath to which they pledge to uphold. The Constitution serves as a supreme code
ethics and framework for the government resides, outlining the three branches of government: executive,
legislative, and judicial, which work together and serve as checks on each other’s powers. For Americans,
the Constitution is a living document that protects their rights and privileges, and for public workers, the
document guides their role as subordinate to all three branches (Rohr 1998).
The Constitution provides whistleblowers with specific protections established for all federal
workers, where a government whistleblower cannot be retaliated against in accordance with the First and
Fourteenth Amendments. Under the First Amendment, government whistleblowers have a right to
petition and make grievances in regards to the government, while the Fourteenth Amendment ensures that
no person can be divested of their right to life, liberty, or property without the “due process of law,” and
the appropriate legal measures have been taken to terminate a whistleblower’s employment (Kennedy
2005). Just as the Constitution ties the three powers together, it also unites these roles into the public
administrator’s role, and is the glue that binds each of these branches when no agreement can be made,
especially in terms of discretion.
As Rohr points out, the Constitution is above all other laws, policies, or agency procedures, and
as such public servants have an obligation to uphold its principles before any other public policy or law
passes down to them. Public administrators are autonomous workers to the competing branches; acting
independently of the branches centralized control, yet required to uphold constitutional subordination in
acts of discretion because the Constitution is the best mitigating factor among them. Rohr goes on to
encourage administrators to look towards the Supreme Court when making decisions based on the
Constitution because the Court relies solely on it for answers to various cases that come before. Public
administrators share the same thought processes that go into administrative decisions. Administrators
ought to look towards their reasoning process, along with acting like legislators and executives as they
play each of these roles (Rohr 1998).
The weakness of the Constitution’s role is, in fact, minimal because as government workers, the
administrator’s roles, along with their politically affiliated superiors throughout all three branches of
government are founded on this document. The Constitution is the strongest and most uniting code of
ethics for administrators and political officials alike, and as such, administrators have a duty to uphold it
above all other ethical obligations. Steadfast and objective, the Constitution presents each person,
regardless of status or position in life with the same, equal opportunity as any other person, with a great
capacity for decision-making that covers a wide range of ethical dilemmas and provisions to amend parts
of it to accommodate changing times.
Like the Constitution, legislation for whistleblowing is critical, especially contemporaneously,
where legislation provides substantive remedies and procedures by which government whistleblowers
may follow. The first legislation to specifically deal with the issue of whistleblowing was the Lloyd-La
Follette Act of 1912, which provided federal employees with the legal right to communicate with
members of Congress, protecting them from indiscriminate dismissals from their position (Fisher 2005).
Whistleblowing legislation in the U.S. has only been around for about the last century, gaining particular
momentum in recent years through the Whistleblower Protection Act in 1989, WPA, which gave federal
employees, who become whistleblowers on illegal government activities, protections from retaliation and
job termination over these disclosures (Whitaker 2007). However, it was the Civil Service Reform Act of
1979, CRSA, that established the Office of the Special Counsel, OSC, to “investigate and prosecute”
personnel practices falling under the eleven prohibited actions. This legislation arose from several
incidents that occurred within the changing of federal government management, including First
Amendment rights claims by employees, the increasing public suspicion of government, and the
pervasive call for whistleblower reform, among others. Under the CSRA, whistleblower protection was
extended to include those disclosures which proved misconduct, a major misuse of funds or authority, and
a direct danger to public safety and health (Fong 1991).
As it was largely in favor of whistleblowers, OSC took an aggressive stance on implementing a
“streamlined dispute-resolution process,” often putting the new agency at odds with its Merit Systems
Protection Board, who Congress gave the authority to consider and arbitrate the OSC’s prosecutions and
who primarily focused on dismissing wasteful claims and pushing managers to terminate employment of
those workers who could not meet the necessary standards of their job requirements. This tension
between the two offices contributed to the scrutiny and controversy surrounding the OSC and both
organizations’ inability to work together to support both of their organizational missions (Fong 1991).
The WPA of 1989 amended the CRSA by increasing protection for federal employees from retaliation,
due in large part to the OSC’s partially unsuccessful push to form a set of “administrative laws” to protect
employees whose actions fall under this protected activity. This new act for whistleblower protection
clearly defined the amount of evidence needed in order to prove that a protected behavior had been
violated. The Act goes on to lessen the burden of proof through a “contributing factor” test that aimed to
verify a causal link of the protected conduct and the employer’s personnel action, taking the focus of
whistleblower protection off of the employer motivations and back onto the factors bearing on the
employer’s action (Fong 1991).
Another piece of legislation, the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and
Retaliation Act of 2002, No FEAR Act, established guidelines for federal agencies to disseminate notice of
the Act to federal employees, former employees, and applicants for employment. In fact, these agencies
must post certain statistical data on the agency website to show current and past actions brought against
the agency based on the No FEAR Act. In this way, federal agencies are held accountable to ensure they
meet Equal Employment Opportunity standards (United States Department of State 2006). Through the
No FEAR Act, federal agencies take on direct responsibility for management of such whistleblower
information processing, and are held accountable as separate entities for violating whistleblower
protection and anti-discrimination laws (United States Department of Treasury 2008). The Act establishes
eleven data criteria by which all federal agencies must report on their websites, a few such criteria include
the number of complaints filed in a fiscal year, along with the number of individuals filing those claims,
as well as the average amount of time within each step of the process that an agency takes when
processing these complaints (United States Government Printing Office 2002).
The current Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2007, WPEA, serves as the most
current adopted revision to the original WPA of 1989, expanding whistleblower protections to “certain
national security, government contractor, and science-based agency whistleblowers,” as well as
augmenting current whistleblower protections for all federal civil servants (Whitaker 2007). Introduced
by Representative Henry A. Waxman, the WPEA provides four specific types of whistleblowers with
protection involving federal employees who work for the following federal agencies: national security,
contractors, scientific, and whistleblowers in general (Waxman 2007). While the CRSA instituted the
OSC, this office is charged with protecting federal whistleblowers, investigating and eliminating
prohibited personnel practices, handing out whistleblower disclosures, as well as protecting the service
members’ reemployment rights. Furthermore, the OSC is the facilitating agency for wrongdoing and
unethical acts within the federal government, with the authority to investigate and prosecute these
complaints through its Complaints Examining Unit (United States Office of Special Counsel 2002).
As time moves forward, legislation for whistleblower protection continues to be more relevant as
corruption evolves and takes on new forms within government. On the other hand, with this movement
forward in time, this same whistleblower legislation has gone through several reforms, building upon the
previous Acts. However, these pieces of legislation negated the fact that these reforms lead to
contradictions, as seen above in the CRSA’s establishment of the Office of Special Counsel and its
tension with the Merit Systems Protection Board. This tension derives from the CRSA’s lack of foresight
to fully detail each government body’s role in whistleblower protection and the dismissal of insufficient
claims, where these distinct roles were initially suppressed for the first ten years of the CRSA’s existence.
With reform comes the responsibility to clean up those elements of previous policies or legislation that
failed to work or more clearly define those components that require such designation.
Supreme Court Cases
While the Supreme Court serves to keep the legislative and executive branches of governments’
power in check, the justices also hear cases that attend to constitutional legality in lower courts. The court
ensures constitutional principles by referring back to long-standing historical precedents while
maintaining a current perspective relative to the times. The following two cases, Pickering v. Board of
Education and Garcetti v. Ceballos, demonstrate the Supreme Court’s check on legislative powers to
provide for whistleblower protections, and also serve to present the need for boundaries on the civil
servant’s right to freedom of speech. Applied to the civil servant, this dialogue between the justices
represents an internal dialogue within the bureaucrat’s perception of ethical decision-making, as well as
an external dialogue between the administrator and other decision-makers within the organization. These
diverging opinions demonstrate the court’s remarkable power to capture impartial justice and reason
within cases that become law.
In Pickering v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court determined a two-prong test to decide
when a public employee was protected by the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech over matters
of “public concern” (Sasser 2007). A woman brought suit against a school board after her position as a
public school teacher was terminated based out of retaliation for a letter she wrote to the local newspaper
criticizing the board’s mishandling of a tax increase meant to bring in new revenue for local schools.
Pickering claimed that her termination violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
However, the Court sought to balance the teacher’s rights as a citizen with her duty to the public school
system, developing a test that was later used in Garcetti, which narrowed Pickering’s broad scoped test.
In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Court narrowed the scope of its earlier Pickering ruling. Richard
Ceballos was a deputy district attorney for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, where he
supervised two or three other deputy district attorneys. A defense attorney from a case prosecuted by his
office informed him that one of Ceballos’s subordinates had perjured himself on an affidavit that was
needed for a search warrant. The same defense attorney asked Ceballos to investigate, upon which he did
and found the defense attorney to be correct. Ceballos went to his superior, District Attorney Gil Garcetti,
suggesting that he dismiss the case. In the end, Garcetti chose to move forward with the case when
Ceballos was called to the stand during the trial and testified for the defense, corroborating that the deputy
district attorney had perjured himself. After the trial, Ceballos was demoted, transferred, and reassigned
in retaliation by Garcetti for his decision to expose the corruption of the deputy district attorney who lied
on an affidavit to acquire a search warrant (Wenell 2007).
Ceballos filed suit under 42 U.S. §1983 against Garcetti for violating his First Amendment right
to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The Ninth Circuit Court applied the
test from Pickering v. Board of Education, where one must first determine if the matter in question is up
for “public concern,” so that if it were concluded that that it was not a matter for public concern, then the
case was dropped. However, if the mater was determined to be of public concern, the Court would have to
balance the interests of the government representative as a citizen to speak out versus the ability of the
agency to effectively manage the office and ensure strong harmonious working relationships (Drachler
2008). The Supreme Court found that a “citizen who works for the government is nonetheless a citizen,”
and while the employee speaks of public concern as a citizen, his or her speech restrictions should only
exist when the public employer must run both efficiently and effectively. In turn, the Justices found
Ceballos’s speech to be insignificant because his actions as an employee in agreeing to investigate and his
later discussion of the case during the trial were actions within his official capacity, separate from his role
as a citizen. In this way, he was not acting as a citizen strictly out of public concern, but in his role as a
deputy district attorney, and so Garcetti could not be held liable under 42 U.S. §1983 (Wenell 2007).
Public workers ought to look to these cases as a primary source to uphold their duties and protect
the rights of the people, and more specifically for the public interest. In fact, the Court upholds certain
values found within the Constitution, such as separation of powers that are built into their roles in
deciding cases, incorporating an administrative component into the case because the Court must act
according to those Constitutional values. Public workers ought to look to each of these characteristics of
Supreme Court decisions to help them assess their own role in ethical decision-making. Understanding
these characteristics of case law also provides administrators with insights that help to decipher among
convoluted and difficult to interpret values. Additionally, these Supreme Court cases demonstrate how
Constitutional values are intricately developed into bureaucratic functions, where the values themselves
are complex and intermingled, and once applied to an administrator’s position, the role is laden with
different perspectives of ethical decisions. Civil workers routinely face ethical dilemmas, when a
position’s values and principles become habitual, go unnoticed, and lead to mistakes. When making
habitual ethical decisions, civil employees neglect to stay current and compliant with public expectations.
Instead, administrators ought to actively pursue ethics, looking not only to uphold the
Constitution and stay within legislative burdens, but also incorporate ethical reasoning and approaches of
the Supreme Court. For the whistleblower, the Supreme Court’s delineation approach to decide case law,
which deals with reconciling a code of ethics, serves as a guide to reconcile administrative ethical or legal
dilemmas. These two Supreme Court cases serve as direct ways in which the government sets out to clear
boundaries for whistleblowers. The reality, as seen in Garcetti, is that government positions do not belong
to the worker, but rather the agency holds control over the position. Though Ceballos was a citizen, his
government role and duty to ensure the efficiency to that public office was at stake. As a whistleblower,
he chose to speak out against his superior and the public office that fell into corrupt activities.
He did this at great risk to his career and livelihood; however, through these cases, the Court
limited the civil servant’s claim to protection for the right of free speech found in the First Amendment.
These cases, for many government workers, place more limits on their freedom of speech, which
unfortunately weakens the trust between public sector employees and government as an institution. Time
and again, government workers are often treated, and in fact believe themselves to be “second-class
citizens,” which is evident in the legal restrictions placed upon them as public servants. Examining this
common perception of the civil worker’s status in society reveals the effects and limits placed upon his or
her role from the rulings in Pickering and Garcetti.
In looking at the language of the Constitution, the rights guaranteed by the due process clause in
the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments are provided for “persons” and not citizens. Another work by John
Rohr, “Citizenship and the Professional Public Servant,” provides an insight into government workers as
second-class citizens, and therefore as applied to whistleblowers in government connects the reasoning
behind these Supreme Court decisions and the strength that emerges from putting such limits on the
public servant’s freedom of speech, which in turn impact whistleblowers. While the common thought
among government employees is that these cases limited their rights as citizens, Rohr points out the honor
that goes into working as a guardian of the public trust and interest, which balances these limitations.
Though the civil worker does not prefer to be either a second-class citizen or a second-class
person, the difference resides in the meanings of citizen and non-citizen. Both alien residents and citizens
of this country pay the same taxes, can be called to serve in the military, and are guaranteed the same
protections of life, liberty, and property. However, one traditional difference between the citizen and the
alien resident revolves around the privilege to vote, where only twenty-two states throughout different
points in American history permitted alien residents to vote. Furthermore, until the Nineteenth
Amendment, women could be considered citizens, and yet did not have the right to vote, so that
citizenship did not change, rather the Constitution was amended. For these reasons, voting is not
constrained by citizenship, so that the idea of second-class citizenship has little to do with differences in
citizenship, and more to do with the perception of a public worker’s status (Rohr 1984).
That being said, through legislation, specifically the Hatch Act, government employees are
restricted from actively participating in the political electoral process in their official capacity. Prohibited
political activity includes any form of solicitation to encourage or discourage partisan politics for a
political party, as well as receiving political contributions and running for political office (Rohr 1984).
These types of political activity are prohibited when government workers perform in their official
position, in a government office, representing the government while wearing an official uniform or
operating a government vehicle (U.S. Office of Special Counsel 2002). This Act impedes on the civil
worker’s right to the freedom of speech, restricting their political activity because this creates biases and
ultimately corruption within the government, which exists to serve the public interest, not a particular
For government employees, the Hatch Act takes away certain rights they have as citizens, but
redeems this loss in “citizenship” is redeemed by the authority and discretionary powers by which
government employees perform their duties as public guardians (Rohr 1984). Beyond politics,
government workers serve the public, and thus his or her job belongs to the greater good of the public
interest. The public ownership of civil positions leads to the other side of whistleblowers in government,
who do not have infinite power to act as they please; utilizing guerrilla government tactics to get ahead by
exposing corrupt practices. While it is assuredly a positive instance when corruption is revealed,
whistleblowers who abuse that power under the veil of whistleblower protection laws serve a negative
cause. Discretion exists on a continuum and is open to mistakes as those who have the discretion are
human with the capacity for wrongdoing.
The trust placed in the government worker is a distinct privilege with the authority to spend
public money and make policy decisions that affect all of the people. As important as building
whistleblower protection for government employees into federal legislation through adopting the CRSA,
WPA, No FEAR, and WPEA laws, the Supreme Court serves to balance, particularly in Pickering and
Garcetti, this power to ensure the role of the civil servant limits those protections. The Courts hold that
the supreme power resides in the people and that trust in government supplants the role of the civil
servant. In this spirit, Pickering and Garcetti, limit the civil servant’s right to free speech when it impedes
or significantly hinders efficient and effective government practices. These rulings do not contradict
whistleblower protection laws, but rather reign in heedless claims and reckless law suits that strain the
government to such an extent that renders it unable to effectively fulfill the public interest. The purpose of
government, and subsequently its employees, is to provide services to the public that are uniquely
entrusted to them, so that when this process is hindered the greater good is not achieved.
Ethics is more than understanding the differences between right and wrong. Ethics is the act of doing
right or wrong, where government workers, in particular, should apply it throughout their role as public servants,
known as administrative ethics. Ethics, like other intangible concepts, prove difficult to identify a specific
meaning, as these decisions are subjective to individual discretion. In this way, one person’s ethical standards
different from another person’s ethics. These standards are determined through discretion, which considers the
various pressures and responsibilities that influence a particular decision. Administrative discretion is evident
throughout all levels of government, where even front-line bureaucrats must use discretion when attending to
public inquiries and requests for services. Decision-making, regardless of the situation, involves considering both
internal and external conflicts of principles. Discretion is essential to administrative ethics, where these internal
principles are comprised of the administrator’s moral standards, which may or may not conflict with the
expectation of the public organization. Administrative discretion is the public administrator’s capacity to employ
ethical approaches relevant to the situation, in order to decide among various alternative solutions that arise while
working in the organization. The conflict relationship between these personal values and the organizational
objectives demonstrates the need for administrative discretion in ethical decision-making.
As the face of government, public workers have a duty to uphold a certain standard of administrative
ethics, and so the recommendations begin here because discretion resides in the government employee. A public
servant’s moral code and internal values include the innate recognition of right and wrong, socio-cultural beliefs,
and those principles found in the Constitution. Throughout their public service career, a public administrator will
encounter a wide array of ethical predicaments that challenge their morals, encountering situations where they
must choose between their job and their ethical standards. As the backbone of ethical principles in public
administration, the Constitution is always right. Regardless of any government branch’s policies, agency
directives, or public demands; the Constitution will always succeed in a court of law. In fact, administrators who
are constitutionally competent in the work they produce and the decisions they make, are not only ethical for
basing their discretion on the Constitution, but are also protected from legal prosecution.
Consequently, it is imperative for government to ensure appropriate whistleblowing practices and other
ethical decisions; the public servant should not only look to the Constitution, but also strive to be constitutionally
competent. This practice of constitutional competence transcends the words and legal language on the pages of
the Constitution, drawing upon the Supreme Court’s role as the final decision-maker in regards to interpreting the
Constitution in cases that arise. If more administrators were constitutionally competent, then government would
be more transparent and be held accountable to the public will. Whistleblowing is a tool that public employees
ought to use as a last resort, as well as the most severe way to expose corrupt activities and make certain the
government is accountable in the interests of the public.
My main recommendation for whistleblowing legislation exists in the need to restructure these
reform acts, so that government employees, their supervisors, and those agencies, like the OSC,
investigating such claims speak the same legal code. In fact, I would even suggest legislatures take a look
at the best and most effective parts of these acts and reorganize these statutes into one whistleblower law
to replace the other, more outdated acts. WPEA of 2007, was an attempt to reform the WPA of 1989 by
extending protections to those working national security, yet missed the mark by failing to change the
language of the previous act. Moreover, this reform did not account for Supreme Court rulings such as
Pickering and Garcetti, which place boundaries around a government employees’ freedom of speech, as it
relates to public concern and government efficiency. In conclusion, a future single act of legislation for
whistleblower protection must account for the best components of previous acts, while leaving out the
elements that prove ineffective or in contradiction to the boundaries set by Pickering and Garcetti.
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