Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (“OSC”) testified yesterday before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. The OSC is a federal agency which works to protect federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing. Lerner spoke at length about the role that the OSC fills in the federal government, and how the OSC is attempting to carry out its mission given its increasing workload and tightening budget.
Lerner mentioned how in the past, she referred to the OSC as “being the best kept secret in government,” referring to how few government employees knew that OSC existed. Now, she says, that problem is going away. Lerner noted that “OSC’s caseload is increasing across all of our program areas. Filings are up 30% over the last three years. Our FY2012 caseload is currently 10% above the FY2011 numbers. And, in just one important area – whistleblower disclosures of waste, fraud and abuse – our numbers are up 32% over last year’s level.” Despite this, however, Lerner noted that the OSC budget has remained flat – it may even see a decrease in funding for FY2013.
Lerner maintained, the OSC was working hard to ensure that whistleblower disclosures to the OSC continued to save tax dollars and make the government more efficient. Lerner noted three examples of whistleblowers currently within the OSC system: a U.S. army whistleblower who disclosed a improperly reviewed staffing contract, which revelation will save the country as much as $8 million; a Homeland Security whistleblower, who noted a salary irregularity taking place on a large scale, which correction will save the country roughly $2 million annually; and a defense contracts auditor who disclosed that unnecessarily “speedy” audit practices were costing the government millions.
Lerner also testified about a few initiatives the OSC was working on to increase its efficiency and customer service. The Retaliation Pilot Project reallocates agency resources to more effectively investigate and prosecute whistleblower retaliation cases. According to Lerner, the strengthened Alternative Dispute Resolution program allows the OSC to provide quicker and better results for both employees and agencies by resolving many cases without resource-intensive investigations and litigation. The OSC’s initiative to improve the level of communication with complainants allows whistleblowers waiting on a case resolution to know that their complaints are being addressed and that they have not been forgotten.
Lastly, Special Counsel Lerner took a moment to advocate for an important piece of legislation currently moving its way through Congress, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2011 (“WPEA”). The WPEA expands the scope of whistleblower protections so that the types of protected disclosures are increased, as are the agencies and types of employees that are covered by whistleblower protection laws. Debra S. Katz, a whistleblower attorney in D.C and partner at the law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks, joins Lerner in her support of the WPEA. “It is a piece of legislation with all upside and no downside. Why wouldn’t we want to ensure that more members of our federal government are able to speak out against illegal activity without fear of reprisal?” said Ms. Katz.