Ron’s bill helps veterans, protects VA whistleblowers

Law 360 
By: Jacon Fischler 
October 5, 2015

Two Republican senators have introduced a bill aimed at curbing retaliation against government whistleblowers, adding penalties for executive branch employees who demote or fire whistleblowers and giving agencies increased powers to determine if a whistleblower was punished and to counteract the retaliation.

Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on Thursday introduced the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act. It is named for a former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist who was fired after questioning his hospital’s prescription practices, then committed suicide the same day. The bill would allow a special counsel to stay for two months any termination or demotion of a federal employee who reports the firing was retaliation for whistleblowing.

If, during the two-month stay, the special counsel and Merit Systems Protection Board need additional investigation to determine if the firing or demotion was retaliatory, they may issue another stay of up to six more months, according to a draft of the bill. Any employees granted a stay would be given priority to transfer within their department. The bill also calls for a comptroller general report on retaliation against whistleblowers in federal agencies.

The bill would allow agency heads to determine if a manager has retaliated against a whistleblower, and then to fire or demote the manager. That determination would be appealable, though managers would not be paid, or eligible for paid leave, while such an appeal is pending. Although aimed most squarely at the VA system, the bill would apply to all executive branch agencies and cover even probationary employees, which Kirkpatrick was.

“This legislation is directed at providing VA whistleblowers protection to help prevent tragedies like the suicide of Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick,” said Johnson, the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, in a Thursday statement announcing the proposed legislation. “Congress must not stand by while executive branch agencies retaliate against good people who are just trying to do the right thing.”

The bill also calls for each agency’s inspector general to investigate any suicide committed by an agency employee to determine if the death was work-related. The findings of such an investigation would be passed on to the deceased’s next of kin, with an exception for national security workers.

First-term Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, co-sponsored the bill, according to a statement from Ayotte’s office.

The legislation came about a week after the committee heard “powerful testimony” from VA whistleblowers, including Kirkpatrick’s brother, Ayotte’s statement said.