Editorial: Protection of whistleblowers is essential to uncovering fraud, waste and abuse in government

It’s more important than ever for Florida to make it as easy as possible for insiders to report abuses to state and local agencies, without the fear of retribution according to Florida Politics writer and multiple award-winning investigative reporter, Noah Pransky.

Recently, Historic City News received an anonymous complaint about freshman city commissioner John Valdes.  Without making any decision as to the validity of the allegations, we chose to publish the complaint without disclosing the identity of the writer in order to protect the confidential nature of a “whistleblower”.  We invited Commissioner Valdes to submit a rebuttal to explain his side of the story which we would publish with equal placement.  Valdes initiated the request to us; however, so far, he has chosen not to respond to allegations that he was claiming a homestead exemption on unqualified rental property in downtown St Augustine.

In fact, we receive tips by voicemail, email, and snail-mail every week.  Many of them come from sources willing to identify themselves to us, but who are unwilling to report the same information to their supervisor.  Pransky observes that we typically don’t know about these issues until an employee on the inside reaches out to a reporter or some government leader with oversight.  And sadly, there aren’t enough investigative reporters to go around.

“For a government employee in Florida to report a potentially dangerous situation, abuse of authority, or clear waste of tax dollars, he or she is not granted whistleblower anonymity unless the tip demonstrates reasonable cause to suspect that an employee or agent of an agency or independent contractor has violated any federal, state, or local law, rule, or regulation, thereby creating and presenting a substantial and specific danger to the public’s health, safety, or welfare, or has committed an act of gross mismanagement, malfeasance, misfeasance, gross waste of public funds, or gross neglect of duty,” Pransky wrote in an editorial published today, quoting from Florida Statute 112.3189(3)(c).

In short, anonymity is up to the opinion of whoever receives the tip in a government agency, so, you can understand why dozens of government employees reach out to us each year with problems they feel compelled to report — but feel they have nowhere to turn.  Who would choose to risk his or her career and livelihood without abundant protection from retribution?

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation whom Historic City News supports, also says lawmakers could afford to strengthen the anonymity protections for legitimate whistleblowers.  Petersen says the key would be to deny anonymity to those who are found to have filed complaints in bad faith.  As it stands now, whistleblowers are essentially presumed guilty until they’re proven innocent.

Pransky believes that it will pay much better dividends to their constituents if Florida lawmakers read and revisit §112.3189 F.S. the next time they decide to waste valuable time trying to block the public’s access to open meetings, documents related to mass killings, or photos of farm animals.  We agree that they should take up anonymity protections for whistleblowers instead.

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