Two bills proposing better whistleblower protections for public workers who speak out against fraud, waste, and abuse with state agencies passed the Montana House last week.
According to the Associated Press, one of the bills would prohibit state agencies and programs from retaliating against a public employee who blows the whistle on misconduct. The other would allow the public employee to file a civil lawsuit against a supervisor who attempts to obstruct the whistleblower’s efforts to communicate “a matter of public concern” with a state legislator.
The original version of the bills would have made whistleblower retaliation and obstruction criminal offenses punishable by up to five years in prison. Proponents of the bills, however, changed them to civil offenses with the potential for steep monetary fines and damages after committee review.
“This is strengthening and clarifying public employees’ First Amendment rights to talk,” Montana City Rep. Kirk Wagoner said of the bills in debate on the House floor, according to the AP, which noted that the bills enjoyed the support of Carol Bondy, a Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services employee who was fired in 2015 after she alleged the misuse of state and federal funds.
Ms. Bondy sued the state in 2015 for wrongful termination. The lawsuit cast a spotlight on the issue of protecting public whistleblowers who voice concern over actions that defraud taxpayers.
House Bill 208, the retaliation measure, would allow a state employee to be reinstated and compensated for lost wages and benefits if a judge finds he or she was the victim of retaliation.
House Bill 202, the obstruction measure, would impose fines of up to $5,000 per violation on any state supervisor who takes action to impede a government worker from communicating with a lawmaker and additional damages that the judge finds fit. The bill specifies that this law would not cover whistleblowers who disclose confidential information.
The bills need to pass a final vote in the House before they can proceed to the Senate.
Source: Associated Press