A whistleblower who was fired after calling out dangerous working conditions, waste, contractor overbilling, and other misconduct in Oregon’s Motor Carrier Division has triggered a push for expanded whistleblower protections in the state.
Gerritt Law, a weigh-scale technician in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Motor Carrier Division reported his concerns about problems within the agency to his superiors multiple times since taking the job in 2013. But instead of addressing the reported problems, Mr. Law’s superiors fired him.
A story about Mr. Law’s whistleblower experience that Salem’s Statesman Journal ran in November caught the attention of state Senator Jackie Winters. The alarming story of how a whistleblower could be penalized for doing the right thing despite existing whistleblower protections convinced Rep. Winters that more needed to be done to protect whistleblowers, and ultimately taxpayers, from wasteful and abusive practices.
Rep. Law introduced HB 1599 in response to Mr. Law’s experience. It calls on the Oregon Department of Justice to expand whistleblower protections by allowing state-employee whistleblowers to remain anonymous, and it would establish a complaint reporting procedure for all state agencies. The law also seeks a mandatory, uniform whistleblower training program for all state employees and supervisors.
Additionally, the proposed law calls for the creation of a manual describing whistleblower rules and employee rights.
According to the Statesman Journal, Mr. Law found the agency in disarray when he began work at the Motor Carrier Division:
His team leader was drawing engineering plans he wasn’t licensed to create and allowing electrical work on multiple projects to be done by unlicensed contractors … Employees lacked safety training and were asked to work in dangerous conditions, he said. Equipment costing thousands of dollars was purchased without compatibility testing, and later found to not work. Contracts were being split so the dollar amounts stayed below open-bidding requirements. And contractors were allowed to over bill for work.
Although the state of Oregon already prohibits employers both public and private from retaliating against whistleblowers who report misconduct, Mr. Law’s case demonstrates that the existing rules need to be strengthened.
According to the Statesman Journal, Mr. Law’s whistleblower complaint triggered multiple investigations that confirmed most of his concerns. He settled his whistleblower retaliation lawsuit with the state for $95,000 in May 2017.
“He wanted to make sure, not only that we weren’t wasting dollars, but that what we were doing was within the rules and regulations that we promulgate,” Sen. Winters said of Mr. Law. “When you have a good employee, I believe that employees should be encouraged, not discouraged.”
State lawmakers will consider Sen. Winter’s proposed bill in the next legislative session beginning Feb. 5.