Floor Statement by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Co-Founder & Co-Chair, Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus
On Sunshine Week: Shining Light on DoD Whistleblower Hotline
Thursday, March 14, 2019
I come to the floor today to celebrate an important week in our system of self-government. This week is known as Sunshine Week.
For the last 14 years, advocacy groups, good government watchdogs and media organizations have joined forces to observe the importance of transparency and freedom of information.
As a longtime champion for an open, accessible government, I speak today in support of those enduring principles.
Sunshine Week coincides each year with March 16.
That’s the day one of our nation’s founding fathers and fourth president of the United States was born.
James Madison is widely known as the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
From his writings in the Federalist papers, you might say he was the architect who framed our system of checks and balances.
Madison believed all powers of the government are derived of, by and for the people.
And that is what brings me to the floor today, Mr. President.
The public has a right to know what their government is doing and how it’s spending tax dollars.
What’s more, the American people owe a debt of gratitude to our fellow citizens who bravely come forward – often at great professional risk -- to report wrongdoing.
I’m here today to talk about a ray of sunlight coming from the Department of Defense.
More specifically, I want to talk about the whistleblower hotline managed by the Office of Inspector General.
Now, I spend a lot of time and effort on government oversight.
Congressional oversight is part of our constitutional assignment: to protect the power of the purse and ensure laws are faithfully enforced.
My sights are set quite often on the Pentagon.
The U.S. military is the strongest and mightiest in the world.
Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line to protect our sacred freedoms.
Each of us should be fighting tooth and nail to make sure they have the resources they need.
I’m not talking about writing blank checks.
I’m talking about making sure defense dollars are spent wisely.
The Pentagon shoulders a strategic and vital mission for America, but is by no means infallible.
Not by a long shot.
As with most any bureaucracy or corporate organization, its workplace culture dictates that each individual should “go along to get along.”
Institutional foot-dragging at the Pentagon, for example, has hampered efforts to root out sexual misconduct.
And a systemic bookkeeping problem has plagued the Department of Defense for decades.
Nevertheless, I keep pressing the Pentagon to fix its fiscal mess.
Every dollar lost to waste, fraud and abuse is a dollar that could be put to better use for our men and women in uniform, for better housing, as one example.
I learned long ago that one of the best ways to expose wrongdoing is by listening to whistleblowers.
They are the ones who have their noses and ears to the ground, day in and day out.
These patriots know the difference between right and wrong.
So, when their good conscience compels them to come forward, we should hear them out.
And we need to encourage others to do the same. Whistleblowers within the Defense Department help weed out improper payments, procurement fraud and other unethical schemes and misbehaviors that come at taxpayer expense and military readiness.
As co-founder and co-chairman of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, I lead efforts from Capitol Hill to strengthen protections and raise awareness for what’s often an uphill battle for whistleblowers.
In the rigid command of the U.S. military, the civilian workforce and uniformed members of the military are trained to follow protocol and respect the chain of command.
Instead of receiving a pat on the back for exposing wrongdoing, too many face retribution and reprisal.
I often say they are treated like skunks at a Sunday picnic.
That brings me to the DoD whistleblower hotline – a vital conduit for whistleblower complaints.
There is some good news in a November IG report.
It shows the huge back-log of tips has been reduced.
You could say it’s a glimmer of hope in an otherwise swamp of secrecy.
You see, the report also exposes the bad news.
The playbook of bureaucratic authority – defend, delay and deny – is alive and kicking. From fiscal years 2013 to 2018, the IG’s office found the number of reports tripled.
But it also showed the number of reprisal complaints doubled.
The report found that 350 Defense Department officials – most of them in branches of the Armed Forces, retaliated against or sought to intimidate 195 whistleblowers.
This tells me that higher-ups who are accused of retaliating against whistleblowers are going unpunished.
Consider, about 85 percent of the people who reported wrongdoing – and faced professional punishment or personal embarrassment, are STILL waiting for any remedy, according to the IG report.
This sends an unsubtle signal to whistleblowers. Blow the whistle at your own risk.
When the top dogs who dish out retribution go unpunished – and are even promoted -- the message to the rank-and-file is heard loud and clear.
Nearly two years ago, I came to the floor of the Senate to sound the alarm.
At that time, I shared statistics from a 2016 IG report. It listed 406 hotline cases that had been open for more than 2 years.
More than half of those cases – 240 cases – had been open for more than 1,000 days – and some sat at the four-year mark.
At that time, I noted the IG’s office wasn’t moving the needle, despite increases in personnel and money.
The workforce to workload ratio was mismatched.
Cases were adding up and a corrosive workplace culture within the IG was a festering sore.
Allegations of tampering with investigations and whitewashing cases were tarnishing the reputation of the premier whistleblower oversight unit at the Pentagon.
Congressional watchdogs, like myself, should not have to watch the Pentagon watchdog to keep oversight on track.
Things seemed to turn a corner when acting Inspector General Fine recognized the antics of a bureaucracy run amok.
I’m glad to see a ray of sunlight coming from the IG office.
However, we aren’t yet out of the woods.
I want to thank those in the IG office who are toiling to reduce the hotline’s backlog.
However, the DoD needs to step up and face the music.
It needs to own these failures in letting retaliators off the hook.
Failing to hold these folks accountable is a huge slap in the face to those in the Department who are performing their responsibilities every day with dedication and excellence.
It’s a slap in the face to the taxpayers.
And it’s telling whistleblowers: Thanks but no thanks. Feel free to disclose your report.
But we may press the mute button after processing the claim.
Make no mistake about it.
The hotline becomes meaningless if whistleblowers lack confidence in the system.
They’ll stop calling and stop reporting waste, fraud and abuse.
My advice to Inspector General Fine: Put some mustard on it.
And add some hot sauce while you’re at it.
Get down to brass tacks and recommend disciplinary action against the retaliators.
In closing, I’d like to share a tip with the Department of Defense.
This U.S. Senator will continue shining the spotlight on waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, and elsewhere.
And I will continue advocating for whistleblowers with every tool at my disposal.
As an Iowa farmer, I know what a load of manure smells like.
And I’m also very aware why farmers make hay when the sun shines.
And that’s a good lesson for good government.
Sunshine helps hold government accountable to the people.