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WASHINGTON - Outreach efforts to inform all Defense Department personnel of their whistleblower rights and protections may have produced a sharp increase in contacts received by the Department of Defense whistleblower protection ombudsman so far this year, growing from about four to six a month as of August 2013 - the date the DoD ombudsman was appointed - to a total of 270 since Jan. 1, DoD Inspector General officials announced this week.
The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 directs Inspectors General to designate a Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman. Whistleblower complaints include fraud, waste and abuse; reprisal; and violations of classified information, officials said.
The number of reprisal complaints also saw a slight increase in the past year, after a July 2013 law allowed defense subcontractors into the whistleblower arena. Included in the 2013 Defense Authorization Act, that statute covers all personnel working on new DoD contracts, modified contracts, grants and task orders.
The DoD Hotline fields all complaints, and whistleblowers who bring allegations of reprisal must make their complaints by name, because anonymous and third-party reprisal complaints and tips cannot be investigated, said Marguerite Garrison, deputy DoD inspector general for administrative investigations.
Prior to the new law, when the DoD inspector general's office received a complaint, a defense subcontractor complainant wasn't "covered," so investigations could not be conducted. In addition, the statute now allows for a broader group to whom the whistleblower can disclose information, including "a court or a grand jury, as well as management officials or other employees of the contractor or subcontractor who has the responsibility to investigate, discover or address the misconduct," Garrison said.
Amendments in the law include protected communication.
"It used to be that complaining to the chain of command - 'I'm raising a concern about fraud' - wasn't considered protected communication, which was necessary" for the whistleblower rights statute, Nilgun Tolek, whistleblower reprisal investigations director, said. And adding a "higher standard of proof" to show that a contracting agency is not acting in reprisal brings the law "in line with most other modern whistleblower protection statutes," she added.
Complainants also now have up to three years to file. "That's a really long time," Tolek said.
The original statute states that if a case isn't closed within 210 days, or DoD denies the claim, the complainant can start anew by filing the case in civilian district court, she said.
Companies with contracts of $5 million or more are now required to put up posters concerning whistleblower rights and how to access the hotline to reach out to workers about the law, said Patrick Gookin, DoD whistleblower protection ombudsman and DoD Hotline director.