Congress is once again calling on whistleblowers for help investigating a federal agency, this time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Boeing 737 Max airplane tails
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Citing safety issues emerging after two crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX airplane, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on Friday put out a call for FAA whistleblowers. They were directed to a new whistleblower webpage set up to collect information.

The move marks the second time in about a month that a member of Congress has called on whistleblowers to come forward. In February, Rep. Maxine Waters  issued an open letter to potential whistleblowers at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  The California Democrat asked agency employees who witness waste, fraud, abuse to contact her office.

Anyone thinking about becoming a whistleblower should speak to a whistleblower attorney first, said John Kostyack, director of the National Whistleblower Center

“Given the complex set of laws and procedures governing whistleblowing, and given the risk of retaliation for speaking out, whistleblowers should get assistance with protecting confidentiality and anonymity and potentially receiving financial rewards for assisting law enforcement with addressing wrongdoing and recovering civil and criminal penalties,” Kostyack said.


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Privacy Act Protections for Whistleblowers At Risk

On Tuesday, October 4, 2011, the National Whistleblower Center filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the plaintiff in a Privacy Act case, Federal Aviation Administration v. Cooper, No. 10-1024. The Supreme Court is currently reviewing whether the Privacy Act permits the recovery of damages for non-pecuniary harm, such as mental and emotional injuries, under the Act’s “actual damages” provision. 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(4)(A).

In the lower court, the Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiff was entitled to seek damages for emotional distress. The government, however, has appealed to the Supreme Court to seek a reversal claiming that the term “actual damages” should be narrowly construed to limit Privacy Act damages suits to recovery of out of pocket losses or economic harm caused by the government’s willful or intentional violation of the Act.

Whistleblowers who report wrongdoing by Federal agencies and government officials frequently are subject to violations of privacy. It cannot be over-stated how vital avenues of legal redress, including rights available under the Privacy Act, are to those courageous employee-whistleblowers, both actual and potential, who put the public good before their own careers and who face violations of their privacy as a result of taking unpopular positions. Protecting the privacy of these individuals is an essential component in encouraging employees to reveal severe abuses of power and dangerous industrial practices. Even under the best of circumstances, whistleblowers run enormous risks and suffer retaliation for reporting wrongdoing. If the Privacy Act does not provide remedies for actual non-pecuniary harms (such as for emotional distress and humiliation), then whistleblowers face even greater disincentives to expose misconduct or violations of law.


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Two letters to the editor printed in today’s Washington Post reminded me of a meeting I attended in May of the FAA Whistleblowers Alliance. FAA Whistleblowers Alliance meetingOne of today’s letters was from the Potomac TRACON local of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The other letter, by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, extolled the virtues of

Air traffic controller Ray Adams put aviation safety ahead of his own career when he blew the whistle on near misses on the runways of Newark Airport in New Jersey. NJ.com reports that when Adams raised concerns about how runway intersections at Newark posed a risk of collision, he was removed from the control tower on a false charge of failing to follow orders.  The Office of Special Counsel has now confirmed that Adams was right about the inherent dangers of Newark’s runway configuration. At a Senate committee hearing last month, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) questioned Randy Babbitt, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Sen. Lautenberg expressed dismay that any air traffic controller would face threats of removal for raising a safety concern.

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