Whistleblower bill guts important protections
Despite its sponsor’s claim to the contrary, Senate Bill 299, which proposes significant changes to the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act, would gut an important state law designed to protect public employees who report illegal or improper activity at state, county, municipal and other government agencies.
Unfortunately, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, has ignored legitimate concerns expressed by New Mexico Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group organized last year, and is forging ahead with his problematic bill.
The Whistleblower Protection Act, enacted in 2010, provides important safeguards for public employees who “blow the whistle” on corruption, including protection from retaliation for doing the right thing. So any attempts to tinker with that law need closer-than-usual scrutiny.
Several provisions in SB 299 — which has been assigned to the Senate Public Affairs and Senate Judiciary committees — are disconcerting.
For starters, it prevents contractors from filing claims — even though contractors are often in a perfect position to spot corruption. It would also limit the law so that only non-administrative employees fired for lodging legitimate complaints can get their jobs back. And, though the current law allows employees to get their old jobs back at the same seniority level, Candelaria’s bill could force them into a different job with the same seniority level.
It doesn’t stop there. SB 299, as written, would remove malfeasance by a public official as grounds for a complaint and raise the standard for a “waste” of government funds to a “gross waste” of funds, without quantifying what constitutes said gross waste of funds.
But perhaps the most troubling of all the unnecessary proposed changes is a requirement that an employee who has suffered retaliation prove they suffered “tangible or significant change” in their employment status.
It’s worth noting that New Mexico Ethics Watch, the organization that asked Candelaria to withdraw his ill-conceived bill, is no run-of-the-mill watchdog.
Its executive director is Douglas Carver, former staff attorney for the Legislative Council Service. He also has worked for the Judicial Standards Commission and has degrees from Yale University and UNM Law School.
The organization’s chairman is Richard Bosson, a retired justice of the state Supreme Court. Rounding out the board are Phil Davis, an attorney who’s worked for the American Civil Liberties Union; Vic Bruno, a commercial real estate consultant; Daniel Yohalem, an attorney with experience in civil rights law; and attorneys Al Green and Joleen Youngers.
If these learned individuals see problems with Candelaria’s bill, it’s a good bet they’re serious problems.
Given Candelaria’s unwillingness to pull the bill, legislators who are truly concerned with rooting out corruption and protecting the people who report it should step up and kill it.