Whistle­blower bill guts im­por­tant pro­tec­tions

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION -

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.

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