As previously reported by Whistleblower Network News, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has failed to publish rules implementing a Congressionally-mandated auto safety whistleblower program. On March 23, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg demanding that the DOT immediately implement the whistleblower program.
“Over the past few years, we have observed increasingly devastating and tragic motor vehicle safety defects, which could have been prevented if the auto manufacturers did not ignore substantial safety concerns that originated during the manufacturing process,” wrote Senators Blumenthal and Markey, members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
The Senators’ press release about the letter notes that “[w]histleblowers have played a key role in revealing several recent major auto safety defects posing high risks to consumer safety, including 69 million faulty Takata airbags, 4 million Hyundai and Kia vehicles with engine failure and fire risks, and half a million Volkswagen vehicles with technology to cheat emissions tests.”
The Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act (MVSWA), which both Blumenthal and Markey co-sponsored, was signed into law in 2015 as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act). The MVSWA mandated the establishment of a whistleblower rewards program for auto-manufacturer employees who blow the whistle on safety issues and defects. Modeled on the highly successful SEC Whistleblower Program, the MVSWA stipulates that individuals who voluntarily provide the DOT with original information which leads to a successful enforcement action are entitled to a monetary award ranging from 10-30% of the funds recovered by the government. The program also protects the confidentiality of whistleblowers.
The FAST Act required the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) approve and publish rules and regulations implementing this whistleblower program within 18 months of the Act’s enactment. However, approximately four years past the Congressionally-mandated deadline, the DOT has failed to even publish preliminary rules and regulations. This has rendered the whistleblower program effectively moot.
In their letter to Secretary Buttigieg, Senators Blumenthal and Markey write that they “respectfully request that [Buttigieg] work towards implementing the FAST Act’s whistleblower protection provisions immediately.”
Kohn, who is also the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Whistleblower Center (NWC), added that “the DOT has dragged their feet far too long, and action is needed. We have previously submitted detailed comments, and it is important that the DOT track the rules of the SEC as closely as possible.”
Kohn references multiple letters sent to the DOT by the NWC concerning rules for the auto safety whistleblower program. One letter sent in June 2016 contained detailed recommendations for rules based upon the rules for the SEC’s whistleblower program, a highly effective whistleblower rewards program in the midst of a record-setting year. These rules cover every aspect of the rewards program, including provisions for protecting the confidentiality of whistleblowers and explanations of the steps whistleblowers must make in order to be eligible for a whistleblower award.
In their letter, Blumenthal and Markey reference specific whistleblowers who helped expose recent motor vehicle safety defects. For example, the letter details that “[i]n 2017, Kim Gwang-ho, a Kia engineer and whistleblower, alerted NHTSA authorities to a safety defect that caused engine failures and fire risks in Hyundai and Kia vehicles,” and “[i]n 2015, Stuart Johnson, a Volkswagen executive and whistleblower, revealed to authorities that Volkswagen had specially designed and installed a software device on its vehicles to beat vehicle emission tests.”
According to the Senators’ letter, “[w]e owe it to the whistleblowers mentioned above and those unnamed to implement the whistleblower protections in the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act.”
The Senators conclude their letter by posing a number of questions to Secretary Buttigieg to “better understand the cause for the missed deadline, status of the rulemaking, and expected completion date.” The questions are:
- Why did NHTSA miss the statutory deadline for the rulemaking?
- What is the current status of the rulemaking and when does NHTSA expect to progress to the next stage?
- When does NHTSA expect to issue a final rule?
The Senators request that Secretary Buttigieg answer the questions by April 14, 2021. During his confirmation hearing Buttigieg did not touch upon the DOT’s failure to enact the program. According to the Wall Street Journal, “a spokesman for the secretary said the administration has made the program a priority.” The DOT did not respond to a request for comment on this story.