Health and Human Services Rule Illegally Stifles Whistleblowing, According to Senator Grassley

HHS Whistleblower

According to Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), current practices and a proposed rule by the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “seek to unlawfully chill whistleblowers from making lawful disclosures” and “are a blatant attempt to discourage and silence whistleblowers from making legally protected disclosures of misconduct and wrongdoing.”

On November 21, Grassley sent letters to HHS and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) outlining his concerns about how the ORR is illegally stifling whistleblowing. He specifically points to a proposed Unaccompanied Children (UAC) Program Foundational Rule, ORR’s current policy prohibiting certain disclosures, and ORR’s volunteer form’s non-disclosure provision as being unlawful.

“The ORR proposed rule and non-disclosure policies appear to run afoul of the statutory text and Congress’s intent in passing the Whistleblower Protection Act, its subsequent amendments, other whistleblower protection statutes, and the ‘anti-gag’ provision included in almost every appropriations bill since 1988,” Grassley writes.

According to Grassley, the proposed rule contains a provision barring HHS employees, former employees, and contractors “from disclosing any ‘case file records or information about unaccompanied children, their sponsors, family, or household members to anyone for any purpose, except for purposes of program administration, without first providing advanced notice to ORR.’” This provision apparently codifies an already existing policy.

“ORR’s proposed rule and the restrictive non-disclosure provisions appear to violate the Whistleblower Protection Act, its subsequent amendments, and they fail to recognize 5 U.S.C. § 7211 and the right of employees ‘to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied,’” writes Grassley.

Furthermore, the ORR’s volunteer form “also contains a non-disclosure agreement that fails to include the anti-gag provision as required by appropriations laws,” according to Grassley.

Grassley’s letter to the HHS is addressed to Secretary Xavier Becerra, Acting Assistant Secretary Jeff Hild, and Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement Robin Dunn Marcos. Grassley poses a number of questions about ORR’s non-disclosure policies.

In his letter to the OSC, addressed to Acting Special Counsel Karen Gorman, Grassley asks for a thorough review of HHS policies to ensure they “properly recognize whistleblower protections and laws.”

In recent years, HHS whistleblowers drew widespread attention to alleged mistreatment of refugee children at the ORR facility in Fort Bliss, Texas.

“Whistleblowers are brave men and women who perform an invaluable public service,” writes Grassley. “Whistleblowers help enhance government transparency and root out waste, fraud, and abuse. It’s critically important that HHS whistleblowers know their rights and are not intimidated into silence by federal agency gag provisions. Without whistleblowers, we would likely not have discovered the mismanagement that occurred at the ORR facility at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, the alleged exploitation of children transferred from HHS to the custody of ill-vetted sponsors, or HHS allegedly sending children to human traffickers. Federal agencies cannot hide behind illegal non-disclosure and similar agreements to conceal their misconduct. It’s critically important that whistleblowers know they have the right and are encouraged to disclose government fraud, waste, abuse, and wrongdoing. These whistleblower disclosures are responsible for saving lives.”

Further Reading:

“It was shocking to all of us.” — WNN Exclusive Interview with Immigration Detention Center Whistleblowers Lauren Reinhold and Kait Hess

Senator Grassley’s Letter

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