July 30 was National Whistleblower Day. In celebration of the day, the National Whistleblower Center hosted a virtual conference which featured speeches and panel discussions by whistleblowers, whistleblower advocates, and government officials. One of the panels was titled “Covid-19 Crisis: The Contribution of Whistleblowers to Public Health and Economic Revitalization.” This panel covered the ways in which whistleblowers are helping ensure transparency and accountability in connection with the COVID-19 crisis, both in the health care sector and in regard to trillions of dollars of federal relief funds. The panelists were Jhonna Porter, a registered nurse and coronavirus health care whistleblower; Michael Horowitz, the acting chair of the Pandemic Response Oversight Committee and the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Henry Kerner, Special Counsel for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
Porter began the panel by discussing her experiences as a nurse and whistleblower. A registered nurse for over a decade, Porter was alarmed in the early stages of the Covid pandemic by the lack of PPE and safety procedures in place at the hospital where she worked. In March, she messaged other employees at her hospital and informed them their floor would now be used exclusively to treat Covid patients. Around the same time, she posted on her personal Facebook page asking the public to donate PPE directly to health care professionals. At this time, Porter was suspended from work, despite the understaffing issues at her hospital. She states that this suspension, as well as the suspension of one of her coworkers, were clear acts of retaliation. In the panel, Porter explained why she came forward with her concerns. “I feel the need to protect my coworkers, patients, the public, and my family,” she said. “It’s why I became a nurse.” She later added that given the option to go back in time she would do it all the same way. Porter expressed concerns that hospitals and health care companies are still retaliating against workers who speak out about mismanagement and unsafe conditions. She urged everyone to sign a petition to end retaliation against nurse whistleblowers.
Next, Inspector General Horowitz spoke about the Pandemic Response Oversight Committee (PROC) and the importance of whistleblowers. Horowitz noted that the federal government has spent over $2.5 trillion in response to the pandemic and that this creates ideal conditions for waste, fraud and abuse. “Our eyes and ears are going to be whistleblowers,” he said. “It is critical they come forward.” He continued by asserting the Office of the Inspector General’s commitment to protecting whistleblowers and to ensuring they feel comfortable. He mentioned a hotline the office had created to enable whistleblower’s to come forward. And lastly, he referenced a webpage the PROC created which shows how government funds are being spent in order to increase transparency.
Special Counsel Kerner continued the panel by reaffirming the Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) commitment to whistleblowers. In particular, he stated that the OSC is doing everything in their power to ensure the expeditious processing of whistleblower complaints. He noted that in the previous quarter, from April to June, the OSC obtained the highest number of favorable actions in the office’s history. He continued by mentioning the recently established Covid Taskforce and the quick corrective actions the taskforce takes when a whistleblower complaint indicates safety risks. He next applauded the essential role whistleblowers have already played in response to the pandemic, including in regards to the new TSA measures enacted earlier this month.
The panel concluded with questions submitted by the audience. One audience member asked Porter if she was aware of whistleblower rights at the time she came forward. Porter responded that she had no idea there were laws protecting whistleblowers and acknowledged the need for greater public education about whistleblower rights. The final question concerned the DOJ and OSC’s stance on whistleblower confidentiality. Both Horowitz and Kerner responded by asserting their office’s commitment to maintaining whistleblowers’ legally protected right to confidentiality.
Earlier in the conference, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) spoke about the need for increased protections for coronavirus whistleblowers. In June, she, alongside Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) proposed the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act.