H.R 5697 Series—Part II: The GAO Calls For Improved Wildlife Whistleblower Reward Programs

This is a multi-part series on the Whistleblower Protection Blog covering the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act of 2018. 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report titled: “Combating Wildlife Trafficking: Opportunities Exist to Improve the Use of Financial Rewards.” It further demonstrates the urgent need for legislation like the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act of 2018 (H.R. 5697), which contains provisions for the payment of financial rewards to incentivize wildlife whistleblowers.

The report was prepared at the request of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Committee on Finance. It details the findings of a GAO audit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding their use of rewards for wildlife crime whistleblowers, ranging from the years 2007-2017.

The report has four main findings. First, it finds that FWS and NOAA have authorization to pay rewards to wildlife whistleblowers under many laws, but they have only paid 27 rewards in a 10-year period, totaling $205,000.

Second, it finds that FWS lacks a structured policy when determining the amount of reward that should be paid to whistleblowers. For example, the report states: “one agent submitted a request to his supervisor to pay a $10,000 reward to a source who provided information on a major wildlife trafficker. But, for reasons unknown to the agent, his supervisor reduced the amount to $1,000.”

Third, it finds that FWS and NOAA lack communication with the public regarding the possibility of financial rewards for reporting wildlife crime. Out of all the FWS and NOAA offices in the U.S., only the FWS Alaska regional office advertises information on its website regarding the potential for financial rewards if one reports information on wildlife crime. It was also found that these agencies do not communicate to international audiences, despite the transnational nature of wildlife crime.

Fourth, it finds that the agencies have not reviewed the effectiveness of using financial rewards to incentivize the reporting of wildlife crime.

The GAO report provides a set of recommendations to ameliorate these structural and programmatic deficiencies, and both agencies have concurred with the GAO’s guidance in letters of response. NOAA even wrote that it “acknowledges the effectiveness and value in issuing financial rewards to combat wildlife trafficking.”

However, there is no legal obligation ensuring that the agencies will follow through with GAO’s recommendations.

H.R. 5697 provides that legal push. It is a legislative fix that builds on GAO’s findings by obligating FWS, NOAA, and many other federal agencies to augment and improve their use of financial rewards to pay wildlife trafficking whistleblowers.

The bill, if passed, will mandate that the Department of Interior, the agency that oversees FWS, and the Department of Commerce, the agency that oversees NOAA, to create plans of action to fully implement wildlife whistleblower reward programs. It also mandates the establishment of Whistleblower Offices in several other agencies, and the creation of confidential and anonymous channels to report wildlife crimes. It would guarantee that at least 15%, and as much as 50% of funds recovered from successful prosecution go to the whistleblower.

H.R. 5697 would bring about a sea change in our enforcement of wildlife trafficking by tapping into a powerful tool that federal agencies have yet to fully activate—whistleblowers. H.R. 5697 is smart legislation for a complex problem. It is time we mandate that our federal agencies get smart about combatting wildlife crime.

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