Whistleblower Bill Advances in Leg
January 11, 2012
JAN. 11, 2012
By KATY GRIMES
Each year, thousands of California state employees do the right thing by exposing government waste and fraud. But not in the state Capitol in Sacramento, according to Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena.
At an Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Portantino explained that when state employees do the right thing, they are protected from retaliation under the California Whistleblower Protection Act. However, there are no whistleblower protections for California’s Capitol staff should they decide to blow the whistle on fraud. That’s because California’s whistleblower law exempts employees of the Legislature.
As part of Portantino’s broader efforts to ensure openness, transparency and accountability in state government, he has authored AB 1378. It would provide Legislative staffers with the same protections from retaliation as other state employees. Surprisingly, the bill passed its first committee on Tuesday.
The bill marks the first time legislative employees will have legal protection from reprisals for reporting government wrongdoing.
Open Records, Transparency, Retaliation
Portantino knows a thing or two about retaliation after blowing a whistle. Last August, he blasted the Assembly for not complying with the state-required performance audit of Assembly administrative offices. The Standing Rules of the Assembly call for an annual performance audit of the Assembly. But according to Portantino, the Assembly has never actually complied with this rule.
Portantino then introduced legislation to force the Assembly and Senate to comply with the California Public Records Act, which makes access to records much easier. But that was shot down.
In a retaliatory move, the Assembly Rules Committee one-upped Portantino when it released member-by-member spending records. The records purportedly showed Portantino as the top spender. However, he subsequently proved that the records were not accurate and that his office was actually 37th on the list of Assembly spending, close to the middle of 80 Assembly members.
It’s been ugly. It finally took an order from Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley before the Assembly released its spending records.
The California Whistleblower Protection Act currently states that employees of the state may report retaliation by contacting the State Personnel Board. And employees of the University of California and California State University systems may report retaliation by contacting their human resources department.
Portantino’s AB 1378 would require the provisions of the Whistleblower act to apply to the Legislature as well. “Legislative staff need some protections from retaliation,” Portantino told the Assembly Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
Philip Ung of California Common Cause testified in support of Portantino’s bill. “This is the sole measure to hold power accountable,” Ung said. “We want public officials to look over their shoulders. The Whistleblower Act is key to that.” Ung said that, unless legislative staff are included, they are subjected to threats and reprisals.
Ung reminded committee members that the mission of Common Cause is to “make public officials and public institutions accountable and responsive to citizens.”
While AB 1378 was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on a unanimous vote, it wasn’t without some challenges.
The Judiciary Committee chairman, Assemblyman Mike Feurer, D-Los Angeles, challenged Portantino for including legislators. “The power dynamic is different for legislators and staff,” Feurer said. “Legislators don’t need the added avenue to complain.”
Feurer said that legislators are already protected because of their power and positions, as well as the access they have to media and district attorneys, and have the added layer of accountability to the voting public.
Portantino disagreed. “There should be a way to do this anonymously,” he said.
However, Portantino agreed to amend the bill to exclude legislators in order to keep the bill alive and moving through the committee process.
The bill is headed to the Assembly Appropriations Committee later this month. However, I am not expecting the bill to receive the same level of support there.