STL Post-Dispatch Editorial: Protect Missouri’s employees and make government accountable with whistleblower protections

By the Editorial Board

Any government employee who blows the whistle on wrongdoing or mismanagement and saves taxpayers money deserves a reward, not a punishment. State lawmakers might not want to hand out rewards, but they should at least restore legal protections that they and Gov. Eric Greitens took from whistleblowers this year.

Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway, whose job is to focus on state spending, is urging legislators to support whistleblowers, and to add transparency and taxpayer protections to legal settlements. Government runs on taxpayer revenue, and citizens have every right to know how their money is spent.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, and House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, are sponsoring identical bills — Senate Bill 786 and House Bill 1515 — that attempt to lift the veil of secrecy on state government operations and overturn provisions of controversial Senate Bill 43 that Greitens signed into law last summer.

 

Protecting employees who report problems helps ensure more transparent government. The Missouri Department of Corrections was reformed last year after courageous employees reported a culture of harassment and retaliation, and a pattern of secretive payments to some employees totaling about $7.6 million. The reports prompted legislative investigations, resulting in the reforms and new leadership.

Gutting whistleblower protections increases the threat of retaliation and fosters an atmosphere of worker intimidation. Employees fearful of retaliation won’t raise concerns about wrongdoing, undermining government’s ability to ferret out wasteful, improper and possibly illegal use of tax revenue.

When SB 43, sponsored by Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, was debated, most of the focus was on the bill’s weakening of anti-discrimination laws. The new law makes it harder to prove racial discrimination, which was something of a personal issue for Romine, whose rent-to-own furniture business at the time had been embroiled in a racial discrimination lawsuit for nearly two years.

 

The bill’s sponsors said the law would create a more business-friendly environment, and Greitens said it would help “prevent trial lawyers from killing good jobs” by reducing the number of frivolous lawsuits that hurt the business climate.

But making it harder for public or private employees to prove workplace discrimination only adds to the atmosphere of impunity for abusers. Besides, weakening protections for whistleblowers won’t do anything to improve Missouri’s business environment.

The new bills’ provision regarding legal settlements is an effort to track the Legal Defense Fund, the pool of money used to make payments from lawsuits against the state, including for alleged harassment or discrimination. Galloway’s audit of the fund, released in September, shows that Missouri spent more than $9 million over six years on employment discrimination cases with no system for tracking the amount or nature of the payments.

All Missouri taxpayers, regardless of party affiliation, have a stake in better accountability. Schupp’s and Beatty’s bills would fill some gaping holes.

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