New Ombudsman to Set the Tone for Whistleblowers at DOJ
The U.S. Department of Justice is flashing a green light to whistleblowers in its own ranks. On Wednesday, the agency announced the creation of a new position in the Office of the Inspector Generalthat of whistleblower ombudsperson, one of few such positions in the federal government.
Filling that new role is Robert Storch, a longtime federal prosecutor who has focused largely on public corruption and white collar crime. At the Justice Department, hes now tasked with training employees on the importance of whistleblowers in improving agency operations, in addition to educating them about protections against retaliation, according to an agency announcement [PDF].
We see over and over again the importance of whistleblowers in bringing information to light, Storch said in a radio interview with The Federal Drive. The purpose of the position is really to help ensure make that the IGs office continues to provide an appropriate forum to review those complaints, and that we do it properly.
The decision to field an ombudsman comes in the wake of two developments at the DOJ: revelations over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms failed Fast and Furious operation, and the arrival of a new Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowtiz, this past April.
Whistleblower allegations have figured prominently in congressional hearings over Fast and Furious, which centers on an operation, meant to combat gun smuggling, that went awry. In June, two Republican lawmakers questioned Horowitz [PDF] as to why two whistleblowers who had testified before Congress were placed under the supervision of someone who vowed to retaliate against them.
Storch, however, in his Federal Drive interview, emphasized Horowitzs experience in the corporate world as a key driver. Prior to joining the agency, Horowitz specialized in compliance as a partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, as a commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Horowitz, said Storch, saw from his own experience in private practice, and the way corporations handle thisand then in his time since hes become IGjust how important whistleblowers can be in providing information that can lead to uncovering waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagementeven corruption.
The Government Accountability Project, which has both represented and worked closely with Justice Department whistleblowers, applauded the new position.
This is a long overdue, much needed, and very healthy structural reform to start the long process of overcoming engrained bias against whistleblowers at the Justice OIG, says the advocacy groups legal director Tom Devine.
He continues: Justice traditionally is counsel for the United States. Theyre trying to defeat whistleblower cases and rip out their charges. The [inspector general] cant avoid being part of that tradition, even though it has more of an internal watchdog role.
Experts say the position sends an important message to employees, management, and other agencies.
The Department of Justice has historically had a leadership role in establishing best practices for other governmental agencies, says Jordan Thomas, a former assistant director and assistant chief litigation counsel in the SEC Division of Enforcement who now chairs the whistleblower representation practice at Labaton Sucharow.
And, whether in government or the private sector, says Thomas, there tends to be a failure to follow through, and follow up, with whistleblowers.
Indeed, says Richard Moberly, an associate dean and law professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, the primary reason would-be whistleblowers dont come forward isnt because they fear retaliation, but that they fear being ignored. The number one reason is because theyre concerned that nothing will be done about their complaint, he explains.
Putting someone in a position to give feedback to whistleblowers changes that dynamic. When employees perceive their complaints will be heard, more disclosures are made, Moberly says. It becomes a feedback loop, he adds.
Once whistleblowers do come forward, its in the organizations best interest to ensure that theyll be taken care of, says Thomas. When people believe theyre being retaliated against, he says, it undermines the culture of integrity for the organization.
Which is why the training aspect of the ombudsperson position at Justice is important, says Moberly. If managers are acting in good faith, he says, you want to know what these problems are so you can address them.