When suing under the False Claims Act, relators, or whistleblowers, are eligible for 15% to 30% of the amount recovered by their case. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re protected.
According to a draft Government Accountability Office report, the Department of Energy’s nuclear program very seldom holds its civilian contractors accountable for unlawful retaliation against whistleblowers.
When Sandra Black’s colleagues reported illegal or wasteful practices at the Savannah River nuclear facility in South Carolina, she assured them that the U.S. Department of Energy would not tolerate retaliation against them.
“Now I know that wasn’t true,” said Black.
As the head of her site’s employee complaints program, it was Black’s job to evaluate and investigate concerns brought forward by employees, as well as protect those employees from any retaliation.
However, in a shocking turn of events, she was then fired, allegedly because she’d cooperated with government auditors who were in the midst of an investigation into retaliation against whistleblowers.
The DOE relies more heavily on contractors than any other civilian federal agency does. In fact, 90% of the DOE budget is used on contracts.
Nevertheless, the agency has taken almost no action against those contractors responsible for creating harmful work environments at nuclear sites across the U.S. and has failed to implement policies that could potentially prevent this.
“All the words that the [U.S. Department of Energy] proclaims about wanting to have a strong safety culture, a safety-conscious work environment and that it has zero tolerance for retaliation are a pretense,” Black said at a conference on Capitol Hill.
According to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, the GAO report confirmed that contract employees at the DOE’s nuclear sites “are working in an environment that is not open, not safety conscious and hostile to whistleblowers.”
Watchdog groups said the report emphasized the necessity for Congress to strengthen whistleblower protection laws. Replacing lengthy and frustrating bureaucratic complaint process through the U.S. Department of Labor with direct access to federal court jury trials for DOE employees should be among those changes.
Black said she was pressured by her superiors to alter or close multiple reports. She also reported being pressured to reveal the identities of employees who voiced such complaints.
One employee at Black’s site told auditors, “They fired [Sandra Black]. What do you think they’re going to do to me?”