In Harrisburg, where adopting a state budget remained a sticking point this week, lawmakers succeeded Sunday in doing important business of another sort: delivering a blow to potential corruption.
They wisely voted to expand whistle-blower protections to certain people who uncover and draw attention to government waste, abuse or fraud.
One pending law, sent to the governor’s office for his signature, applies to employees of nonprofit organizations and private companies that receive public money to perform services. A second piece of reform-minded legislation, House Bill 185, adds the General Assembly and its agencies to the mix, meaning legislative workers have less to fear if, for instance, reporting their superiors are illegally compelling them to do campaign work on taxpayer-funded time – the crux of the state’s 2007 “Bonusgate” scandal.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, offered remarks on the Senate floor in favor of the legislation, saying: “A common criticism is that we need to change the culture. An effective means for doing so is to clear the way for individuals of conscience to report wrongdoing, through whistle-blower protection.”
This week, groups such as Common Cause Pennsylvania – a Harrisburg-based advocacy organization and self-described “protector against abuse of power” – heralded the bills’ passage. “No one should fear losing his or her job for reporting illegal activities, and hopefully these new laws will encourage more civic-minded people to take necessary action,” said Executive Director Barry L. Kauffman in a prepared statement.
Common Cause was an early champion of these reforms, brought about, in part, by concerns over an influx of federal stimulus dollars to Pennsylvania during the Great Recession.
Separately, a succession of scandals in the state capital suggested many workers who knew about lawbreaking didn’t have the nerve to say anything to stop it.
“If these new protections had been in effect eight years ago during the ‘Bonusgate’ and ‘Computergate’ scandals,” said Kauffman, “the damage to state government might have been diminished, the cost to taxpayers reduced, and fewer people would have needed to be prosecuted because the problem could have been nipped in the bud much earlier.”
Of course, the bigger obstacle to some would-be whistle-blowers might not involve whether a law exists or how it’s worded, but rather how human nature and peer pressure collide. Certain individuals are simply too meek to speak up. Others fail to do the right thing because of misguided notions about being seen as a “squealer” or “rat.”
As a society, we need to change perceptions about, and alter the language used to describe, the gutsy people who put the public’s good above their own welfare. That’s true in Harrisburg. And it’s particularly relevant in Luzerne County’s halls of power, be it a courthouse, city hall, school boardroom or place of business.
Let’s encourage whistle-blowing by acknowledging the people who do it by terms befitting their courage. Perhaps “hero.” Or even “patriot.”
Or maybe they’re simply ordinary people with ample self-respect.