Friday, 08 March 2019 13:11

Senate passes added whistleblower protections by unanimous vote

Written by
Rate this item
(0 votes)

RALEIGH — The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill to protect state whistleblowers from retaliation. Senate Bill 127, which heads to the House, would bring North Carolina in line with laws in dozens of other states.

Senators said the bill didn’t arise from any specific situation. But they acknowledged it would apply to a showdown lawmakers are having with Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The General Assembly hired a team of investigators to look into the administration’s negotiations with utilities about the pipeline, but Cooper doesn’t want employees to talk to them, calling it a political fishing expedition.

Legislators accused Cooper of creating an unconstitutional $57.8 million contingency fund from money his aides negotiated with the energy companies building the 600-mile pipeline across West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. The General Assembly redirected the money to eight school districts in the pipeline’s path.

Some lawmakers have called it a slush fund, and expressed concerns about possible coercion and pay-to-play schemes. Pipeline developers were attempting to get a vital water permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality at the same time Cooper’s staff was negotiating the side deal for tens of millions of dollars he would control.

Carolina Journal first broke the story about the irregular pipeline deal, and has published a series of stories about the issue.

Senators passed the Protecting Government Accountability Act 44-0 with little discussion other than adopting two amendments.

One would require heads of state agencies, departments, and institutions to inform their employees about the law. The other clarified that the protections covered state employee testimony to agents or employees of legislative inquiry panels appointed by the Speaker of the House or Senate President Pro Tempore.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, and Sens. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Warren Daniel, R-Burke, introduced the legislation. The senators said Cooper and N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan had refused to affirm they wouldn’t retaliate against public employees who voluntarily shared information with the General Assembly’s independent investigators.

Current whistleblower statutes protect employees who share information about violations of state law or regulation; fraud; misappropriation of state resources; danger to the public; or gross mismanagement. The law hasn’t included employees sharing protected information with the legislature or its designated surrogates outside a traditional public hearing.

Without that specific protection, employees could be intimidated from disclosing information.

“The question here is whether public agencies can fire public employees for sharing information protected under the whistleblower statutes simply because of the way that employee chooses to convey the information,” Brown said in a press release immediately after the vote.

“We think the answer is pretty clear: No public employee should face retaliation for sharing information with the legislature, regardless of how or to whom that information is communicated,” Brown said.

Brown said Regan recently refused to answer a letter from lawmakers asking for his commitment not to retaliate against public employees who share information with the private investigators.

Senators included in their press release examples of strong whistleblower protection laws in Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, and New Jersey. They said 28 states have similar employee safeguards from retaliation or discrimination.