Lawmakers Mull Protections For Whistleblowers

Apr 1, 2014

Jed Guertin had compiled more than enough evidence of wrongdoing. The hard part was finding someone who’d listen to him.

It was 1994, and Guertin was a computer systems specialist at what was then the Department of Travel and Tourism. Guertin’s supervisor had sought to steer a valuable software contract toward a firm that had no business winning the bid.

“I go through as many reasonable stages as I can to try and get the people who are above me to say, ‘Stop this. This is, you know, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,’” Guertin says.

Unable to solve the problem internally, Guertin blew the whistle publicly. And when his supervisor learned of his breach, Guertin quickly found himself frozen out at the government agency he’d spent 12 years climbing the ladder.

"You become the bad guy. A snitch is a snitch is a snitch." - Jed Guertin, a whistleblower who was denounced and later praised

“You become the bad guy. A snitch is a snitch is a snitch,” Guertin says. “That’s the reality of it."

Guertin, a Montpelier resident who went on to win a small cash settlement for his treatment at the hands of his superiors – along with an official letter praising his accomplishments on behalf of the department, is among the voices calling on lawmakers to strengthen whistleblower protections.

State Auditor Doug Hoffer says the state needs to do more to encourage government employees to expose abuses of power. But he says state workers risk their careers and reputations when they come forward. And Hoffer is asking lawmakers to preserve the anonymity of whistleblowers who come forward with evidence of bureaucratic misdeeds.

“You don’t want people to think, 'Oh, I have to hire a lawyer, and go through the process before I can just find some safe place and tell someone what I know,'” Hoffer says. “And that’s what I want to do, is create a safe place.”

During his time in office, Hoffer says he hasn’t seen many employees claim abuse of government resources. But he says there’s no doubt it’s happening.

“Because this is a $5 billion enterprise staffed by human beings. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a private-sector company or a state or a city,” Hoffer says. “It’s not uncommon. It’s always been the way that there are abuses of power.”

"This is a $5 billion enterprise staffed by human beings. It doesn’t matter whether you're a private-sector company or a state or a city ... It's always been the way that there are abuses of power.” - Doug Hoffer, state auditor

Kate Duffy, the commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, says the people managing state government have a vested interest in ensuring that bad actors are exposed. Duffy says the state already has a whistleblower protection statute.

“But the auditor did indicate that he had had a situation where he felt that there was a need to protect a whistleblower,” Duffy says. “And to me if that’s what it takes, I mean if it’s one person or it’s 20, we want to make sure that people feel that they’re protected under our whistleblower laws.”

The House earlier this year approved legislation that would guarantee anonymity for state employees who come to Hoffer’s office with evidence of fraud or abuse. The Vermont-ACLU has raised concerns about the bill’s impact on open government. But the legislation looks to have a clear path through the Senate.

Guertin says anonymity will be helpful. But he says the state also needs to devise a better process for vetting legitimate allegations of abuse.