By William Wiley, February 21, 2017

Here’s a recent hypothetical phone call between one of our top notch FELTG reporters and a senior career employee at a big federal agency.

FELTG:  So, how’s it going, Buddy?

Civil Servant: It stinks. My new political employee boss is a stupid, incompetent, smelly jerk. He’s improperly funneling a lot of huge federal contracts to his family members. And, he just told me that his brother has been hired as a spy at CIA. How you doing?

It’s getting to where every federal employee probably needs an employment lawyer on speed dial, and to use that phone number before he says anything to anybody. Here’s how this somewhat innocuous statement looks in consideration of federal employment law.

  1. “My new political employee boss is a stupid, incompetent, smelly jerk.” This statement constitutes actionable misconduct. Yes, our civil servant may have a Constitutional right to freedom of speech in general, but a senior agency official saying something like this to a reporter constitutes the charge of Disrespectful Conduct and warrants at a minimum a Reprimand. Federal employees are free to have these thoughts, but not free to express them to a reporter while sitting in a high-level federal position.
  2. “He’s improperly funneling a lot of federal contracts to his family members.” This statement is protected and may not be the basis for discipline. By definition, it constitutes “whistleblowing,” 5 USC 2302(b)(8). An agency may not discipline (e.g., reprise against) a federal employee who discloses violations of law, as this would.
  3. “And, he just told me that his brother has been hired as a spy at CIA.” This disclosure violates a law that prohibits the release of secret information. Therefore, it is not whistleblowing and warrants not just discipline, but also criminal prosecution.

One of the problems we have as a society is that a number of people who talk about federal employees who disclose information have not had the advantage of the legal training provided by the Federal Employment Law Training Group. They give speeches, interviews on television, and hold press conferences in which they lambaste employees who leak information about the internal goings-on in a federal agency. A number of those senior officials have initiated investigations into the leaks with the intent of firing the leak-ees.

Well, here’s the deal, Lucille. There are two kinds of leaks: those that align with the second statement above and those that align with the third. If a federal manager finds out that one of her underlings leaked information to a reporter that discloses a violation of law, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, a danger to public safety or health, or an abuse of authority, that employee is ABSOLUTELY PROTECTED by law from discipline, reassignment, a significant change in duties, or any other personnel action that would constitute whistleblower reprisal. However, if the disclosure itself as in the third statement above violates a law against making such disclosures (e.g. the disclosing of secret information), then the employee ABSOLUTELY can be disciplined, fired, and even charged with criminal misconduct.

So when you hear that someone is going after “leakers,” keep in mind that there are good leakers and there are bad leakers, according to the law. Good leakers are whistleblowers who cannot be disciplined, and bad leakers are civil servants who disclose information prohibited from disclosure by law and who can be fired.

Unfortunately, as we wrote about earlier this month, if you leak, you may not know which of the two categories you fall into until after you’ve mortgaged the house to defend yourself in a removal action. Please be careful out there. Wiley@FELTG.com

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