WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the Steering Committee of the Make It Safe Coalition (MISC) unanimously urged merit systems Special Counsel Henry Kerner of the Office of Special Counsel to investigate recent statements made by Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions that violate both the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, the Lloyd Lafollette Act of 1912, and the FY 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act. The letter supports conclusions made by Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Charles Grassley (R-IA) delivered on February 5.
On January 29, Mr. Sessions issued a memorandum effectively barring “attorneys, officers, boards, divisions, and components” from communicating with “Senators, Representatives, congressional committees, or congressional staff” without prior approval from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legislative Affairs. It is especially egregious that the DOJ entrusted to enforce our nation’s laws is violating the Constitution’s First Amendment
The MISC letter underscores the dangers these actions pose to congressional oversight as well as the rights of federal employees and the U.S. public generally:
When an agency unlawfully gags its employees, it threatens Congress’ ability to engage in oversight and hampers citizens’ right to know about waste, fraud, abuse and threats to the public’s health, safety, and liberty. These efforts also create a chilling effect on the many federal employees committed to exercising professional integrity in fulfilling their agencies’ mandates.
GAP Legal Director Tom Devine commented,
The Justice Department’s blanket prior restraint on congressional communications cannot co-exist with the first amendment or the Whistleblower Protection Act. The WPA and appropriations law require all nondisclosure policies to have a congressionally-drafted addendum that rights to communicate with Congress and in whistleblower laws trump any conflicting restraints. The Attorney General’s order does not include the congressionally-required free speech qualifier. This lawlessness is worst when it comes from the agency responsible to enforce the rule of law.
At GAP, we are receiving regular reports of illegal prior restraint throughout the government. Illegal gag policies are becoming the rule, rather than the exception. The Office of Special Counsel needs to exercise leadership reversing routine defiance of the overwhelming congressional anti-gag mandate.
Elizabeth Hempowicz, Director of Public Policy for the Project On Government Oversight, commented,
It is disconcerting to see yet another executive branch communications memo that fails to include legally required language that makes it clear to all employees that their abilities to make protected disclosures remain intact. A key component to any remedy would be a clear communication from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to all employees and contractor staff that they are protected for blowing the whistle.
Shanna Devine, Worker Health and Safety Advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division, added,
Attorney General Sessions’ gag order violates DOJ employees’ century-old right to inform Congress of government wrongdoing. OSC needs to take swift action to ensure government-wide compliance with the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, starting with the removal of DOJ’s illegal memorandum.
The Make It Safe Coalition is a nonpartisan, trans-ideological coalition of 80 NGO’s united in support of whistleblower protection to further government accountability. In addition to the above organizations, the Steering Committee includes the Liberty Coalition, National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers Protection Alliance and Union of Concerned Scientists.