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Timing

When to report? The choice is intimately connected with the issue of how much to report (see statements and anonymity) as well as deadlines under various statutes. Much depends on the whistleblower's circumstances and the diligence of the Inspector General (IG) office or other investigative body. Most agents both depend on and are wary of whistleblowers. They will not become involved with stale claims--those too old to be investigated or prosecuted (usually 5 to 6 years)--even if the Whistleblower Protection Act deliberately has no deadline. Plus, most agents do not want to become involved in employee relations problems. This both marshals resources against draining emotional situations, and avoids making the agency look bad.

Criticizing all IG offices as management's eyes and ears, or for whitewashing violations is clearly too broad a brush, for problems are being addressed every day. Some critics are particularly harsh on "non-statutory" IG offices (where the agency head can remove an IG, including for too-vigorous work) as lax investigators. For now, these charges remain unsubstantiated, both because investigations are confidential, and because so much depends on the strength of the tip and seriousness of the problem (the worst critics may supply the vaguest tips). In any event, all IGs can investigate frauds and other offenses against the agency by insiders and outsiders. Investigating outsiders almost always creates fewer internal waves, even if, as a practical matter, information may be harder to get.

Many whistleblowing investigations are stillborn, and not always because the tip is too vague or the problem insignificant. At least one IG agent has simply proclaimed the office "lacks jurisdiction" over whistleblower retaliation complaints. Clearly, neither that agent nor office is fully exercising its mandate to investigate legal violations affecting the agency.

Refusals to investigate mean employees willing to step forward as witnesses get less attention than fellow employees accused of violating laws. Clearly, that's not what Congress intended, nor good long-term management. Still, this happens, particularly in offices focusing on productivity stats. The ways to short-circuit whistleblower investigations are many, including asking what the employee's performance ratings have been like before taking any complaint, or only considering written complaints, or failing to record oral conversations. A few investigate the complainant rather than the complaint. DOD has a regulation against this (as noted on the anonymity page), and NIH tries to encourage real investigations by proclaiming that proof isn't the employee's responsibility.

Managers often question employees about who has talked with a known agent, or what they have said. The goal may become to identify, isolate and harass witnesses into silence or departure--or this only may be a normal part of the problem-correction process. In any event, if managerial debriefing happens, tell the agent, and get a third-party perspective if at all possible. Of course, where an investigation is underway, cover-up becomes the wrongdoer's prime goal. Yet reform is the whistleblower's goal, and change must start somewhere.

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Deadlines Working Inside the System