Whistleblower reforms wait for another year, tougher budget

Despite a warning that the state employee “whistleblower” process is inefficient and unable to promptly review a growing backlog of cases, the General Assembly failed to adopt several proposals from its chief investigative and policy review panel.

But the co-chairmen of the Program Review and Investigations Committee said recently they would re-introduce their plan in 2011 to streamline reviews of worker complaints.

Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, and Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said they hope the worsening budget crisis will encourage lawmakers to look more closely at a system that not only can avert accidents and expose wrongdoing, but also eliminate wasteful spending.

“I actually think there’s quite a bit of interest,” Kissel said, referring to complementary bills the committee introduced that died on the House and Senate calendars when the regular 2010 session ended earlier this month.

“We actually expected them to move forward until we ran into trouble at the last minute,” Mushinsky said.

Part of that trouble involved an amendment Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, was attaching to all ethics-related bills. This amendment, which would have created a permanent committee to review ethical violations of lawmakers, was raised in 2009 and ran into strong opposition from majority Democrats in the Senate, who continued to argue this year that it is unnecessary.

Both Kissel and Mushinsky conceded that standoff was a major impediment toward getting any whistleblower legislation through the Senate this year.

The bills also enjoyed support from state employee labor unions.

Cathy Osten, president of the 4,500-member Connecticut State Employee Association, which oversees six bargaining units in state government, said “we assumed it was not the kind of bill that needed a lot of effort. We thought it would move right through.”

Osten added that an efficient whistleblower process “allows people the ability to feel free enough to express both cost-saving initiatives and feelings of concern in their agency without feeling they are going to be retaliated against.”

Kissel and Mushinsky said they believe that if the whistleblower legislation is introduced early in the 2011 session, which starts next January, there will be sufficient time to negotiate a bipartisan deal. “It’s already written and ready to go,” Mushinsky added. “I think we can get everyone together and run it again.”

State government has had a process for employees to “blow the whistle” on corrupt and illegal practices, mismanagement, and dangers to public safety since the late 1970s. The worker’s identity is kept secret and the state auditors of public accounts are required to review the matter. In some instances, cases are also referred to the attorney general’s office.

In a December 2009 report to the legislature, the Program Review and Investigations Committee found that the number of complaints filed under this system has more than doubled between 2002 and 2008.

The growth, from 70 in the 2002 to 151 in 2008, has strained auditors’ resources and left cases backlogged. The auditors’ office routinely processes between 80 and 90 cases annually. But nearly 200 cases were backlogged when the December report was issued, including 29 that are more than two years old.

The report also said the current system lacks a process for quickly dismissing frivolous complaints, which have contributed to the backlog.

One bill developed this year would have freed the auditors’ office of sole responsibility for initially reviewing all complaints, directing that agency and the attorney general office to form a joint team. It then would assign screened complaints to one office or another for further investigation, or reject them immediately if deemed frivolous.

It also would have set a limit on investigations for the first time, requiring a report within one year of the complaint being filed.

The second measure prepared by the committee would have strengthened protections for whistleblowers, including expanding the time frame to report suspected retaliation from 30 to 90 days after the alleged incident.

With the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis projecting a $3.37 billion deficit built into the 2011-12 budget, there could be a strong incentive to streamline the whistleblower review process next year.

“Whistleblowers help the state use our tax dollars much more wisely,” Kissel said.

“They’re going to be looking for every efficiency they can find,” Mushinsky added.

The December report found personnel issues are the most common type of allegation, involving about 23 percent of the cases. These covered attendance, work hours, and use of compensatory time or sick leave.

Other components of the whistleblower caseload included:

  • Misuse of funds, 15 percent.
  • Improper procedures, 14 percent.
  • Contract issues, 11 percent.
  • Misconduct, 10 percent.
  • Fraud and corruption, 9 percent.
  • Misuse of property or resources, 9 percent.
  • Safety issues, 6 percent.
  • Abuse of power, 3 percent.