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Reagan Offers Whistle-Blower Rights Measure

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan, who last year vetoed legislation intended to protect government whistle-blowers, proposed a new measure Tuesday that he said would provide similar protection without forcing government personnel managers into “routinely defending appropriate personnel decisions.”

The legislation would give federal employees the right to appeal a personnel action before the Merit Systems Protection Board on the ground that the action had been taken as a reprisal for whistle-blowing. It would also establish the independence of the Office of Special Counsel within the government to protect federal employees from prohibited personnel practices.

In a message to Congress, Reagan said that “federal employees who blow the whistle on fraud, waste, abuse and violations of the law help to ensure that the federal government uses American taxpayers’ dollars effectively and efficiently.”

Protect From Reprisals

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“The nation’s laws must encourage such reports and protect those who make them from reprisals,” said the President, who is winding up a two-week vacation in Southern California.

Reagan drew sharp criticism, particularly in Congress, when, on Oct. 26, he vetoed legislation that would have protected whistle-blowers from being harassed or fired. The vetoed bill would have made the special counsel more of a lawyer for the employee rather than for the government.

The Administration endorsed the original legislation, but later, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh made a last-ditch appeal to Reagan, stating that the bill’s protection mechanism was unwise and unconstitutional. He said that, if the bill went into effect, the government could have found itself in the odd position of suing itself over whistle-blowers’ complaints.

Subsequently, the President argued in his veto message that the bill’s method of giving whistle-blowers more legal authority to fight against reprisals from their superiors “would have interfered substantially with personnel management” in the federal government.

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According to Michael Wermuth, deputy assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, the new measure would give government employees the right to sue the agencies for which they work--a right he said they do not now have--rather than handing that job over to the special counsel.

In addition, he said, the Office of Special Counsel would be given the status of an independent federal agency, with the counsel appointed by the President and subject to removal. “The earlier version would have made the special counsel answerable to no one,” Wermuth said.

Under the measure Reagan proposed Tuesday, the special counsel would be empowered, during the course of investigations, to administer oaths, examine witnesses, take depositions and receive evidence.

If the special counsel determined that a whistle-blowing government employee had been treated unfairly, that finding would be presented to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management “and, in appropriate cases, the President.”

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The board, which oversees federal government personnel practices, was established to protect the rights of federal employees. It hears and decides employee appeals of personnel actions and orders corrective and disciplinary actions against agencies or employees when appropriate.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who, along with Rep. Frank Horton (R-N.Y.), reintroduced the vetoed bill Tuesday, said that Reagan’s proposal is no improvement over current law.

“It’s the same refrain. It’s a little quacking from the duck as it leaves town,” she said, referring to the President’s lame-duck status with barely two weeks left to his term.

Staff writer Sara Fritz in Washington contributed to this story.

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