Our state's budget crisis demands that state leaders devise new ways to protect taxpayers' precious dollars — a significant part of which is lost annually through fraud, waste, and outright theft by state employees.
There's one good way to encourage conscientious state workers to report those who misdirect taxpayer dollars. How? By funding legal protection for whistleblowers.
Statistically, most government fraud is observed and reported by employees (26 percent), while only 11.5 percent is discovered by external auditors and 1.7 percent by law enforcement. Frontline whistleblowers are less expensive than fraud investigators, and they enrich our budget by rescuing and recouping taxpayers' losses.
But, as the Tennessee State Employees Association and the state comptrollers' office can report, whistleblowers suffer retaliation from managers, perpetrators' friends, department officials, and investigative officers, as well as from co-workers. Abuse can be brutal and relentless, taking a physical and mental toll.
In 33 years of working in Tennessee state fiscal offices and with TSEA, I often observed that managers discouraged workers from reporting violations that could embarrass their departments. They sometimes turned the investigation against the whistleblower with cruel and intimidating behavior.
There was the case of a supervisor who reported to her human resources office an employee who was absent most days but getting paid for massive amounts of hours and days not worked. Result? The supervisor was compelled to leave her own job when the HRO turned the investigation against her.
Another employee who reported the same perpetrator had her computer confiscated, then suffered various forms of intense retaliation from managers and from the perpetrator's friends and finally had her job terminated. Both whistleblowers in this case are currently unemployed. Yet, though internal investigators produced documentation suggesting that the accused employee was guilty of misappropriating thousands of dollars in state funds, she was promoted and given a raise.
Why does this happen? Possibly because government differs from businesses, in that job security and promotion do not necessarily depend on quality performance or protecting assets. The primary motivator is often friendship or connections. Survival in some state offices depends on skillfully performing the reality-show dynamics of alliance-building, co-worker manipulation, and currying favor with managers. An ethical, hard-working employee can suffer by not investing in these dynamics.
In some cases in which employees report waste or fraud, their departments either do not want to be embarrassed or hesitate to take action against a popular employee. Co-workers circle the wagons around the perpetrator and attack the whistleblower for "rocking the boat." The aforementioned promoted employee charged with theft had protective friends on all levels.
There are efforts at official remedial action from time to time. I helped state representative Mike Kernell of Memphis craft one such action: the Advocacy for Honest and Appropriate Government Spending Act. And there have been others: the Financial Integrity Act, Risk Management and Internal Control Requirements, and the Whistleblower Protection Statute.
What tends to make these remedies ineffective is the fact that whistleblowers must pay lawyers to protect themselves from inevitable retaliation and job loss. Lawmakers need to put fangs into these regulatory words-on-paper by funding the legal fees that whistleblowers incur. They also need to establish an entity that, with objectivity and uniformity, can mete out real consequences for fraud, thereby bypassing the biased "friendship-based" department officials.
There are abundant examples these days of heroic whistleblowers in the financial industry, people whose sensitive consciences and altruistic concern for the public's welfare prompt them to shine a light on investment fraud.
Whistleblowers in government perform a similar service. After all, Tennessee taxpayers sacrificially "invest" their money in state officials and employees, trusting it will be returned to them through services and quality of life. An effective way to keep their money from being misdirected into the pockets of a few delinquent employees is to further invest a modest portion of it in paid legal protection for courageous, ethical whistleblowers. Protecting them will protect Tennesseans' assets. Becky Clark Carter is a former state employee who continues to be active with the Tennessee State Employees Association.