Key Democrats in the Iowa Senate are pressing forward with a bill that would forbid confidential settlements with laid off state workers, putting Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s recent executive order in state law. The bill also seeks to expand protections for whistleblowers in state government. Bert Dalmer of the state ombudsman’s office works on whistleblower cases and he testified about that work during a Senate Oversight Committee hearing on Tuesday.
“There are really two aspects to every whistleblower complaint. The first one is the blowing of the whistle itself. The second half of that complaint would be any adverse action taken against the whistleblower,” Dalmer said. “We have found, in practice, since we got our new authority to investigate some whistleblower claims that we’re extremely limited in the number of employees we can actually assist.”
Dalmer estimated about 10 percent of the state workforce can appeal for his agency’s help if they’ve blown the whistle on some problem and someone retaliates, plus there are other hurdles.
“You have to blow the whistle about a certain type of thing,” Dalmer said. “You have to blow the whistle to a certain type of person. You have to come to us within 30 days. You have to have suffered the adverse action.”
That means a threatened demotion isn’t enough — the worker has to have been demoted. Under current state law, a protected whistleblower must notify a “public official” and the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that means the head of a state agency, a legislator, the governor or someone in law enforcement. That’s a major hurdle, according to Dalmer’s boss, State Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider.
“If you blow the whistle to like a middle-management supervisor and that person takes retaliatory action, you may not be covered because that person may not be a public official under the law,” Cooperrider told senators.
State Senator Janet Petersen said that shows the whistleblower protections in current state law “obviously” aren’t going far enough. Late Tuesday afternoon a three-member senate subcommittee reviewed a rough draft of a bill that included new whistleblower protections. The legislation will be considered again today by the Senate Oversight Committee.