Whistle Stops

Proposed legislation a trap, critics say

Accusations of subterfuge and sabotage are once again swirling around proposed legislation to improve Arizona's whistle-blower protection for its 43,000 state and university employees ("Committing the Truth," Robert Nelson, July 13).

Three bills before the Arizona House of Representatives proposed changes in laws that protect whistle-blowers from retaliation by their employers. But one of the bills, reformers say, was a booby trap planted by the state Attorney General's Office and state and university administrators to keep critical loopholes in state law.

The most potent legislation, House Bill 2561, would make state law nearly identical to strong federal laws. Since federal statutes were amended in 1994, nearly one-fourth of whistle-blowers prevailed in cases of alleged reprisal.

Under Arizona's current law, only two of 57 whistle-blowers who appeared before the State Personnel Board between 1991 and 1998 received a positive ruling.

House Bill 2617 would bring Arizona's state colleges and universities up to the present state standards. If both bills pass, both university and state employees would receive the same level of protection as federal employees.

Both bills were advanced by committees Tuesday.

Then there was House Bill 2583, which reformers described as the evil twin of HB 2561. According to critics, the legislation would in fact make it easier for reprisals against employees who reported waste, fraud or abuse.

"It's kind of a nifty little trick by the opposition," says Carol Bernstein, a University of Arizona professor who has been a longtime advocate of whistle-blower rights. "I'm just scared it might work."

That bill died in committee Tuesday, but critics fear the bill's loopholes will be worked into other legislation.

University and state administrators and the Attorney General's Office say they oppose stronger whistle-blower rights because they give free rein to boundless accusations and frivolous lawsuits. The new laws would cost already strapped agencies more time and money for investigations and review processes.

But state officials are wrong, reformers say. Only one in four whistle-blowers wins on the federal level, a percentage that the architect of the legislation, Tom Devine, calls "just about a reflection of reality."

HB 2583 was constructed to make it easier to overcome legitimate whistle-blower complaints based on the technicalities in the bill, says Tom Rogers, a former assistant attorney general who supports the tougher whistle-blower legislation.

While 2583 may make it easier for agency lawyers to win cases, Rogers says, defeating legitimate whistle-blowers is not good public policy.

 
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