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Greg Bluestein

Democrats to press for stronger whistleblower protections next year

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State Sen. Vincent Fort at the chamber's Democratic caucus meeting. Courtesy Senate Democrats.

State Sen. Vincent Fort at the chamber’s Democratic caucus meeting. Courtesy Senate Democrats

Gov. Nathan Deal’s talk of changing Georgia’s whistleblower law has led state Democrats to come up with a sweeping counterproposal.

The Senate Democratic Caucus met in Newnan Thursday to approve its 2015 legislative agenda, and sent us word that a key part of the package is a proposal that would give public employees broader leeway to file whistleblower complaints.

The governor in May suggested he wanted to more narrowly define who can file those types of complaints. He said he was concerned about a state Supreme Court ruling that automatically granted whistleblower status to government employees charged with investigating state agencies and employees.

 

Democrats pounced on the comments back then, and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said Thursday the governor’s push hasn’t been forgotten.

“We simply cannot restore citizen trust and confidence in government if we seek to hide from our actions or suppress information,” said Henson, a Tucker Democrat. “Employees cannot fear retaliation if they bring to light information of wrongdoing.

Republicans hold commanding majorities in both chambers, and any item on their legislative agenda is automatically a long-shot. But party leaders hope a victory by Democrat Jason Carter in November could help their chances of pushing through their top priorities.

Under the proposal, public employees would be required to disclose a violation to their superior and at least one law enforcement agency. If no action is taken within 60 days, and there’s a reasonable belief that the violation is still ongoing, the employee could disclose information to the media or others and still be protected under the whistleblower law.

A second prong seeks to give reporters added protection from being compelled to testify in some court proceedings. It would tighten Georgia’s shield law to block courts from requiring reporters to disclose sources except in limited circumstances, such as if the details involved an ongoing crime or fraud.

Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort invoked the whistleblower lawsuits targeting the ethics agency’s handling of complaints stemming from Deal’s 2010 campaign.

“The ongoing scandal in the Deal administration has shown us that whistle blowers need more protections,” he said. “This legislation will provide that, so that the public will be assured that corruption will be uncovered.”
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