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Whistle-blower protection bill dies in Arizona Legislature

By Brett Erickson and Tate Williams
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 2, 1999
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PHOENIX - UA employees seeking greater protection in disclosing the wrongdoing of their supervisors suffered a defeat yesterday when Arizona lawmakers shot down a bill for increased whistle-blower defenses.

The defeat of SB 1396 appears to be a victory for University of Arizona administrators, who have contended that a state mandate was not necessary to protect whistle-blowers.

The decision comes at a time when the UA Faculty Senate is preparing to adopt a formal, revised policy for whistle-blowers.

"I'm going to ask we get some sort of closure," said Jeffrey Warburton, the Faculty Senate's presiding officer, adding that the organization will vote on the policy at a second meeting, March 22.

But the state bill's sponsor, Sen. David Petersen, R-Mesa, said that he plans to reintroduce his proposal later this session.

"I'm going to bring this bill back for reconsideration," Petersen said.

He added that the bill is critical to university employees, who have no protection from being harassed or fired as retribution for revealing the illegal activities of other workers.

Arizona law protects other state employees, but the UA is exempt because they fall under the jurisdiction of the Arizona Board of Regents. Petersen said his proposal would force universities to adopt a policy that "mirrors state law."

With the approval of Jeff Groscost, R-Mesa, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Petersen will be able to replace the contents of another bill with his whistle-blower legislation. The practice, known as a striker, is common at the capitol, especially among Republican leaders.

Although the bill will likely resurface in the House, the chances of it making it to Gov. Jane Hull for approval are slim. If the House passed the bill, it would still have to come back to the Senate for a second vote.

The House and Senate approved a similar bill last spring, but legislators scratched it after the presidents from the three state universities promised to address the issue internally. Because the universities had not adopted an official policy by January, Petersen said he was forced to take action.

"We're talking about people's careers here," said Petersen, who added that UA employees have generated most of the complaints regarding the lack of protection provided for university whistle-blowers.

One of the key issues in Petersen's proposal was giving university whistle-blowers the option to hire legal representation if they were fired.

Since the introduction of the bill in January, UA officials have scrambled to create an interim policy that protects whistle-blowers. Under that policy, an independent hearing officer would be used if an employee was dissatisfied with the universities handling of their complaint.

UA lobbyist Greg Fahey said the school prefers to keep whistle-blower investigations free from legal intervention.

He said this is done to prevent excessive legal fees charged to both parties.

"The idea is to keep these things informal and not expensive," he said. Fahey added that he, like Petersen, expects the issue of protecting university whistle-blowers to come up again before the session ends sometime in the next three months.

"This is not over," he said.

The whistle-blower discussion in the UA Faculty Senate was far from complete yesterday, as senators once again delayed a vote on the issue.

Sens. Tim Troy and Betty Atwater, co-chairs of the Appointed Personnel Policy Committee, led a brief discussion on the issue, and accepted some policy grammatical corrections from senators.

"I feel our committee has, in good faith, addressed all suggestions from faculty," Atwater said.

Although suggestions continue to pour in from senators and other faculty members, Warburton said the current draft will go before the Senate for a vote without any other major changes.

"We're going to go through with this thing until it's either up or down," he said.

The revisions attempted to make the UA's internal policy provide the same protection given to state employees.