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Senate passes university staff whistle-blower protection

By Kristen Roberts
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 29, 2000
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PHOENIX-The Arizona Senate yesterday voted 18-11 to pass a bill that might protect university employees who expose institutional corruption and could possibly encourage more employees to be whistle-blowers.

"See what it takes to be a whistle-blower," said Sen. David Petersen, R-Mesa, urging his colleagues to remove the hurdles whistle-blowers face.

Petersen, one of the bill's sponsors, said the bill mirrors 1989 federal legislation that had broad support and has helped more whistle-blowers prevail.

The Arizona Senate plan, in the making for several years, has six major provisions. It:

  • protects an employee who refuses to comply with an illegal order, or who is even thought to be prepared to make a written or verbal disclosure of "a matter of public concern." The bill outlines the procedure for disclosures.

  • requires the employee to have only a "reasonable good faith belief" that corruption is occurring, not the "ability to prove the reported misconduct actually occurred." Corruption includes violations of laws, mismanagement, gross waste of money or endangerment of public safety.

  • broadens the category of official actions that may be seen as retribution to include recommending or threatening to take "any discriminatory action," such as failure to evaluate performance, reassignment, failure to promote, psychiatric examination, excessive investigations or making discriminatory pay or program funding decisions.

  • provides "any relief necessary" for victims of retribution.

  • establishes the procedure for hearings, including prehearing discovery, and compensates employees for time spent in whistle-blower proceedings.

  • expands protection to university job applicants and retired employees.

The State Personnel Board, which hears whistle-blower complaints, received an average of 15 complaints yearly from 1996 to 1998.

On Feb. 11, the Senate Committee on Government and Environmental Stewardship heard testimony on the whistle-blower bill.

Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, spoke in support of the bill because he said it is "state of the art" and because it encourages exposure and scrutiny of betrayals of the public trust before there is a need for "damage control."

The Government Accountability Project is a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization that advocates whistle-blower protection.

"There are no experiments in this bill," he said, explaining that its provisions have been tested for years at the federal level. Devine said yielding to opponents or proposal to exempt oral disclosures from protection would infringe on necessary free speech.

He later said the bill provides a "metal shield," of real protection for whistle-blowers, versus the illusory "cardboard shield" provided by some other states.

As many as 30 states have some form of whistle-blower protection.

University of Arizona lobbyist Greg Fahey and the president of Arizona State University's Faculty Senate spoke against the bill because they said they want a chance to adequately test the current policy and because they say the bill's provisions interfere with faculty-to-faculty tenure relationships.

Some university staff members came to the meeting to support the bill's protection from retribution against university employees who expose institutional misdeeds.

One such employee is Glenn Johnson, director of UA's American Indian Graduate Center.

He submitted a letter that said he wrote UA President Peter Likins in November about "the mismanagement of over $5,000" donated by the Desert Diamond Casino to be used to help Native American students. He said the Graduate College used the money to fix a misdirected deposit to an annually-replenished emergency fund.

Consequently, he said the Graduate College began to slow its response to students­ emergency funding requests and the university began retribution against him. He said he has received an unwarranted written reprimand, his work evaluation is months overdue and the university is evaluating whether to eliminate him or his position.

Johnson said the bill addresses problems he has had with being denied counsel during the prehearing process and the university's failure to share pertinent documents and findings with him.

Arizona State University employee Dennis Howe, a paint crew supervisor, also came to support the bill.

He later said he exposed "illegal and unethical" discrimination against minorities, including women, Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics. Since the disclosure, he said he has received poor evaluations and has been shut-out of interviews for more prominent jobs, despite his "excellent reputation."

"They want me to keep quiet," he said of administrators. "They have no integrity."

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