State’s Whistleblower Law Should be Changed to Avoid Conflict

March 25, 2009

Connecticut’s whistleblower laws affecting state employees are among the strongest in the country. The efforts of the legislature over the past decade have made it easier for whistleblowers to come forward while protecting them from retaliation, making our state a leader in supporting the rights of workers. But as strong as these laws are there is an inherent conflict that needs to be addressed, that being the dual responsibilities of the state’s Attorney General when it comes to whistleblower investigations.

Under current law, the Attorney General’s Office is required to investigate whistleblower complaints. The initial investigation determines whether or not criminal prosecution is warranted. If so, the matter is then referred the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney. However, Sec. 3-125 of the Connecticut General Statutes also says that the Attorney General is legally bound to represent and defend the state and all department heads, officers and agents of the state in any suit or civil proceeding where the official acts of these officers or agents are called into question.

Allowing the Attorney General to have both the responsibility for investigating a whistleblower complaint as well as defending the state against that complaint is akin to having the same attorney represent both the prosecution and the defense in a courtroom proceeding. It doesn’t make sense.

While the Attorney General’s Office has done an excellent job making sure whistleblowers are protected through the establishment of an internal firewall, the perception of a conflict will always remain. That is why the state needs to transfer the entire responsibility of investigating whistleblower claims to the Chief State’s Attorney.

It is unrealistic to expect whistleblowers to feel comfortable going to the state’s own defense lawyers to file a complaint against a state agency. The perception alone could intimidate someone from coming forward, or act as a disincentive to the reporting of fraud and abuse, which is contrary to everything we want employees to do should such cases arise.

The Chief State’s Attorney’s Office has the knowledge and experience to handle these types of investigations. In fact, since 2003 the Public Integrity Unit of the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office has successfully pursued numerous public corruption cases.

Whistleblower laws are set up to protect state employees from retaliation and to make sure that they feel comfortable coming forward with a complaint. By transferring all the investigative authority to the Chief State’s Attorney, we would give a potential whistleblower the peace of mind that their case would not be compromised because of a potential conflict.

The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee recently had an opportunity to amend state law to rectify this conflict. Unfortunately, the bill was never brought up for a vote. Nevertheless, it is my intention to bring this measure to the floor of the Senate as an amendment later this legislative session. Assigning the sole responsibility to investigate and pursue whistleblower complaints to an agency that is especially well equipped to handle this task would only strengthen our laws pertaining to the reporting of fraud and abuse in the workplace.