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POGO opinion piece

by Ross Coen

Last week, a subcommittee of Chairman Don Young's House Resources Committee began to hold hearings on the activities of a watchdog group, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Those activities included a lawsuit filed by POGO which alleged that oil companies were shortchanging the government on royalty payments for oil leases on federal land. POGO filed the lawsuit under the False Claims Act, which allows a group or individual to sue a private company they believe is defrauding the government; the Act also grants them a percentage of any fine levied as a result. Representative Young took umbrage with the fact that POGO, upon being awarded a $1.1 million settlement in the case, paid two whistleblowers $380,000 each for their decade-long work in bringing these abuses to light. Never mind that the oil industry settled the case for over $300 million, all but admitting that they indeed had been stealing from the federal government for years. That apparently didn't phase Rep. Young in the slightest. By the way, it should be mentioned that the two whistleblowers are federal employees, one of whom works for the Interior Department - certainly not Rep. Young's favorite agency. It is unfortunate that Rep. Young has paid attention solely to the issue of the payments made to the whistleblowers. Ignored in this entire affair is the fact that the two whistleblowers saved the American people hundreds of millions of dollars. Now they are being retaliated against in the most draconian manner by Rep. Young. Unfortunately, this conforms to the pattern that so many whistleblowers have seen before - instead of having their allegations investigated, they find themselves the target of investigations and in most cases outright harassment and intimidation. Last February, Rep. Young issued subpoenas to POGO asking for, among other things, copies of the Executive Director's home telephone records. It is remarkably odd that Alaska's congressman, who prides himself on his patriotism and strict adherence to the Bill of Rights, would so invade the privacy of a U.S. citizen. Would that the Interior Department issued a subpoena asking for Don Young's home telephone records! The resulting outcry from the "congressman for all Alaska" would resound from Washington, DC to Fort Yukon and back again. Twice. The recent actions of the House Resources Committee bring to mind an incident in the early 1990's that many Alaskans are sure to remember. Following the Exxon Valdez spill, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company enlisted their security firm, the Wackenhut Corporation, to investigate a number of environmental activists hoping to ferret out a whistleblower. Wackenhut proceeded to place taps on telephone lines, sift through trash bins, and even set up a phony environmental law firm hoping to gain the trust of key individuals. When these actions were exposed, a Congressional inquiry was held with committee hearings that included Rep. Young. Congress rigorously denounced the actions of both Wackenhut and Alyeska. Rep. Young agreed, though some would say with little enthusiasm, that whistleblowers who risk their careers and in some cases their personal safety should not suffer retaliation, harassment, or intimidation; but should instead have their allegations properly investigated. One must wonder if Rep. Young has forgotten those events of only a few years ago, now that his actions so closely resemble the very whistleblower retaliation he admonished. Further inquiry into the POGO matter reveals that indeed Rep. Young's allegations are baseless. He condemns the payments to the whistleblowers, yet ignores that POGO sought professional legal and accounting advice on how to report the payments to the IRS. He also ignores the fact that POGO informed the Justice Department of their intention to make the payments before they did so. Whistleblowers are a unique and integral part of exposing fraud, deceit, and malfeasance in both industry and government. Very often, they are risking ostracism from their colleagues, unjust firings or transfers, and other forms of reprisal. They deserve our support in their efforts to make workplaces safer, the environment cleaner, and both industry and government less riddled with graft and corruption. It seems that our congressman needs once again to be reminded of that.

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