Whistleblowers Deserve Protection

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Editorial Page Comment by Thomas R. Grande

HONOLULU – I have the privilege of representing Kelly Saunders, a Project Manager with the City and County Department of Design and Construction, who was told she was suspended when she spoke to the news media after her complaints about improper workmanship at the Central Oahu Regional Park were ignored by her superiors.

Ms. Saunders complained about what she reasonably believed to be the potential waste of hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of dollars in taxpayers’ funds.

Although she was removed from her position with the City and County and has a potential claim against the City and County for retaliation, more than anything else, she desires to insure that City and County monies are not wasted and the users of the park are ensured that the highest quality facilities are constructed.

For that reason, Ms. Saunders has cooperated with the City Corporation Counsel who is investigating and hopefully rectifying a situation at Central Oahu Regional Park – that is, the potential wasteful misuse of government funds by the design, management and construction professionals who were awarded various government contracts.

It is extremely important for the public to reflect upon what an exceedingly difficult and heroic thing that Ms. Saunders did.

How many of us would undertake the task which Ms. Saunders has? How many of us would complain publicly about wrongdoing if we knew that in doing we might lose our job? Would we speak out against wrongdoing if we knew that we were jeopardizing our career? Would we take an action that might ultimately put our family at financial risk because of a conviction that taxpayer monies were being wasted?

I cannot say in my heart that I would take such an action – it takes an extraordinary amount of courage and conviction to do what Ms. Saunders has done.

The unfortunate irony of Ms. Saunders’ situation – and the situation of others like her who stand up for their convictions – is that these individuals should be encouraged to come forward; they should commended; they should be esteemed for their courage.

However, in the case of Ms. Saunders – and many others – her actions led to disparagement; to criticism; to vilification.

Ms. Saunders is hopeful that her actions lead to resolution of problems at Central Oahu Regional Park. However, equally important for her is that if the City and County is serious about eliminating waste and fraud in government contracting, there must be sufficient safeguards to ensure that these guardians of the public are encouraged and protected.

The City and County should thoroughly evaluate and consider strengthening training, procedures and ordinances to ensure that public employees are encouraged – not discouraged – from reporting potential wrongdoing. Some of the potential actions that the City and County should take are:

Establishment of a system by which government employees can anonymously report suspected fraud and abuse.

Training City and County employees and supervisors to ensure that suspected wrongdoing reports are not only to be taken seriously, but are encouraged to be reported by employees.

Working with public employee unions to enable them to urge their members to step forward and report any suspected wrongdoing.

Passage of a County Whistleblower Protection Act which is geared specifically to protections for county employees who reported suspected wrongdoing to their supervisors.

Procedures such as these must be in place to ensure that employees who report suspected wrongdoing are recognized – and protected – for putting themselves at risk by complaining about fraud and waste in government contracting.

Posted in In The News

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