How about a ‘Whistleblower-Amnesty Act’?

There is a major opportunity in the Lance Armstrong story, with ramifications for all Whistleblowers, past and future, including those in the FAA.

A current NYTimes news story says wealthy supporters of the Livestrong charity he started have been trying to persuade Lance to come clean: to clear his conscience.

Here’s the good and the bad on Lance Armstrong’s history:

The Good: he won seven Tour de France’s. He became an outstanding advocate for those impacted by cancer. He inspired; he was heroic.

The Bad: Lance Armstrong screwed up. He doped, and then he covered it up. His failure tarnished his image and diminished his cause.

This story would not even exist, if not for the few Whistleblowers who bravely spoke the truth. Now, others are encouraging Lance to become the final – and biggest – Whistleblower in his own case.

So, where is the opportunity?

Well, frankly, this guy should be a hero for what he did and does. After coming clean, he will forever be a tarnished hero, but an earnest confession might be as powerful as his past triumphs (and perhaps far more meaningful?), if it helps deter others from making the same mistakes. Plus, his confession would set an example; it would show true leadership toward cleaning up the performance-doping problem that afflicts all sports.

But that is only half of the opportunity. There is also a great opportunity here for political leaders – as in Congress – to help clean up the whistleblower messes that happen within many corrupted federal agencies, such as the FAA.

Imagine this:

What if Congress passed legislation that directed federal agencies to give full amnesty to those federal managers who were aware of (and even possibly aided) retaliation against a Whistleblower?

How might this improve the FAA?

If, under the terms of this new law, a single FAA manager came clean with the information they had felt compelled to conceal, he or she would receive nothing more than a ‘thank you’. Meanwhile, the information would enable FAA to ferret out the few FAA managers doing the real dirty business. Which, of course, would be the other half of the new law: FAA leaders would be directed to fully investigate and discipline the key agency wrongdoers.

Four examples…

(1) Let’s say a safety inspector in Texas acts to compel American or Southwest to comply with required repairs for a problem like cracked fuselages, but she finds an FAA manager is undermining her work while taking care of his ‘airline customers’. The safety problem was very serious, but due to the manager’s years of intervention, the repairs are still not done. In this case, no accidents have happened related to the failure. So, in the spirit of ‘No Harm, No Foul’, if that FAA manager (or any other employees with knowledge) came forward and admitted he felt pressured by perceived policies to aid the delay by his ‘customer’, why not grant him full amnesty?

(2) Let’s say an air traffic controller was a witness to an error where two aircraft almost hit on the runway. As a true adherent to the principles of a Safety Culture, she promptly reports the facts to her management. She is shocked when they knowingly DO NOT investigate, and she watches them create no records. She recognizes the error could easily happen again, and with fatalities, so she shares her concern elsewhere. As in the previous example, given that they did not actually collide, let’s consider this another ‘No Harm, No Foul’ situation. There would be considerable value in cleaning this one up, as it would further confirm FAA’s commitment to safety (building the ‘Safety Culture), while also reducing the odds of a repeat with a more serious outcome. So, why not grant full amnesty to her supervisor and/or manager, when they come clean and confirm they failed under the pressure of perceived policies?

(3) Another air traffic controller knows that his brief failure while working alone at the end of his overnight shift contributed to a horrific accident with dozens of fatalities. He knows he was inattentive for just one minute – perhaps distracted by a movie on his laptop computer, or maybe a good book, or maybe he was just tired and shut his eyes – and thus failed to look out the tower window and make the one critically-timed transmission that would have averted this disaster. For that one minute, he failed to do his job. He feels horrible and scared, and is ready to openly share everything when the investigators arrive, but the union officials pressure him, so he speaks only through the union. Nobody is accountable while both the union and the agency do deep damage control, concealing all details so as to diminish liabilities. The result is a secondary tragedy: this controller now has to live with the sole awareness of his failure, which he knows has been improperly concealed. Much as Lance Armstrong is burdened with the extraordinary weight of his ‘secrets’, which have since been almost entirely revealed. So, if this controller could be granted full amnesty to come clean – to tell all that he knows, and reveal that which was creatively concealed during the major NTSB investigation – what good might come of it? Clearly, the controller would be healthier; the FAA would become less corrupt and more respectable (which would greatly improve employee morale); and, the FAA mission to protect safety would be furthered. FAA would be moving strongly toward a true Safety Culture.

Note that in most cases, FAA’s corruption is more in the overall culture than in the individual. So, even in a failure as serious as this, it would be hugely beneficial to safety if we took disciplinary action only against those individuals who clearly and knowingly operated in a manner solely accountable for the outcome.

(4) An FAA employee with a good record speaks up about a safety issue. She soon receives retaliation: loss of duties, demotion, suspension, maybe she is even fired. She tries to work with her supervisor, her manager, and dozens of other FAA officials, but everyone is afraid to work with her, so the improper retaliation persists. Her Due Process rights are virtually nonexistent. In this case, ‘No Harm, No Foul’ would not apply, as the Whistleblower was damaged. So, why not grant full amnesty to all FAA officials involved except the one manager who is accountable for initiating the retaliation? Then, conduct a full investigation and disciplinary action against that one accountable official. The outcome sets an example for other FAA officials, and will thus help clean up FAA’s deep-rooted corrupt practices.

So, what do you think? Should Congress pass REAL Whistleblower Protection by directing FAA and other federal agencies to grant some amnesties and follow through with the appropriate investigations and disciplinary actions?

I certainly think so. This is decades overdue.

Jeff Lewis
January 2013