Today, whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn submitted a letter to the Attorney General urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) to protect the confidentiality of whistleblowers who file reports of Coronavirus frauds. The letter praised Attorney General William Barr for taking swift action to crack down on Coronavirus frauds and to inform the public on their ability to report frauds via calling a DOJ hotline. Neither of these reporting platforms explicitly tells potential whistleblowers that their identities will be protected.
Saturday, the DOJ announced its first enforcement action against coronavirus fraud. This action came just one day after the DOJ issued a directive prioritizing the investigation and prosecution of frauds related to the coronavirus outbreak. The Attorney General also urged the public to report coronavirus fraud schemes to the NCDF hotline but left out critical details regarding anonymity rights for whistleblowers.
Kohn, who has over 30 years of experience representing whistleblowers and serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Whistleblower Center, explained to Barr the importance of whistleblower confidentiality to the reporting process. “Confidentiality is a critical issue for whistleblowers. It is our experience that most employees will be afraid to blow the whistle unless they know that their identity will be protected.”
The DOJ’s directive was silent as to what measures are in place to protect the identity of those who provide information through email or by phone to the hotline.
“Numerous whistleblower laws protect confidentiality, and some even offer anonymity. These laws include the Inspector General Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the Dodd-Frank Act. Confidentiality is the best protection against retaliation. Not knowing the identity of informants severely hampers the ability of employers to retaliate,” Kohn said.
In the letter, Kohn urges Barr to provide whistleblowers the ability to confidentially and anonymously report COVID-19 frauds. Kohn outlines several ways the DOJ can ensure the protection of whistleblowers identities, to encourage such reporting in circumstances where a whistleblower may fear retaliation because he or she cannot protect their identity, including;
Making sure that the websites and other public information sources explain to the potential whistleblower that they may file allegations of coronavirus frauds confidentially;
Explaining that all tips provided through the National Center for Disaster Fraud’s (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) are treated as confidential;
Granting confidential informant status to whistleblowers who provide actionable evidence of frauds and who request such status.
Kohn, also asked the DOJ to inform whistleblowers of their right to qualify for a reward under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act. “The False Claims Act is America’s most successful anti-fraud law. It’s qui tam reward provisions incentivize whistleblowers to step forward and risk their jobs to serve the public interest. We must fully and aggressively utilize this law during this time of crisis,” Kohn added.