Outsourcing the Complaint Process Government Sacrificing Public Involvement

Once a person recognizes a problem exists in his or her workplace and decides to try to do something about it, they have entered the misty world of the Whistleblower, a world populated by an evergrowing class of people who try to help solve problems by bringing problems to the attention of their employers and elected officials. Whether you are a private citizen or government or industry employee, there is a process you may use to make a complaint or voice a concern. Generally, the government and most businesses have departments to listen to concerns and take complaints, investigate the allegations and then proceed with mitigation of the problem or prosecution of wrongdoers, depending on the outcome of the investigation. Sometimes however, the process can be purposefully derailed by the very agencies whose charge it is to do the job.

One person, reading about some airplane safety problems, and seeing a serious safety risk to the American public, contacted the whistleblower who made the allegations. Then, feeling that the reporter, a former airplane inspector for a large commercial airplane manufacturer with plants in the northwest, had some very valid and disturbing allegations, she decided to contact the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General, whose inspectors were allegedly beginning an investigation on the matter. She encountered a rather deceptive system, which led complainants to believe they were in contact with employees of the DOT OIG investigative staff. Because this complainant had experience with government communications practices, she realized fairly quickly that something was not right and set about trying to find out who she really was talking with and where they really were located. It ended up that the DOT OIG had decided (as a cost saving measure?) to outsource their complaint lines to an east coast contractor, placing minimally qualified, non-governmental employees in charge of sorting complaints and deciding which ones would be sent on up to the actual OIG officials to investigate.

Believing that concerned citizens or government employees expect to be able to reach a qualified person with both the authority and power to do something about the problem, she wrote a letter to U.S. Senator, Maria Cantwell, pointing out that the outsourcing of such a process further created an opportunity for justice to be denied to the complainants, or for the process to be manipulated negatively. The letter was as follows:

“April 12, 2007

Dear Senator Cantwell, I decided to go to the Dept. of Transportation OIG and make a complaint on behalf of someone who is fighting to bring to light corruption within FAA which is apparently causing FAA not to ethically inspect planes and certify according to policy and law. (You may read about this at the following website: www.thelastinspector.com)

In any case, I visited DOT OIG and found their hotline for reporting fraud, waste, abuse etc. Upon sending in my concerns, I was answered via email by a person named Anna. She asked some questions which I answered. Emails went back and forth a couple of times and then I noticed her email was coming from: (*@hotlines.com) On Behalf Of US Department of Transportation. This is most irregular. Government offices as I understand it, are required to use a .gov address, unless they are DoD; they would use a .mil address. I became very suspicious, and somewhat alarmed about whom I was really speaking to and where they really were located.

Upon visiting www.hotlines.com, I found that the Department of Transportation OIG has contracted out their reporting crimes and fraud hotline to a contractor. There is a news announcement article bragging about it at the hotlines.com site. I find that the young person who answered my emailed report, who appears to be a recent college graduate, holds a BA in Anthropology, and has been made the supervisor of this site.
Now for the life of me, I cannot understand how the DOT OIG can see that it is proper to turn over sorting and prioritizing reports of criminal and other improper actions to a non-governmental or un-qualified person. First there is the security issue, both to the reporter and to the government programs involved. Also, putting the contractor’s employee and the contractor hotlines in the position of filtering out what is and what is not of real concern to the “professional investigators” at DOT OIG is letting the non-government contractor decide which issues are going to be investigated by the DOT OIG. Also, what good is one more layer of bureaucracy that could be corrupted and used nefariously?

I questioned someone who works for the government and knows the law and policy well. The response I got back was this:

“As you can see from the policy letter, (OMB Policy Letter 92-1, September 23, 1992), the policy reads “the direct conduct of criminal investigations.” I am sure that the DOT contracting officer that awarded this contract considered that the contractor was only gathering information. However, in this case the contracting authority for the DOT has placed a contractor in the even more powerful position of actually determining/deciding what information is going to go forward to the DOT for consideration for opening a criminal investigation.

Minimally, the actions of the DOT contracting authority need to be reviewed for appropriateness, and need close scrutiny as to whether, in this case, they have placed a contractor in an inherently governmental position by the nature of the way the contract has been implemented. Why should a contractor decide whether potentially serious (and possibly at times life threatening to the individual(s) providing the information) information is provided to the DOT for potential criminal investigation?” (End of expert opinion)

This is ridiculous. I have a copy of the full OMB Policy Letter 92-1 (Sept. 23, 1992), which states what role contractors may play and what duties are inherently governmental in function, and cannot be handed over to non-governmental contractors. Not only do I believe this is against policy and illegal it is one more case of disaster within our government to the detriment of U.S. Citizens who may be trying to make the system work right in solving some serious problems! I would be happy to send the above-mentioned policy and copies of the emails I described above it they are of help in allowing you to tackle this problem.

Let me know how to send them to you. I do not think the policy will paste into one of these boxes on your automatic email submission site.

Thank you.”

She further reports that Senator Cantwell did open an investigation for her, and that she received a phone call from one of the Senator’s aides, who sent her some forms which she filled out and sent back with detailed documentation, including a copy of the policy mentioned. A few weeks later, she received a letter from DOT OIG saying they were looking into the matter and would get back to her. That has been more than a month ago.

The ability to “petition the government” or point out where and when problems occur that have a negative impact on individuals or citizens as a whole is a very important one. American’s deserve to know that their government is providing a way to confront and resolve problems in a straightforward and safe manner, for both the whistleblower and for other involved parties. They also deserve to know that a competent investigation will be conducted and the problems mitigated, and/or wrongdoers held accountable. Without these expectations being met, public trust of our government, and satisfaction with our jobs and our ability to participate in our government will further erode.