Measures implemented by the postmaster general, such as destroying sorting machines, removing blue mailboxes, and limiting staff hours, threaten our democracy by creating significant delays in mail delivery at a time when Americans cannot safely vote in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although USPS workers lack robust legal protections for whistleblowing, the disclosure of additional information about corruption and abuse of power can spur the change necessary to protect our democracy in November.
USPS workers aware of wrongdoing should contact experienced attorneys at Government Accountability Project to receive assistance in disclosing the truth safely and effectively.
Each whistleblower case is unique, requiring an analysis of the facts before a legal strategy is determined. While the following information is neither comprehensive nor should be construed as offering legal advice, it offers some basic guidance on whistleblower rights before reaching out to experts at Government Accountability Project to further assist you.
A whistleblower is an individual who discloses information that he or she reasonably believes evidences a violation of law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; a gross waste of funds; abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
USPS Workers Lack Robust Federal Protections
Unlike most federal employees, USPS workers are expressly exempted from legal protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act, the primary law that protects most other non-intelligence federal agency employees from retaliation for reporting information they reasonably believe evidences a violation of law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.
Instead, postal workers only have rights to blow the whistle free from retaliation under internal policies found in §666.18 and §666.3 of the USPS Employee & Labor Relations Manual, along with limited whistleblower rights under a patchwork of issue-specific whistleblowing laws, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Unfortunately, these don’t address the kinds of malfeasance that have surfaced in recent weeks and have limited remedies.
We Can Help You Make a Difference
In our experience, whistleblowers will always come forward in the face of wrongdoing whether their legal protections are weak, strong, or even non-existent, as long as they believe that speaking out will make a difference. While we are already working to support stronger statutory whistleblower protections for USPS employees, we also have great experience supporting whistleblowers and ensuring their information promotes accountability despite weak legal rights.
USPS and other whistleblowers who have additional information about misconduct should know that their disclosures will fuel further efforts to ensure that our postal service and our elections function as they must, for all citizens, this November.
If you are an employee in the United States Postal Service who has observed wrongdoing, we encourage you to reach out to Government Accountability Project where attorneys experienced in whistleblower laws and protection can help you determine how to raise concerns safely and effectively.
Anonymity: Challenges & Consequences
Many whistleblowers want to disclose information while maintaining their anonymity. However, anonymity is not always possible to ensure if the information is used in public ways or through strategic discussions with government investigators, other whistleblowers, or advocacy groups. Indeed, because most employees raise concerns internally first, or because the information can be connected to an employee's job duties and expertise, a hostile employer may be able to identify the source of the information even if not named.
Remaining anonymous may also not be the best strategy. For instance, trying to remain anonymous while the disclosure’s information is public can make a legal case of reprisal more difficult, if not impossible. Under all whistleblower laws, an employee must show that the employer had knowledge of their whistleblowing. Therefore, going public, with the whistleblower serving as a human interest focal point for news stories, can sustain the whistleblower’s viable legal rights.
Whistleblowers who choose to make disclosures publicly may even be able to preempt reprisal by putting the employer on notice that the employee is engaging in protected whistleblowing. When a whistleblower experiences solidarity with a team of allies—advocacy groups, journalists, champions in Congress, a lawyer—focus can more easily be put on the wrongdoing exposed by the whistleblower, undermining efforts to vilify the messenger. Surrounding the whistleblower with support not only can insulate the employee from retaliation, but it also can amplify awareness of the underlying problems to demand reform.
Even with strong efforts at protecting a whistleblower’s identity, the whistleblower is still at risk while an employer searches for the internal source. Harassing and expensive to-defend defamation suits can be lodged against journalists and advocacy organizations to force divulgence of sources. Because of limited privileges afforded to journalists and public interest groups, whistleblowers should be wary of unqualified promises of absolute anonymity because it simply cannot be guaranteed. Brokering communications with external parties through an attorney with whom a whistleblower’s communications are privileged can offer an important layer of protection for a whistleblower.
Before making any type of disclosure, it is wise to take the following precautions:
Consult with a lawyer, specifically one who has experience helping whistleblowers. Most lawyers aren’t well-versed in whistleblower law, which is extremely complicated. The attorney-client privilege will also ensure that your communications will remain protected and confidential
Create a detailed, contemporaneous paper trail. Keep a log that is a timeline of all relevant developments: what happened, when and to whom you complained, and any resulting retaliation. Record all dates and note the details of any supporting emails, memos, or other documentary evidence.
Print or save any relevant documents you possess such as meeting notes, memos, or emails. One can also record meetings secretly in one-party consent states (including 39 states and Washington, DC), though secret recording usually violates personnel rules.
Keep evidence in a safe place. Authorities usually are not limited in access to the whistleblower’s workplace, but home storage of documents can also be risky, subjecting a whistleblower to pretextual discipline or a retaliatory investigation for theft of documents. Before taking actual documents, you should make sure they are your documents to take. If it is not clear, it is better to photograph or lawfully reproduce the documents, but leave originals in the office. If they are classified, they are not yours to take or reproduce, so doing so is essentially an act of civil disobedience. If you have questions, it is best to consult with counsel before taking action. Regardless, it is advisable to store your evidence with your attorney, where it is shielded by attorney-client privilege.
Avoid being accused of stealing any documents. In instances where it is not practical or legal to take evidence home, tactics such as mislabeling and misfiling records in your office, to be found later, can prevent their destruction. The strategy means keeping careful notes on a document's substance, but "burying" copies of the actual record in an archive file or an electronic folder with an innocuous name. Be prepared to serve as navigator for law enforcement or other outside investigators to trace where to find copies of the documents that an agency acting in bad faith will claim do not exist.
Make a plan. For example, decide whether and when to blow the whistle internally or externally. When does it make sense to give up on internal channels? What documents, if any, should be shared with whom? Try to predict how those in the agency or department will react and respond to a disclosure.
Converse with family members and loved ones before blowing the whistle. The old adage applies here: plan for the worst and hope for the best. Consider the impact on family members and friends should retaliation occur. This is a decision you must make together, or you may find yourself alone. Develop alternate employment options before drawing attention to yourself.
Avoid creating any other reason to be fired for cause. Maintain good job performance an follow workplace rules, and if suspected be careful not to take the bait in pretextual confrontations.
Test the waters with work colleagues and attempt to garner their support, if possible. Determine which colleagues would corroborate your observations or possibly even participate actively in blowing the whistle, although be discreet and start with trusted contacts.
Seek outside help including journalists, politicians, and public interest organizations, judiciously. Solidarity is essential to both making a difference from blowing the whistle on misconduct and surviving the experience.
Best Practices for External Whistleblowing
Before you begin working with a reporter or an advocacy group, negotiate the scope of what you’re willing to disclose, whether you need anonymity, and any other protections or concerns. It is easier for everyone to be clear on the rules from the beginning
If maintaining confidentiality and anonymity is critical, use secure, encrypted means to communicate, including Secure Drop for document exchange, Signal or WhatsApp for texts and calls, ProtonMail or another email platform that uses Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption, or snail mail with no return address.
Don’t communicate with your contacts during your work hours or use office equipment like office phones, computers, or even paper.
Be aware that the best option for your safety may not necessarily be to remain anonymous, but to instead blow the whistle publicly with the help of a lawyer. Public disclosure can help an employee prove that the employer had knowledge of the whistleblowing, a necessary element in a reprisal case. It can also preempt reprisal, particularly when you are supported by a team of allies.
If you intend to leak documents anonymously, make sure that you are not the only person who possesses these documents so they can’t be traced back to you. If possible, send them out innocuously attached to legitimate listserv emails or upload them to an agency server or archiving system. Check whether any traceable marks are encrypted for electronic communications. Above all, unless you want to leave legal rights behind and be a civil disobedience whistleblower, do not make external disclosures with any information marked classified, or whose release is specifically prohibited by a federal statute. Those only can be disclosed internally, to the Office of Special Counsel or an Inspector General.
Rather than printing secure documents, take pictures of them on your personal secured phone. Your access to the documents may be able to be tracked, and printing will narrow the pool of potential people who have accessed the documents. If you can’t take a photo, make written notes. Again, however, do not take photographs of information for which public disclosure is unprotected. If your phone or camera is seized, you will be blamed for the illegal disclosure and lose your whistleblower rights.
Instead of providing documents, consider guiding reporters or advocacy organizations in making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. To do this, make sure problematic policies or practices are in writing. Try to get your agency to spell them out, or do it in your own emails. Be careful that the FOIA isn’t so specific that it tips off the agency that there is a whistleblower. If the agency denies their existence and you have “buried” copies of the records in camouflaged locations, teaming with the requester to expose that cover-up can be a significant development when challenging broader misconduct.
Make sure that any documents you send are stripped of meta data such as photo locations, watermarks, or tracked changes.
Contact Government Accountability Project
We are the international leader in whistleblower protection and advocacy.
A non-partisan, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Government Accountability Project actively promotes government and corporate accountability by providing legal representation to whistleblowers and ensuring their disclosures make a difference. Our longstanding work with more than 8,000 whistleblowers has involved working for decades in the areas of public health, food safety, national security, human rights, immigration, energy and the environment, finance and banking, and international institutions, as well as expanding whistleblower protections domestically and internationally.
Government Accountability Project offers pro bono legal and strategic advice and support to employees considering reporting, or who have already reported, misconduct. We also offer advice to public interest organizations and journalists, as well to their whistleblower sources.