State Employee Says New Whistleblower Law is a Start, Not Enough

By Steph Machado

Published 05/14 2014 08:04PM

Updated 05/14 2014 08:27PM

MONTPELIER - From a state trooper convicted of padding his time-sheets, to a worker charged with going shopping with taxdollars--fraud and embezzlement have been issues in state government.

Wednesday, Governor Peter Shumlin (D-Vermont) signed a so-called "whistleblower" bill into law. It exempts the names of people who report fraud or other wrongdoing in state government from public records requests.

"Employees who, when they see one of their colleagues taking advantage of tax payers, know that they're protected if they blow the whistle on their wrongdoing," said Gov. Shumlin.

John Howe is one of those employees who blew the whistle. He says this law doesn't go far enough.

"I love the sentiment," he said. "It's one thing to say every employee has the right to do this, but you have to have a system to prevent retaliation."

Howe recently testified to a senate panel about misuse of money at the Department of Vocational Rehab, where he works.

"They want to shield lawmakers from knowing what state workers actually know," he explained. Howe says his department grants money to a private contractor, the Vermont Association of Business, Industry and Rehabilitation. Howe says VABIR is misusing the taxpayer money it's granted, and doesn't pay its workers a livable wage. State workers are unionized, and collectively bargain for higher wages.

Shortly after he testified to the senate panel, Howe says his supervisors starting disciplining him, and he was placed on administrative leave.

He is now back on the job, but still under investigation. He is suing a host of people, from his own manager all the way up to Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding. His case hinges on the fact that he says he was retaliated against for whistleblowing, and disciplined for what he calls frivolous infractions.

"That I allowed the receptionist, who's not a state employee to use my [state-issued] cell phone. I had her answer my phone for clients because we didn't have a landline," he said.

Secretary Spaulding says the Department of Human Resources is investigating Howe's claims.

"This administration has no tolerance for that kind of activity, in any way restricting people's rights to say what they want to say," Spaulding said.

Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy says the state has not been formally served the lawsuit, and will respond to it when that happens.

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