Politics & Government

Whistleblowers in NC government would get added protections under proposed bill

After Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration discouraged state employees from talking to private investigators hired by state legislators, an N.C. Senate committee wants to tweak whistleblower protections for state workers.

Senate Bill 127, titled “Protect Governmental Accountability,” cleared the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and would add whistleblower protections to employees who provide “statements or testimony to agents and employees of legislative panels designated to conduct inquiries on behalf of legislative panels.”

The bill was prompted by a legislative oversight committee’s investigation into the Cooper administration’s approval of Atlantic Coast Pipeline permits. The committee hired private investigators who have sought to interview Department of Environmental Quality employees about the permit process. The oversight committee chairmen recently called on DEQ to confirm that “you will not take retaliatory actions, make threats, or otherwise jeopardize an employee’s job or sense of job security if that employee voluntarily speaks to legislative investigators.”

Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, co-chairs the committee and sponsored the whistleblower bill. He said Tuesday that the pipeline probe “did have some relevance” to SB 127, and that he still has “not gotten any reassurances” from DEQ.

A DEQ spokeswoman recently said that “no one at DEQ has told employees they can’t do what they think is right.”

Brown said that while the state’s current whistleblower law allows employees to talk to lawmakers without fear of retribution, his bill “just expands the protection to where they can also report something to an agent or someone on behalf of the legislature and still have the protections in place.” He said other states have similar protections in their laws.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said he supports the idea behind the bill but suggested it needs a tighter definition of what’s considered a “legislative panel.”

“You don’t want it to be a roving group of legislators ... that have self-anointed themselves to go out on some type of crusade,” he said.

A companion bill was filed in the House by Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell.