A GAO report has found that NASA could make improvements to the timeliness and guidance within its contractor whistleblower program.
NASA obligated more than $18 billion in contracts and more than $1 billion in grants in fiscal year 2016, and it relies on a significant number of contractor and grantee employees to accomplish its work. These employees are legally protected from reprisal — such as demotion or firing — for whistleblowing.
Between 2008 and 2017, 48 reprisal complaints were submitted such as alleged firing or demotion for reporting fraud, waste, or abuse within the government. GAO found that all of these complaints were addressed, with six forwarded to the NASA administrator to make a final determination of whether reprisal occurred. In five of these cases, the administrator is required, by statute, to make a final determination within 30 days but GAO found that this timeframe was not met. It also reported that in one case the administrator had no documented response.
According to officials from NASA’s Office of General Counsel, each case must be handled on a case-by-case basis to ensure due process and 30 days is insufficient time to issue an order of final determination of reprisal. In order to ensure that whistleblower reprisal complaints are handled within required timeframes, NASA would have to monitor and evaluate its processes for making final determinations of reprisal, but it has not yet taken this step, so doesn’t know what changes may need to be made to fulfill the 30-day requirement.
GAO found that 98 percent of contracts would be expected to include a whistleblower clause but there is a lack of clarity reprisal protections among officials at headquarters, a NASA center, and the inspector general. For example, a July 2014 procurement notice and contract clause language resulted in different interpretations about when the protections apply.
The report recommends that the administrator evaluate the process to determine how reprisal complaints could be investigated within 30 days. It also recommends that guidance on what constitutes whistleblower protection is developed and that the administrator communicate whistleblower protections to grantees and subgrantees and their employees.