By Scott McClallen
(The Center Square) – The Michigan House Wednesday approved a plan to bolster government accountability by protecting state employees who blow the whistle on potential problems and waste of taxpayer money within their departments.
House Bill (HB) 4064 – approved by an 87-21 bipartisan vote — seeks to create an official State Employee Ombudsman to receive and refer whistleblower complaints to appropriate administrative or law enforcement authorities while protecting the identity of state employees submitting the complaints. The ombudsman would use discretion in deciding whether or not to investigate every complaint.
“This reform received broad support from Republicans and Democrats alike because it’s the right thing to do,” Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, said in a statement. “This is about making state government better and more accountable to the people who pay for it and rely on its services.
“We must create a system where state employees know they can safely come forward with important, sensitive information that could improve how government operates, save taxpayer money, and potentially even save lives.”
In October 2016, the Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Emergency issued its final report suggesting additional whistleblower protections that potentially could have saved lives and prevented permanent damage inflicted during the Flint water crisis.
“House Bill 4064 would allow for confidential investigation not only of violations and suspected violations of law, but also of gross mismanagement or waste of public funds and of conduct by a state entity that will, or is substantially likely to, endanger public health or safety,” the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency wrote.
The House also passed HB 4591, which aims to prohibit the state from gifting severance pay greater than that equal to 12 weeks of the state employee’s normal wages and require disclosure of certain public employment contracts.
However, there’s an exception if the attorney general or a legal counsel determines severance pay greater than 12 weeks of the employee’s regular wages is necessary to serve the state’s best interests based on litigation risk and the need to minimize spending taxpayer money.
The state could enter into an employment contract that provides for a greater amount of severance pay if the contract releases, to the extent allowed by law, all claims the employee may have against the state.
Under the bill, if the state enters into a contract providing the state employee severance pay greater or equal to six weeks of normal wages, the public body employing the employee must publicly share the entire employment contract on its website within 28 days after the employment contract is entered into and to the extent allowed by law.
“Hush money deals erode people’s faith in their government,” Glenn said. “We must put changes directly in state law to ensure these sorts of irresponsible backroom deals never happen again.”
The bills advance to the Senate for further consideration. It’s unclear if Whitmer would sign either bill. Whitmer previously defended the nearly $253,000 of taxpayer money her office gifted to three departing employees, and on July 8, 2020, Whitmer vetoed a bill seeking to ban a state department or supervisor from punishing state employees for whistleblowing, claiming the bill violated the constitutional separation of powers.