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Mont. House endorses whistleblower measures

The Montana House gave initial approval to bills that would add protections for public workers who allege government waste, fraud or abuse within their agencies


By Matt Volz
Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — The Montana House gave initial approval Friday to bills that would add protections for public workers who allege government waste, fraud or abuse within their agencies.

One of the measures by Republican Rep. Kirk Wagoner, of Montana City, would bar retaliation against a whistleblower, a public employee who alleges wrongdoing. The second would allow a public employee to file a civil lawsuit if his or her supervisor obstructs that worker from communicating with a legislator about "a matter of public concern."

Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice, center with hand raised, administers the oath of office to members of the Montana House of Representatives Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, in Helena, Mont. (AP Photo/Matt Volz)
Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Rice, center with hand raised, administers the oath of office to members of the Montana House of Representatives Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, in Helena, Mont. (AP Photo/Matt Volz)

"This is strengthening and clarifying public employees' First Amendment rights to talk," Wagoner said in debate on the House floor.

The original bills would have created new criminal offenses for obstruction and retaliation, punishable by up to five years in prison, but they were reduced in committee to civil actions.

Both bills were supported by Carol Bondy, a former Department of Public Health and Human Services auditor who filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit against the state after she was fired in 2015.

Bondy testified earlier this month that her dismissal was in retaliation for reporting the misuse of state and federal funds within the department. However, an unemployment benefits hearing officer determined she was fired for misconduct and found that she knew that another employee had sent a legislator confidential information.

The obstruction measure, House Bill 202, passed on a 63-37 vote. It says that a supervisor who takes any action to impede a government worker from talking to a legislator can be fined up to $5,000 per violation, along with any damages awarded by a judge. The bill specifies that confidential information is not allowed to be disclosed.

One opponent of the measure, Democratic Rep. Laurie Bishop, of Livingston, said the bill would pit public employees against each other. Another Democrat, Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, of Helena, said she worried that a low-level supervisor could be made a scapegoat over a broader agency prohibition against communicating with legislators.

The retaliation measure, House Bill 208, was approved on a 63-37 vote. The bill would allow an employee to be reinstated and compensated for lost wages and benefits if a judge finds another public worker retaliated against or threatened retaliation for alleging waste, fraud or abuse.

Democratic Rep. Virginia Court, of Billings, noted the bill covers not only state workers, but employees at all levels of government. This bill was not ready, and there are already protections for workers in the law, she said.

Both bills must pass a final vote before they go to the Senate.

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