By Lexi Browning
For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation Wednesday that will strengthen penalties for violating the state’s whistleblower law, making House Bill 2006, which passed with unanimous support, the first piece of legislation to pass the House chamber in the 2017 session.
The current code protects whistleblowers, which it defines as an individual who “witnesses or has evidence of wrongdoing or waste while employed with a public body,” from discrimination or retaliation as a result of exposing unethical behavior.
If passed through both legislative chambers, H.B. 2006 could heighten the current civil fine against those who retaliate against whistleblowers from $500 to $5,000 and allow previous findings from court to serve as evidence of discriminatory or improper behavior. It also addresses retaliation by elected officials.
Other sponsors include House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-40th, and Delegates Roger Hanshaw, R-33rd; Kelli Sobonya, R-18th; Martin Atkinson, R-11th; Hill, Barbara Fleischauer, D-51st; Mike Pushkin, D-37th; Chad Lovejoy, D-17th; and Joe Canestraro, D-4th.
Freshman Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said he signed on to the legislation early on in an effort to offer more protections for government employees and set the tone for the rest of the session.
“If you work at an agency, and you see that your boss is diverting money or misusing his or her office and you know it’s wrong, you may be afraid to say something,” Lovejoy said. “We’ve stepped in to say that we want people to come forward if something is wrong and offer protection. We’re encouraging people to call out unethical practices and we’re giving them the courage to do it.”
Now more than ever, protecting whistleblowers is vital for proper government functionality, Lovejoy said.
“Before [Edward] Snowden, whistleblowing has historically played a very important function,” Lovejoy said. “Unless you’re in that office, you don’t know. It’s important that our employees can work free of reprisal and know that they’ll be protected if they call out wrongdoing.
Lovejoy said he hoped the bill’s overwhelming bipartisan support and collaboration would set the tone for the remainder of the session.
“Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott has made it very clear that he’s concerned — as we all are — about protecting the integrity of the state government,” Lovejoy said. “This bill makes protecting our government and its employees priority of the leadership of House and Judiciary Committee. As a member, I was very happy to participate in this. The fact that every person voted for it shows you something.”
H.B. 2006 has been communicated to the Senate for further review.