By CHARLIE BOOTHE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Del. John Shott, R-District 27, wants to make sure that West Virginia public employees at all levels of government do not feel intimidated if they see misconduct or waste that should be reported.
That’s why he introduced House Bill 2006, which passed the House unanimously earlier this week, to strengthen penalties for anyone who violates the so-called Whistleblower Law.
As currently written, the law provides for a fine of up to $500 and possible job suspension for up to six months for those who are convicted of seeking to punish a government employee for revealing waste or misconduct.
With Shott’s amendments to the law, the fine can be up to $5,000 and a violator can be fired.
“There didn’t seem to be any confidence in public employees” that the remedy for those who try to retaliate against them is severe enough, he said. “We are doing this to strengthen the law so public employees will be more protected to provide information.”
Shott, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said it will help give employees a renewed confidence in reporting those incidences.
“We know of instances where this kind of thing (waste or misconduct) happened and in some cases they are reported and some were not,” he said.
Some feared they would lose their jobs if they reported anything, or another from of retaliation.
“We intend to make them feel more comfortable in reporting,” he said.
Shott said if there is retaliation, the victim can go to circuit court and bring a lawsuit based on the statute.
“The judge has a lot of options,” he said. “If he finds there was retaliation, the first step is to make the victim whole, with reinstatement (if the employee was fired), back pay and attorney’s fees.”
The judge can also impose a fine, the limit of which would increase 10 times under Shott’s amendment.
Shott said the judge would make no decision on the fate of the employee who violated the law, but his finding could be used by the department in which that employee works.
That could mean job termination with Shott’s amendment, rather than be limited to a suspension.
It can also be used as a basis for removal from office of an elected public official.
“That is a separate process, but it (the judge’s’ findings) can be used as a basis for removal from office,” he said.
Shott said the law (with the amendment) tells the judge that a finding can be made and used as a means to remove an elected official from office and it can also be used by the public body that hired a non-elected official for discharging that official.
This law applies to every public employee in the state, he said, at all levels of government, including county, city, town and the school system.
“Any public organization is subject to that provision,” he said.
Employees who see waste and wrongdoing should never be intimated about reporting it, he added.
The bill will now go to the Senate.
“Hopefully, they will take it up and pass it,” he said. “Hopefully, the Governor (Jim Justice) will sign it. I don’t anticipate any major problems.”
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