MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law Wednesday a new exemption to the state’s public records law that aims to protect the identities of whistleblowers who expose waste, fraud or abuse by public officials and employees.
“I, as you know, feel very strongly about transparency, about open government, am hesitant to add exemptions to any kind of transparency, but this one makes sense,” Shumlin said. “All it says is whistleblowers will not have their names disclosed unless they agreed to have it disclosed, which is more likely to result in more whistleblowers speaking up if ... they see their colleagues doing the wrong thing.”
The public bill signing took place at the office of first-term state Auditor Doug Hoffer, who asked lawmakers to protect the confidentiality of people who come to his office with concerns about potential mismanagement or wrongdoing in their agencies or by government contractors. Hoffer said a records request made to his office soon after he was sworn in required him to reveal the name of someone who reported an issue, according to a legal opinion provided by the attorney general’s office.
“That seemed odd to me, so I began a discussion with the Legislature last year and expressed interest to be followed up in the fall,” Hoffer said.
Administration officials worked with the Legislature and others to find language that would protect the identities of whistleblowers. “There was no significant opposition. Even the (American Civil Liberties Union) respected the issue,” Hoffer said.
Hoffer said the Vermont State Employees Association urged protection of whistleblowers because of alleged retaliation by the state against some workers who reported problems.
Shumlin said the state takes whistleblower protection seriously, especially after high-profile embezzlement cases involving state employees.
“While we know that the vast majority of state workers are honest and hardworking, people who are doing their very best for the state, occasionally things go bad, and if you need your memory refreshed all we need to say is Deeghan,” he said.
Former Vermont State Police Sgt. James Deeghan padded his time sheet with hours he never worked, taking more than $200,000 from the state over a six-year period.
Shumlin also said allegations against Lisa Peduzzi, if they are proven and she is convicted, are “an example of things going wrong.” Peduzzi, a former claims examiner for the state, has pleaded not guilty to five counts of embezzlement by a public official and one count of attempted embezzlement. Police have accused her of stealing about $50,000 from the state.
The legislation also requires the release of records dating from 1891 to 1913 to help identify patients from the now-closed Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury who are buried in the hospital’s cemetery and on its grounds in unmarked graves.
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