Q & A with an Accountability Expert

Dana Gold, Senior Counsel & Director of Education and Partnerships, Government Accountability Project discusses the role of whistleblowers in upholding the truth.

What is your role at GAP and how long have you been with the organization?

I am currently our senior counsel and director of education and partnerships, which is really a bulky way of talking about our advocacy and our methodology. I focus on helping different stakeholders understand the role of whistleblowers in advancing accountability, but also make sure that our whistleblowers and their disclosures make a difference, and are intersectional with different partners and organizations who care about a range of issues. I have worked on and off with GAP since 1991. I graduated from college, found this organization [GAP], wrote to them, and said ‘Can I stuff envelopes, please? You do everything I care about’. They had a fellowship program and brought me on. When we opened a Seattle office in 1991, I ended up going to law school out there, so I could continue working with GAP. I used to work mostly in our nuclear weapons oversight, but have variously run the organization, handled litigation and most recently taken on this educator and advocacy role. I also lead GAP’s immigration work and have represented our immigration whistleblowers since July of 2018.

How has the role of whistleblowers changed over time and has that had any impact on how they decide to come forward?

We have seen whistleblowers come forward on a whole range of issues for decades. They see a problem and usually report internally first about 95 percent of the time, which is something most people don’t know. In fact, that is one of the biggest takeaway when I do trainings. I think we think of them as people who go to the press first. Usually, that is not the first place they go. If you are hearing from them in the press, it is because they have typically reported internally. Whistleblowers come to us earlier now when they are seeking advice or before they suffer retaliation. Often they don’t even think of themselves as whistleblowers, they think of themselves as just employees who are doing their jobs and all of a sudden they find themselves suffering from retaliation, and have to seek support. There is more of an awareness about what whistleblowing is now and that doing it alone is hard and complicated.

I find it greatly encouraging that we can ideally mitigate retaliation, and even quietly preempt it. From the public perspective, when I used to do educational forums at the beginning of the Trump administration, I used to have to talk about myths and truths about whistleblowers, and I think that’s still there. In the Obama administration, there were all these national security whistleblowers and strong use of the Espionage Act against employees who reported the misconduct of illegal electronic surveillance. It continued into the Trump administration, and there was a sense that whistleblowers disclosed classified information and that extended to misperceptions about whistleblowing being illegal. Until about four years ago, we often thought of national security whistleblowers as archetypal but that has drastically changed. People have seen immigration whistleblowers, COVID-19 whistleblowers, and climate science whistleblowers – none of them released classified information. I think people have come to understand that but for these whistleblowers’ disclosures, there would be big problems with all of these different issues. I think it’s less of a pejorative term than it used to be. People understand these are probably the only sources we are getting truth from because we can’t even trust our elected officials. There has been a tremendous change in awareness around the important role whistleblowers play and why they should be valorized and valued rather than vilified. It doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that it’s become easy for whistleblowers to blow the whistle.

How can the Biden administration and Congress do a better job of protecting and championing whistleblowers?

 One thing we recommended in Accountability 2021 that has so far been challenged by COVID-19 is a ceremonial nod at a Rose Garden ceremony recognizing whistleblowers. It would be an opportunity to set the tone from the top by encouraging federal employees to speak out without fear of retaliation. I think that would go a long way to show that this administration really values whistleblowers because the prior administration had highly politicized executive branch agencies and many whistleblowers within those agencies. Many of them were publicly humiliated, some of them suffered grotesque retaliation, and at the same time, they had a lot of public support. I think a public expression from the administration that whistleblowers are the best eyes and ears to make government accountable is what we need, and that’s what federal employees need to hear. They need to know that the administration has their back. I think we are seeing some of that, but it’s quiet and it needs to be more public.

So, there’s the public ceremony that should also be backed up with substance. The Trump administration retaliated against many whistleblowers, some of whom are still seeking resolution of their cases. Their disclosures and cases need to be addressed and resolved quickly. We need to see that if a person blows the whistle the administration will act on it and will not retaliate against them. I think we need to make sure some of those important whistleblower disclosures are addressed and solved through passing legislation and adopting different kinds of reforms.

I also think the Biden administration needs to come out and say we need stronger protections and express support for the Whistleblower Improvement Protection Act, which is part of the Protecting Our Democracy Act. Whistleblowers have to wait for a decision through the Merit System Protection Board that still does not have any one appointed. It has a backlog of thousands of cases and federal employees should have at least as good protections as federal contractors, which have very strong protections. The Biden administration should come out in favor of the legislation and Congress needs to pass it immediately.

Whistleblower Dawn Wooten worked with GAP to expose the illegal gynecological procedures that occurred at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. What has happened on your end since the Biden administration announced the decision to close the center?

We have been so busy! Ms. Wooten’s disclosures exposed problems with the facility’s failure to follow COVID-19 protocol that were endangering workers, detainees, and the public. The disclosures that went viral were about women detainees suffering from unnecessary, nonconsensual invasive gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies. Her disclosures opened the door for more than 50 women to come forward with their stories of abuse for a class action suit to be filed and for Congress and the Office of the Inspector General to open investigations. Those investigations have not been concluded yet but were cited by DHS Secretary Mayorkas in his order to sever the contracts of the detention center. It’s a great vindication of Ms. Wooten’s disclosures. With the announced severance of the contract, people will probably lose their jobs. It will have an economic impact to the small community, and because Ms. Wooten is very well known as a public figure, almost internationally recognized, it’s a natural consequence of that decision to blame her for catalyzing these investigations even though she’s not the wrong-doer. She simply opened the door to the investigations resulting in the decision. She is a single mom of five and has been worried about security. She has seen unmarked vehicles outside her home. She hears things about possible threats, so we’ve been really working on shoring up her security. We are working to make sure she feels safe and secure, and enlisting the help of her senators, local law enforcement and even the secretary and head of the Office of Inspector General – all of whom have responded very favorably that it’s not okay that Ms. Wooten is experiencing retaliation. She has tried to find work, but it has been difficult because potential employers find out she’s the whistleblower.  She should not have to suffer for blowing the whistle and ending the suffering of so many. We have been really busy because we don’t want the blowback of the disclosures to be at the cost of her personal and professional life. She is a hero for what she did, and it shows the power of truth and the courage to do the right thing. But she needs a remedy and she needs support. That’s our biggest priority right now.

How did Ms. Wooten find out about GAP?

That’s a great question. She had a lawyer friend who connected her with Project South, and originally we were co-counsel with them for Ms. Wooten and her claims. We are sole counsel now, but we still work collaboratively with Project South. Because we had done so much work over the past three years with immigration whistleblowers, part of the methodology of that work began when we started representing Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson. They are the medical and mental health subject matter experts for the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, who were very concerned when the former administration ended the separation policy of kids and their parents at the border, but were going to lock everyone up in family residential centers. Both doctors said they were doing inspections at those facilities for years and saw they are systemically unable to provide adequate care. GAP had also been saying that detention, no matter what, causes harm and should only be done in the most minimal of circumstances, so they came to us in the summer of 2018 to speak up.

What other initiatives is GAP working on that you can share with us?

We launched a project called Bearing Witness and the Democracy Protection Initiative. It’s kind of a separate effort to bring faith leaders and faith communities to create awareness for them about how they can support and why they should support whistleblowers. We give them the resources to do that, knowing that often people of conscience might turn to a faith leader or might be motivated by their faith to come forward. We started it as part of the Democracy Protection Initiative because we knew faith leaders understood the issue of voter suppression. They had started standing up for election integrity, and taking very public stances on the issue.

As we have state bills trying to suppress voters in the name of the ‘big lie’, truth is still under assault and what happened on January 6 is being used as a justification to enact these restrictive voting laws. It’s a big challenge for the role truth plays in democracy and how we need whistleblowers to stand up. I just think we will need Bearing Witness and that group of stakeholders soon. We need whistleblowers now, but we are going to need them even more so in 2022. The stakes for democracy continue to be high and I think it was telling when we couldn’t get a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection to pass [in the Senate]. Elections shouldn’t be partisan. Truth shouldn’t be partisan, but it’s been made to be that way. Fortunately, whistleblowers aren’t partisan. You have people in the government that aren’t activists, they are just trying to do their good work, and they feel compelled to speak out because they see problems.

What’s the most beneficial about being part of the Open The Government coalition?

Thanks to Open The Government for facilitating a meeting with the National Immigration Justice Project for GAP. It has been transformative for our work with immigration whistleblowers. Building that kind of relationship with public interest groups made us known in the immigration space. I know how to protect whistleblowers, how to leverage their information, but knowing how to engage long-term with the community of advocates who are experts on that issue is different. It was game-changing and we have done that on a bunch of different issues from policing, general legislative efforts, to hosting educational forums together to help different sectors understand how whistleblowers are a critical part of open government and accountability – every issue that matters. A whistleblower can really change the world and change the conversation. Dawn Wooten is just one of many examples. There’s Rick Bright on scientific integrity and how we deal with COVID-19. I could go on. When we did a Facebook Live together, I had a list of about 20. OTG is awesome and I am grateful you exist to help us.

In your role at GAP, you see a lot and yet manage to stay so upbeat and cheerful, how do you do it? What do you enjoy when you are not working?

Well, I go to therapy every Friday. It’s important for activists who care about good government, and democracy to set aside time for that because we have lived through a pretty hard road where all of those issues were under direct assault. And unfortunately, the assaults are continuing. Working in immigration and policing areas is challenging. But this work is awesome! I get to work with these heroes with clarity of purpose, with moral courage, who by saying ‘I can’t stay silent, I am going to speak up,’ can change the world. I get to help people like Dawn Wooten, Drs. Allen and McPherson. It’s a privilege to be able to feel like I have agency through the activist tools that I have as a lawyer working with public interest organizations. The work is hard but I have total clarity on why I am on this earth, and I can’t believe I get to do this work. It’s a privilege and I am surrounded by colleagues who are mission-driven, and I get to support employees who are mission-driven because they did the right thing. It’s a gift, so that’s how I stay upbeat.

I am a mom of a 13-year-old so every waking moment that is not spent on work is largely spent parenting, especially during the pandemic. I walk, and I picked up the ukulele and play it sometimes. I love to row so I bought a rowing machine, which is something I’ve really wanted and gifted to myself as a birthday present. I love to kayak too and look forward to doing so as we get into the summer months.