"Our government is sending the message to federal workers that they do not want them to come forward and report these problems," Dave Colapinto, the general counsel of the National Whisteblowers Center, told AOL News today by phone. "In other words, they do not want the public to know what is going on."
According to The Associated Press, the Department of Homeland Security demoted a high-level employee because she told the inspector general that requests for federal records were being unduly influenced and sometimes illegally shelved by political appointees.
In a strongly worded letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano obtained by the AP, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., charges that the federal agency demoted Catherine Papoi, a former deputy unit chief of Freedom of Information Act requests, as an apparent "act of retaliation" against her for whistle-blowing. FOIA requests are filed by government watchdog groups and news organizations in order to gain access to federal records for the public.
"Denying or interfering with employees' rights to furnish information to Congress is against the law," the congressman's letter read, according to the AP. "Federal officials who retaliate against or otherwise interfere with employees who exercise their right to furnish information to Congress are not entitled to have their salaries paid by taxpayer dollars."
In a response to the letter obtained by AOL News, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Nelson Peacock said the claims made by Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, were "unfounded allegations of bad faith and a breach of legal ethics." Peacock wrote that the department had not taken any "retaliatory action" against employees who provided information to the committee.
In a statement today, Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said Issa's letter was "rife with inaccuracies and distorts the facts." She said Papoi was not demoted but instead was simply passed over for a more senior position that another candidate was more qualified for.
But Colapinto said the bigger issue is that Congress needs to do more to protect federal employees who try to do the right thing by reporting corruption or illegal activity. "Despite all the talk over the last couple of years about the desire to improve this, there has been total failure when it comes to whistle-blower protection for federal workers. What the system needs is structural reform."
Papoi's accusations, if true, would deal another blow to the Obama administration's vow to increase transparency and openness in government.
In January 2009, when he took office, President Barack Obama wrote a memorandum about the Freedom of Information Act, calling on federal agencies to "usher in a new era in open government" and encouraging transparency. But news organizations and open-government advocates complained this week that many federal agencies have not lived up to the president's words.
According to a report released this week by George Washington University's National Security Archive and the Knight Foundation, just over half of federal agencies made concrete improvements in their FOIA procedures from January 2009 to March 2010.
Federal law requires that agencies respond to FOIA requests within 20 days, but when the archive filed FOIA requests, 17 agencies had still not fulfilled the request after 117 days and four agencies failed to acknowledge the requests at all. Forty-nine agencies did respond, the archive said.
Nate Jones, of the National Security Archive, said the claims detailed in Issa's letter provided more cause for concern.
"Obviously every FOIA request should be treated the same, especially since the Department of Homeland Security has requests it hasn't fulfilled from six years ago," Jones told AOL News today by phone. "They shouldn't be wasting time discriminating between requests, they should be working to get their backlog done."
The administration has defended its record on FOIA requests. On Monday, Tom Perrelli, an associate attorney general at the Department of Justice, said the administration is dedicated to transparency and fulfilled 42 percent of all FOIA requests filed in 2010, up from 34 percent in 2008.
Papoi said she came forward so she could have a clear conscience. "I knew full well I could be jeopardizing my career, but I have to be able to sleep at night," she told the AP.
But Colapinto said she shouldn't have felt as though she had to choose between keeping her job and doing the right thing. "There are going to be brave people who come forward anyway because they see major problems that are going to be stopped. They choose their conscience over their jobs. And that's the major story. They do it anyway."