The original investigation stemmed from allegations that the agency monitored the personal e-mail accounts of nine employees who wrote President Barack Obama's transition team and members of Congress to express safety concerns about radiological devices used to detect breast cancer and other diseases. Six current and former FDA employees filed a lawsuit in January against the agency that accused it of secretly monitoring their personal e-mail accounts.
“Recently, OSC received new and troubling allegations of retaliatory surveillance of OSC communications and other acts of retaliation against the whistle-blowers, including FDA attempts to initiate criminal prosecution of the whistle-blowers,” said an OSC news release. “We are reviewing these additional allegations and information from Congress and will take appropriate action.”
Under federal law, federal employees’ right to confidentially report wrongdoing to the Office of Special Counsel or Congress trumps any agency’s authority to monitor an employee’s e-mail, even when employees are warned that their e-mails may be monitored, according to the OSC, which is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency.
“Monitoring communications with OSC is unacceptable,” said Carolyn Lerner, OSC special counsel. “We encourage other agencies to review their policies to ensure that they are not monitoring or otherwise impeding employee disclosures to OSC or Congress.”
When HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was pressed on the FDA whistle-blower issue at a Wednesday budget hearing by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) she generally declined to comment because the case is in court.
“Senator, I certainly share your concerns about the potential retaliation against any whistle-blower and feel that government employees need to have whistle-blower protections,” Sebelius said. “On the other hand, the FDA needs to have protections around proprietary information.”