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Senators: Bush could undercut whistleblowers


From Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Just a day after President Bush signed sweeping new corporate reform measures into law, two U.S. senators questioned whether the White House may try to roll back protections for corporate whistleblowers.

In a statement issued late Tuesday, Bush said several provisions of the new law "require careful construction by the executive branch as it faithfully executes" the measures, which were designed to protect individuals who expose corporate fraud.

In particular, the president said the law called for protection against company retaliation in cases where there is "lawful cooperation with investigations ... as referring to investigations authorized by the rules of the Senate or the House of Representatives and conducted for a proper legislative purpose."

The statement left out the act's reference to whistleblower protection for anyone who provides information to "any member of Congress," an omission that prompted a letter to Bush Wednesday from Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the committee.

The statement "embodies a flawed interpretation of the clearly worded statute and threatens to create unnecessary confusion and to discourage whistleblowers ... from reporting corporate fraud to Congress," the senators said.

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Leahy and Grassley questioned whether the White House is planning to exclude cases in which an employee brings unsolicited information to an individual member of Congress, as opposed to an ongoing congressional investigation.

"This narrow interpretation is at odds with the plain language of the statute and risks chilling corporate whistleblowers who wish to report securities fraud to members of Congress," the senators said in their letter.

The president signed the corporate reform bill into law Tuesday morning at a White House ceremony.

It requires whistleblower protection for any company employee revealing information relating to possible corporate fraud "when the information or assistance is provided to or the investigation is conducted by -- (A) a federal regulatory or law enforcement agency; (B) any member of Congress or any committee of Congress or (C) a person with supervisory authority over the employee."

Diminishing law's strength?

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Wednesday he was "dismayed" by the administration's apparent interpretation of the new law.

"I can't believe that before the ink is even dry, the White House would be acting to diminish its strength and power," Daschle told reporters. "If it takes clarification, we will clarify it immediately. But it does cause me to question how serious this administration is with regard to corporate accountability."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the law contains nothing that would prevent Congress from giving whistleblower protections to anyone it deemed appropriate. He also stressed that the administration views the law as covering whistleblowers who provide information to a congressional investigation.

"We will be very pleased to continue to talk to the Senate about the provisions. As the Senate knows, it is up to them," he said.

A Leahy aide, who did not want to be identified, responded to Fleischer's comments by saying, "The law is clear and doesn't need an interpretation.

"What the White House has proposed is a chilling rollback of protections for future whistleblowers that would leave many of them in the lurch," the aide said.

He said Leahy and Grassley are awaiting a response from the White House -- and "We hope the White House will drop its efforts to confuse a very clear law."

It is not unusual to have "differing interpretations" of a new law, Fleisher said.

"But the bottom line remains the same," he said. "Under the interpretation the administration put out last night, the bottom line remains this a congressional determination. So it's up to Congress to make the call."




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