RICHMOND (WRIC)—When it comes to the risk of corruption, Virginia is ranked as one of the nation's worst states.
An ABC 8 News investigation uncovered that many state employees are afraid to report the fraud and waste of your tax dollars they see—all because they're ineligible for whistleblower protection and could lose their jobs.
Over the past year, Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe has been contacted by numerous public employees who claim they see fraud and waste of taxpayer resources in their workplace. They told Lagoe if they officially reported it, they'd lose their jobs. It turns out, only a small fraction of state employees are protected by Virginia's whistleblower law, but that could soon change.
Private contractors paid as much as $500 an hour for a state-run PR campaign urging Virginians to conserve energy. The Virginia State Corporation Commission awarded millions upon millions of tax dollars to well-connected companies—in violation of nearly all the rules and regulations other state agencies must follow.
"The documents that you've uncovered, I think, raise some pretty important questions," Delegate Scott Surovell told Lagoe, who began questioning this spending last spring at the behest of SCC employees.
"You've personally witnessed misuse of taxpayer dollars?" Lagoe asked a state employee, who wished to remain anonymous.
"Yeah, absolutely—countless times," he answered. "I'm concerned about it, but who do I tell?"
Another state employee who agreed to speak with ABC 8 News on the condition his identity is not revealed says he has personally witnessed millions of dollars of wasted taxpayer money.
"Why did you and other state employees reach out to me?" Lagoe asked.
"There were no other avenues available to us," he answered.
"There's a fear of losing your job if you speak up?" Lagoe asked.
"Yes, absolutely," the employee answered. "There's not really a place you can turn, and you can get your job threatened and I've witnessed that."
ABC 8 News obtained documents showing that one SCC employee filed a report with Virginia's State Employee Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Hotline. He asked for protection under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, or Whistleblower Act, but was denied because the act only applies to executive branch employees.
Lagoe spoke with an SCC employee, whose coworker contacted the Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Hotline and asked for whistleblower protection. That man is no longer with the SCC.
The allegations of fraud and waste at the SCC were turned over to the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, but records show that an auditor spent only a few hours meeting with SCC management before reaching the conclusion that there was "no basis for any of the allegations." However, Lagoe's investigation found questionable illegal contracts worth millions of dollars and plenty of government waste.
"From my viewpoint, I would question whether they were valid or not," said Rich Sliwoski, the director of the Virginia Department of General Services.
Would-be whistleblowers are aware of the waste, but have nowhere to turn, because Virginia's whistleblower law provides them no protection.
Delegate Jim Lemunyon has introduced a bill that would provide whistleblower protection to all citizens of the Commonwealth, not just state employees.
"If we're serious about the principle behind the whistleblower statute, it really needs to apply to everyone," Lemunyon said. "Especially in the use of state funds, we want all the eyes and ears open, watching what's going on."
"I know of countless employees that would really appreciate that, so that they could feel as though they could report things," an anonymous SCC employee said. "They could save taxpayer dollars and they could not be retaliated against."
Del. Lemunyon's bill moved through the House with broad bi-partisan support. The Senate is set to vote on it on Thursday. If it passes and is then signed by Gov. McAuliffe, if whistleblowers report waste or fraud and the state is able to recover lost money, whistleblowers would receive up to 10 percent of the recovered funds.
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