The authors are former prosecutors who now represent whistleblowers / Renée Brooker (former Assistant Director for Civil Frauds) firstname.lastname@example.org (202) 288-1295 / Eva Gunasekera (former Senior Counsel for Health Care Fraud) email@example.com
Whistleblowers who report federal or state grant or contract fraud help the Department of Justice’s enforcement efforts and may be entitled to a reward under the False Claims Act.
It takes guts for whistleblowers to come forward. Protect them.
The White House on March 24. (Cliff Owen/AP)
By Harry Litman, Contributing columnist
A longtime security adviser’s account of rampant abuses in the security-clearance process at the Trump White House provides a case study of the importance of robust whistleblower protections to uncover illegal governmental practices.
Tricia Newbold recently told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that, on at least 25 occasions, political officials within the administration granted security clearances to applicants after her office had recommended against them.
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to issue a subpoena to Carl Kline, the political appointee who Newbold placed at the center of the alleged abuse. Kline, at the time, was White House personnel security director.
The White House declined to comment on the subpoena, while Kline’s lawyer said the “facts will prove that he acted appropriately at all times.”
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Newbold has worked in the White House’s personnel security office for more than 18 years, serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and rising to the top career position leading a team that adjudicates security clearances. Her team’s job is to ensure compliance with a detailed web of regulations to protect both the integrity of the security-clearance process and, more important, to ensure that clearances do not go to people who present security risks to the United States.
Beginning in the summer of 2017, according to Newbold, Kline overrode dozens of security-clearance denial recommendations, including those of two current senior White House officials. Newbold said the team’s recommendations were based on well-known factors indicating security risks — including applicants’ conflicts of interests, drug abuse, financial problems and ties to foreign influence.
Newbold told the committee she pointed out the irregularities to Kline, the White House counsel’s office and the office of the president, but got no response.
It was then, she alleges, when matters turned sinister. In legal papers filed as part of an administrative appeal, Newbold has asserted that Kline engaged in petty slights against Newbold and her team, and then, citing insubordination, moved to suspend Newbold for two weeks.
Moreover, Newbold contends that Kline ignored or violated a series of executive orders and regulatory requirements, beginning with Executive Order 12968, which governs access to classified information. He also repeatedly removed and redacted forms from political appointees’ files, she alleges.
Newbold has challenged her suspension, claiming it is a reprisal for her revelations of Kline’s misconduct. That challenge is currently being adjudicated. In the meantime, Kline has left the office.
If accurate, Newbold’s allegations suggest a crass corruption of the security-clearance process that placed national security second to political influence. According to Newbold, Kline and others ignored legal procedures designed to safeguard U.S. security interests and engaged in raw political bullying to cow career employees trying to uphold the law.
As a consequence, dozens of individuals — including the two senior officials — may currently be vulnerable to blackmail by foreign powers or may otherwise present opportunities for our adversaries.
It is an issue of national security that should transcend partisan politics.
It is fortunate for the public interest that Newbold had a place to bring her account. Indeed, but for the break on the Republican stranglehold of all branches of government in the last election, it is likely that Newbold’s story would not have come to light.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the Oversight Committee, has demanded that White House Counsel Pat Cipollone turn over documents connected to the security-clearance process. Cipollone has so far refused on the grounds that the decision whether to grant security clearances “belongs exclusively” to the executive branch.
Cipollone’s argument misses the point. The executive may have the constitutional power to make final security-clearance determinations. It does not follow that the exercise of that power can’t constitute an abuse or can’t subject the country to unwarranted security risks. That is the purpose of oversight. In light of the credible allegations from Newbold and others, it is incumbent on the White House to explain the security-clearance adjudications of political appointees.
In my private legal practice, I represent whistleblowers who allege fraud against the government. It’s not in everyone’s constitution to be a whistleblower. It takes a certain combination of doggedness, integrity and stamina. It doesn’t make you the most popular player in the sandbox. And it generally exacts a high cost. As Newbold told the committee, “I’m terrified of going back. I know that this will not be perceived in favor of my intentions, which is to bring back the integrity of the office.”
But whistleblowers play an indispensable role in ferreting out illegal conduct and returning billions of dollars to the government’s coffers, and protecting their efforts is good public policy. In Newbold’s case, as in the cases of many clients I have represented, the whistleblower merits our protection and praise. It is a good thing for all of us that Newbold had the guts to come forward.