The nation was recently stunned by the revelation that Department of Veterans Affairs administrators were manipulating dates on records to conceal the unreasonable wait times veterans seeking medical care were forced to endure. Unfortunately, this type of conduct may be more common throughout government than we could have imagined. The Texas Supreme Court has recently agreed to take a case in which a Department of Human Services employee was fired for reporting shockingly similar conduct in his office.
In Texas Department of Human Services v. Okoli, the state’s high court was asked to determine whether the Texas Whistleblower Act protected a Department employee who reported to his supervisors that colleagues were changing the dates on applications in order to conceal the severity of their processing backlog. The employee, Oliver Okoli, was fired only three months after reporting this conduct following seven years with the Department. The case may seem like clear-cut whistleblower retaliation but the court must still resolve some problems:
The Texas Whistleblower Act requires whistleblowers to report alleged fraud to an “appropriate law enforcement authority” in order to gain the protections of the Act.
In this case, Okoli reported his concerns to his direct supervisor. He then reported up the chain of command after that supervisor responded by disciplining him.
While the Department has a standing inspector general responsible for prosecuting internal fraud, Okoli never contacted that office with his concerns.
The question is whether Okoli could have believed in good faith that his supervisors qualified as an appropriate law enforcement authority. The Court has already ruled in Okoli’s favor once and seems likely to do so again. However, this case illustrates the challenges whistleblowers can face when they take action without first consulting an experienced attorney.