MONTPELIER, Vt. — It started with what seemed like a simple request: State Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer wanted an exemption from Vermont's public records law so he could protect the identities of state employees who report waste, fraud or abuse in their agencies.
But as testimony unfolded recently before the House Government Operations Committee, the subject mushroomed into a broader discussion about the concern many state employees have about coming forward to report problems in government.
Former Rep. Steve Howard, now the chief lobbyist for the Vermont State Employees' Association, said the union surveyed members last year and found that fear of retaliation for speaking out in state workplaces is widespread.
The survey found "significant concern that if employees come forward and tell the public and tell legislators what's happening on the front lines ... they will be retaliated against," Howard said.
He cited the case of a state Department of Liquor Control inspector, the lead complainant in a union grievance last year about changing job conditions who found himself referred to law enforcement for purportedly filing a false time report. The Chittenden County state's attorney later dismissed the time report allegation for insufficient evidence.
In another case, a state employee who took a position contrary to that of Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration in testimony before a legislative committee ended up "interrogated" by a supervisor and is now afraid to return to the Statehouse, Howard said.
Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy said in an interview that she was surprised and dismayed to hear that employees fear retaliation for speaking out.
"It doesn't really matter to me if it's a small problem or a big problem," Duffy said. "It's still a problem."
Duffy said she was working with her staff on new training materials to make clear to managers that retaliation against whistle-blowers violates existing state policy and law.
Current law bars retaliation against employees for speaking to a legislator or legislative committee as long as they don't reveal confidential information and make clear they are not speaking for a state department or agency.
Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, said the panel was unlikely to delve into toughening laws against retaliation this year. But she said she thought the panel would tackle Hoffer's request.
Hoffer said in an interview that he had been advised by the attorney general's office that if someone made a request under the public records law for the names of people bringing complaints to his office, he would have to divulge them, violating the confidentiality he wants to offer people who come to his office with concerns.
He told Sweaney's committee that when he reviewed a year's worth of complaints to his office, "almost no state employees" were among those bringing concerns.
"That doesn't make any sense to me because they're the ones who know the most about what's going on in state government," Hoffer said.
Problems in state government will remain hidden, he said, "unless we make a safe place to talk about it, and I see that as part of my job."
Hoffer said he would want the ability at least initially to keep the identities of those raising concerns secret from Duffy's office, which is the arm of state government that investigates allegations of employee misconduct.
That didn't sit well with Duffy.
"If any employee goes to Doug (Hoffer) and says there's theft going on or whatever ... I would want to be aware so I could fix it, so I could do something about it," she said.