WASHINGTON -- One day after President Bush signed legislation cracking down on corporate wrongdoing, the administration was accused Wednesday of weakening a provision of the law providing new protections to corporate whistle-blowers.
A member of the president's own party, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy D-Vt., assailed the White House's "narrow interpretation" of the whistle-blower protections. They said it could discourage company insiders from reporting fraud.
"I hope the White House will rethink its interpretation of this law and show it isn't going soft on corporate fraud before the ink is even dry," Grassley said.
The dispute over such a narrow issue gave the president's critics a new opportunity to question his commitment to business reforms.
"If this takes clarification, we will clarify it immediately," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "But it does cause me to question how serious this administration is with regard to corporate accountability."
The administration said that by its interpretation of the legislative language, only those employees who reported corporate wrongdoing to congressional committees conducting investigations were entitled to government protections against retaliation from their employers.
Leahy and Grassley, who wrote the provision, said they intended it to apply to employees who reported misdeeds to any member of Congress, regardless of membership on a committee investigating corporate fraud.
"Our intent was plain: to protect corporate whistle-blowers, period," Grassley said.
White House officials stood by their interpretation and said it was up to Congress to provide any clarification.
The whistle-blower provision is modeled after protections granted airline workers who report safety problems. Under the new law, whistle-blowers who face retaliation from their bosses can file complaints in federal court if the Labor Department has not acted on them within 180 days. Previously, employees could not go to court until the Labor Department completed its review. If successful, whistle-blowers can be awarded reinstatement, back pay and compensatory damages.
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