Empower Oversight Releases Statement on FBI’s Illegal Use of Federal Funds to Silence Whistleblowers

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oth letters concern the FBI’s failure to comply with limits Congress placed on the use of taxpayer dollars for nondisclosure agreements unless they include specific exceptions for whistleblowing. File photo: Mrsashko, Shutter Stock, licensed.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) have sent two new letters probing illegal use of federal funds and whistleblower retaliation against former Special Agent Steve Friend—one to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ – pdf), and another to the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General (DOJ-OIG – pdf).

Both letters concern the FBI’s failure to comply with limits Congress placed on the use of taxpayer dollars for nondisclosure agreements unless they include specific exceptions for whistleblowing. The FBI violated this “anti-gag” provision in federal appropriations law by attempting to impose on Special Agent Friend and his attorneys a broad nondisclosure agreement without the legally required whistleblower exceptions.

The appropriation restriction has been introduced by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) since 1988. The standard form apparently routinely used by the FBI’s internal Inspections Division is attached to the letters, which seek an accounting of how many other employees the FBI has attempted to illegally silence with the form in the last ten years.

The letters also seek records relating to the FBI’s Firearms Training Unit (FTU), which failed to release copies of Friend’s firearms training records as required by the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act. By improperly withholding the records while Friend was suspended without pay as reprisal for blowing the whistle, the FBI ensured that Friend could not obtain a necessary firearms license in Florida to accept alternate employment in the professional security field.

“Special Agent Friend followed the rules during his time as both an agent and a whistleblower. As a result, he was punished with an illegal nondisclosure agreement and stonewalling from a federal agency that is still limiting his ability to provide for his family. The FBI is not above the law, and Congress needs to hold it accountable. While Empower Oversight applauds the oversight efforts of Senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, we urge others in Congress to use their constitutional authorities to help them investigate this illegal use of taxpayer dollars and put some teeth into the anti-gag restrictions. Congress cannot allow agencies to thumb its nose at its power of the purse. Those who blow the whistle deserve to be protected, not punished and silenced,” said Tristan Leavitt, President of Empower Oversight.

“The importance of whistleblowers knowing their rights under the law cannot be understated. The anti-gag provision has been included in almost every appropriations law since 1988 and was permanently codified in federal law by the Whistleblower Protection and Enhancement Act of 2012. These accountability measures are critically important because they ensure whistleblowers know they have the right to disclose government fraud, waste, and abuse to Congress and Inspectors General. Federal agencies cannot conceal their wrongdoing behind illegal nondisclosure agreements and related documents,” the senators wrote in their letter to the FBI and DOJ-OIG.

“These accountability measures are critically important because they ensure whistleblowers know they have the right to disclose government fraud, waste, and abuse to Congress and Inspectors General. Accordingly, we request information regarding what actions your office will take to correct the FBI’s unlawful conduct and to ensure this unlawful conduct does not continue in the future. Federal agencies cannot conceal their wrongdoing behind illegal nondisclosure agreements and related documents,” the senators wrote in their letter to the DOJ-OIG.

Empower Oversight has assisted former Special Agent Friend in his role as a whistleblower, challenging his improper supervision and making further protected disclosures against the FBI. Last month, Empower Oversight wrote to the DOJ-OIG ensuring that Friend’s allegations had not been rejected by the agency. Days later, Assistant Inspector General Sean O’Neill informed Empower Oversight that the agency is still interested in interviewing Friend regarding his claims against the agency. This came on the heels of two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filings from Empower Oversight on February 1, 2023 that sought answers on the actions of DOJ-OIG and FBI against Friend.

If you have first-hand information you’d like to disclose to assist Empower Oversight with these inquiries, please contact us confidentially here.

Empower Oversight Whistleblowers & Research (EMPOWR) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to enhancing independent oversight of government and corporate wrongdoing. EMPOWR works to help insiders document and report corruption to the proper authorities while also seeking to hold authorities accountable to act on those reports.

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