You blow that whistle, girl!
—Government Code § 8547.1
What are the duties of a government lawyer when she discovers civil or criminal misconduct on the part of elected officials or government employees while acting on the public’s behalf? Does disclosure to enforcement agencies violate ethics and confidentiality?
Thanks to the California Whistleblower Act, specifically Code 8547.1, the answer to the latter question is a resounding “no"—state employees can report fraud and abuse of power and expect to be protected by law. The recent exoneration of whistleblower Cindy Ossias by the California State Bar is further evidence of this truth. And the bar’s further finding that Ossias’ actions “advanced public policy considerations” serves to further reinforce the righteousness of Ossias’ decision to leak documents that contributed to the downfall of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.
Ossias had been the lead lawyer for the state Department of Insurance in overseeing the handling of insurance claims for natural disasters, including the 1991 Oakland Hills fire and the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Last spring, when she found she could no longer remain silent about the egregious wrongdoing and malfeasance that was occurring in relation to her work under Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, she went public. Ossias went to committees in the Assembly and the Senate with copies of an internal review of insurers’ claims-handling practices after the Northridge earthquake.
The document—which revealed secret settlements Quackenbush had reached with six insurance companies after the Northridge earthquake—became crucial evidence in the scandal that ultimately crippled Quackenbush and forced him to resign from his post. Though Ossias was put on “administrative leave” by Quackenbush while he still held office, she was reinstated to her job once he resigned. Still, she has awaited a necessary “all clear” from the state bar for her actions which, on the surface, violated a lawyer’s duty of confidentiality.
Longtime readers of the News & Review understand why the bar’s decision is one we particularly applaud. In 1996, when the SN&R revealed Quackenbush’s cozy relationship with the insurance industry he was elected to watchdog, the still-powerful commissioner came at us with everything he had. Quackenbush’s team made threats of libel against the SN&R (these were later dropped) and subpoenaed SN&R reporter Nick Budnick in a related court case, seeking to force him to reveal the whistleblower sources he’d used in his story. The SN&R went to court to protect these sources. We won, Quackenbush lost.
We at the SN&R have the highest praise for Ossias and her courageous decision to disclose the information to the Legislature. And we commend the state bar for the wisdom of its exoneration that reinforces the lesson that state employees should have no doubts about the protections afforded them by Government Code § 8547.1 and whistleblower statutes.