Is Reporting Suspected Waste or Mismanagement to a University Vice President Protected under the Whistleblower Act?

The short and simple answer to the question is "yes," but, as with most things, content and context of the report is what really decides the question. The Kentucky Supreme Court made this decision in a recent decision, Harper v. University of Louisville, and the analysis there is helpful to look at.

Harper worked in the university's communications and marketing department. In 2009, an advertising agency quoted a production budget of $100,000 for a television commercial that would go on during a university football game. Harper had experience working with national advertising agencies and knew this was too high; among other things, another agency had done a "similar commercial" for the university the previous year for a cost of only $50,000. She told her supervisor, Griffith, that $100,000 was too much, that a lower price could be negotiated and "that an overpayment of that magnitude would be wasteful of taxpayer dollars, especially when University programs were being cut back because of budget constraints." Griffith, the boss, responded by "throwing a pencil across the desk and telling Harper to stop thinking like that." Harper then went to University Vice President John Drees regarding the matter and expressed these same concerns. Drees told Harper that she wasn't helping herself by bringing up such matters, that "she may not do herself well by going forward with those concerns" and reporting them to others.

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that Harper's report of the matter to Drees, the university VP, was protected whistleblowing and explained as follows:

Harper’s concern explicitly focused upon what she “suspected” to be wasteful overspending of public funds. Government employees should not be penalized for expressing such opinions. [The Kentucky Whistleblower Act) was enacted to encourage such expressions.

 

An employee’s report to an “appropriate body or authority” means “any public body or authority with the power to remedy or report the perceived misconduct.” … [Drees’] warning to Harper does not remove him from the class of University officials with the power and authority to act on Harper’s concern. We conclude that an objectively reasonable report of suspected waste or mismanagement to a University vice president qualifies as a protected disclosure under the [Kentucky Whistleblower Act].

So the content of Harper's report was that the university was wasting taxpayer money by overpaying the advertising agency to produce the ad, and Harper had good reason to believe this so since she had experience with national advertising agencies and the year before a similar ad had been produced for only $50,000. Harper was not venting an uninformed opinion or complaint -- she knew what she was talking about -- and she brought those concerns to someone who could act to remedy the situation, Drees, the VP.

The Court's decision and analysis in Harper is an important case under the whistleblower law; we've discussed it in other posts: Is a Complaint or Report about Nepotism Covered by the Kentucky Whistleblower Act?