This overview of President Biden’s nominated members to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) was sent as part of National Whistleblower Center’s (NWC) Sunday Reading series that aims to educate supporters about specific whistleblower legislative or policy initiatives. For more information like this, please join our mailing list.
In September, President Joe Biden nominated three members to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the quasi-judicial agency tasked with oversight of federal employee whistleblower complaints and appeals, taking crucial steps toward filling vacancies. Since 2017, the MSPB has been rendered moot without a quorum, and whistleblowers have suffered. This lack of a quorum has led to an unprecedented backlog of more than 3,000 cases, which is the first challenge these nominees will face if confirmed.
The three nominees, Cathy A. Harris, Raymond Limon, and Tristan Leavitt appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs to respond to questions and affirm their support for the MSPB’s mission. On October 6, the committee voted to advance the nominees.
A vote on the nominees by the full Senate, the final step of the confirmation process, has yet to be scheduled. Given the crisis at the MPSB caused by the lack of a quorum, whistleblower advocates continue to call for a quick confirmation process.
At their hearing, the nominees answered questions and laid out their thoughts about the future of the MSPB and the future of protecting whistleblowers. Cathy A. Harris, an attorney and former chair of her firm’s sexual harassment and LGBT practice, was nominated as Chair of the MSPB. Harris has represented an array of employees in many aspects including discrimination, retaliation, hostile work environments, terminations, and whistleblowing. Harris has also represented many of those clients before the MSPB, as well as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
During the hearing, Harris touched upon how the MSPB is a premiere tool for protecting whistleblowers. She commented that while rules and regulations may be a barrier to some whistleblowers, the biggest barrier “is that they think nothing will happen; nothing will change,” emphasizing that promoting a culture, top-down, by training and preparing managers and senior staff is critically important. In her opening statement, she remarks that reducing the MSPB’s backlog of cases is her utmost priority.
For the position of Vice-Chair, President Biden nominated Raymond Limon, a human resources professional with a long resume in the federal government. While not having as much direct experience with whistleblowers as his fellow nominees, Limon echoed Harris’ sentiments on a changing culture and affirmed his commitment to promoting and protecting the merit systems principles. In his remarks, Limon highlighted his years of work, stating that “the common thread running through my career has been my wholehearted commitment to public service.” His commitment shows in his career as Chief Human Capital Officer at the Department of the Interior and before as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Capital and Diversity wherein he provides strategic human capital, safety and health trainings, and other services for the Department’s more than 70,000 employees.
Lastly Tristan Leavitt, the nominee most experienced with whistleblowers and the MSPB, spoke at length about his work as general counsel and acting MSPB chief executive, a position he has held since 2019. In his opening statement, Leavitt said, “Anyone who knows me probably knows me best for being passionate about the importance of protecting whistleblowers.” Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a ranking member on the Committee, recognized this passion stating that there are “few who have worked harder for whistleblowers than Leavitt,” and concluding that “you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone with more experience working for good government and accountability.”
This is not Leavitt’s first hearing on the MSPB either, in July 2019, Leavitt testified before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations about whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs. There, he noted that he believes the MSPB “understands that Congress, the Executive Branch, and the American public are counting on it to be the front lines of sorting through these issues,” addressing the growing backlog. Leavitt’s tenure at the MSPB makes him a valuable nominee with real experience working with whistleblowers from the Board’s perspective. In response to the question on the barriers whistleblowers face, Leavitt was the first to say that “one of the biggest barriers isn’t necessarily the law, but it’s just the culture that exists in many agencies.” He says that “taking those laws, applying them fairly, and making sure the tools that are there to protect whistleblowers are used fairly is really an important role that the Board can fulfill to help send that message across the government and help create that culture.” At NWC’s 2018 National Whistleblower Day celebration, Leavitt said that “Whistleblowers are the most patriotic people I know,” and, in closing out, thanked all the whistleblowers noting that “all of us and the American people owe you a great debt.”
With these nominees, the MSPB has a bright future with three much needed whistleblower advocates. NWC urges the swift confirmation of President Biden’s nominees and looks forward to working with them and supporting their work to end the backlog, change the culture, and protect whistleblowers.