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Leaking, whistleblowing: Is there a difference?

President Trump expressed support for leaking when it suited his election campaign. Now that he's in office, his attitude is changed. Some might liken the flow of leaks from within the administration to having a screen door on a submarine. Boats with such a design flaw cannot stay afloat long, and so it is that the president has been goading his attorney general to take some action. It appears to have worked. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said recently, "We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop."

Considering the potential for adverse actions, many in the government workforce who could blow the whistle on mismanagement often do not. Leaking might be seen as an alternative. In addition, if you are a manager caught in the midst of such a situation, you could find yourself needing legal representation to protect your interests, even as you try to navigate the complex federal labor and employment laws.

Leaks and whistleblowing are alike

Bringing information to light, whether it is through a leak or by whistleblowing, seeks to achieve the same goal – to make information public. The reasons for taking information public can vary, however. Sometimes it's to unmask behavior or practices that the revealer believes are wrong or against public interest. Sometimes the motive might be to save taxpayer dollars or to gain a monetary reward. So it is fair to ask, is there a difference between leaking and whistleblowing?

The nature of the information revealed provides the answer to the question. According to the Government Accountability Project, the sharing of information anonymously to any audience, including the media, is not illegal, as long as it is not classified or specifically barred from disclosure by statute.

If a disclosure is illegal by statute or involves delivering classified information to the media, that is considered leaking. It's also considered leaking if the information is merely gossip or is proffered for political reasons.

If the material involves government misconduct and becomes known through secure and proper agency channels, that would likely fall under the definition of whistleblowing.

Regardless of the motive for divulging information, those who do so face legal risks. To mitigate those risks, consulting an attorney is always advisable.

Source: VOANews.com, "'Whistleblowing' and 'Leaking' Explained," accessed Aug. 9, 2017

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