WASHINGTON – President Bush signed legislation Wednesday that requires federal agencies to pay for discrimination or "whistleblower" cases from their own budgets.
The bill is called No FEAR, an acronym for Notification and Federal Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act.
The legislation "could not have been passed without the pain and the sheer agony of so many employees who came forward to mention that their lives were made almost in the form of a nightmare because they chose to stand up," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
Bush signed the bill in an Oval Office ceremony attended by a few civil rights activists and members of Congress. Some of them heralded it as the first major civil rights law of the new millennium.
"By holding accountable those who insist upon discriminating against others, the federal government will become a role model for civil rights — and not civil rights violations," said House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a sponsor of the bill.
Under the law, federal agencies must pay for settlements or judgments against them in whistleblower and discrimination cases. Currently, such payments are made from a general, government-wide fund.
"It means now the federal government will have to obey its own laws, ... not hide behind a slush fund in the Treasury to pay for their indiscretions," said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a federal employee who won a $600,000 judgment against the Environmental Protection Agency for racial and gender bias. Her case was the impetus for the law.
The legislation also requires that employees be notified of their rights under anti-discrimination laws, and forces agencies to report annually to Congress on how many discrimination cases were brought against them, what happened in those cases and whether any employees were disciplined.
Last year, some EPA scientists said they were targeted for reprisals after they questioned agency policies. An investigation found that the number of discrimination complaints against federal agencies filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more than doubled during the 1990s.
NAACP board member Leroy Warren said, "This legislation should stop some of the managers whose actions are like some international outlaw, where they can do what they want to, when they want to and how bad they want to, without anyone taking control of it."