Sharyn Jackson,The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley has taken on legendary status among whistle-blowers - people who expose misconduct or waste in government agencies and often risk their careers to do so.
"Godfather," "hero" and "the only hope we have" are some of the terms whistle-blowers use to describe him. Fred Whitehurst, who blew the whistle on the FBI for incompetence and fraud in its crime lab, likened Grassley to Jimmy Stewart's idealist in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
In recent weeks, debate has flared anew over just what constitutes a whistle-blower, prompted by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden's disclosures about sweeping digital surveillance programs. Some say he acted courageously to reveal government violations of privacy rights. Others say he broke the law and risked national security by leaking classified information.
Amid the controversy, Grassley has introduced a Senate resolution marking Tuesday as National Whistleblower Day.
The date has historical significance: On July 30, 1778, members of the Continental Congress enacted the nation's first whistle-blower legislation, containing language almost identical to today's definition of a whistle-blower as a person who reports abuse and illegality to "the proper authorities."
But government workers who adhere to that historical imperative often risk their reputations in the process.
It can take years of internal and external hearings, investigations, lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions to sort out the facts - if ever.
A recent Iowa case in point: Is fired Division of Criminal Investigation agent Larry Hedlund, who went public about speeding by the governor's driver, guilty of insubordination and other unrelated transgressions, or is he a victim of retaliation for blowing the whistle?
Gov. Terry Branstad's pledge of an independent review by a former Iowa Supreme Court justice and a pledge by Hedlund's attorney to file suit may lead to the truth - or may not.
Grassley wants Americans to recognize the sacrifices he has seen whistle-blowers make over the past three decades he has spent advocating on their behalf.
"Anything we can do to uphold whistle-blowers and their protection is the right thing to keep government responsible," Grassley said. "If you know laws are being violated and money's being misspent, you have a patriotic duty to report it."
Grassley first dove into the issue in the 1970s, when he became acquainted with one of the first federal whistle-blowers, Ernie Fitzgerald, who exposed the Pentagon for cost overruns.
In 1986, Grassley authored updates to the federal False Claims Act, which empowered private citizens to come forward about government fraud and has since recovered $30 billion.
Three years later, he co-authored the Whistleblower Protection Act, as well as the act's enhancements in 2012.
And in 2006, he authored provisions to a tax bill that overhauled the IRS' whistle-blower program.
"It kind of snowballed," Grassley said.
Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, said that despite all of Grassley's efforts, which he called "instrumental" to the movement, attitudes still need to change toward whistle-blowers.
"I think there's a disconnect between the public service that a whistle-blower performs and a concept of loyalty" to co-workers, Kohn said. "Many people still think that even if you have direct knowledge of illegal activity, you should remain silent."
Grassley views his involvement as his duty to protect truth-tellers. Quoting his longtime inspiration Fitzgerald, Grassley said: "The only crime whistle-blowers commit is telling the truth."