Whistleblowers: Frequently Asked Questions
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Q. Who is a “Whistleblower”?
A. A whistleblower is someone who reports a suspected unlawful or dishonest activity. Whistleblowers may report their allegations internally (for example, to their company’s upper management or to the company’s ethics officer) or externally to regulators responsible for oversight of the entity involved. A whistleblower’s inside knowledge of the suspected unlawful or dishonest activity may assist the Commission in uncovering otherwise undetectable wrongdoing. Whistleblowers can play a valuable role in helping the Commission obtain needed evidence to support the allegation.
Q. What is the role of the Public Utilities Commission?
A. The Commission regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit, and passenger transportation companies. The Commission serves the public interest by protecting consumers and ensuring that utility services and infrastructure are safe, reliable and available at reasonable rates, with a commitment to environmental enhancement and a healthy California economy. The Commission is charged with ensuring that these regulated service providers comply with the California Public Utilities Code, Commission regulations, and other California laws involving safety and consumer protection. Commission investigations may involve safety issues, misrepresentations or dishonesty to the Commission, consumer fraud and marketing abuses, and tariff/rule violations.
Q. Can a Whistleblower keep his or her identity confidential/anonymous?
A. If a whistleblower asks to remain anonymous, Commission staff will honor the whistleblower’s request to keep his or her identity confidential. Staff may need to obtain the whistleblower’s contact information for follow-up questions. If a whistleblower has documentation about the suspected unlawful behavior he or she is reporting, and can provide such documentation via electronic or hard copy, staff may not need to know the identity of the whistleblower. However, if the initial information provided proves to be insufficient to proceed with a more thorough investigation, and the whistleblower has declined to provide contact information, Commission staff may have difficulty proceeding with its investigation.
Commission staff does not have final control over whether to disclose an informant’s identity. A Commission action or a court of law could decide that, in a particular situation, disclosure of an informant’s identity would be in the public interest.
See State of California Evidence Code Sections 1040(b)(2), 1041(a)(2) and 1041(b)(2).
Q. Are Whistleblowers protected by the law?
A. California Labor Code Section 1102.5(b) protects whistleblowers from retaliation by the employer where the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of or noncompliance with state or federal statute/rule/regulation.
In addition, Government Code Section 12653 reads, in part, “No employer shall discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, deny promotion to, or in any other manner discriminate against an employee because of lawful acts in disclosing information to a government agency.”
The Commission upholds these protections, and it expects the companies it regulates to abide by the law. As a practical matter, although these laws are intended to protect whistleblowers, a whistleblower may still face the risk of retaliation and may have to devote personal time and money to hire an attorney to litigate matters of alleged retaliation.
A whistleblower is not protected from retaliation if he or she violates the confidentiality of the lawyer-client privilege. (Labor Code section 1102.5(g). Therefore, an informant should not disclose information identified as privileged. In addition, California law does not protect disclosures made by private sector employees that reveal a trade secret. Whistleblower laws generally do not protect employees whose criticisms involve matters of personal rather than public concern.
Finally, a prospective whistleblower should determine if the employer has established internal procedures to handle whistleblower claims. If so, the employee should review these procedures to determine how to proceed.
Q. Whom should a Whistleblower call?
A. An employee of a company regulated by the Commission may report his/her employer’s suspected violation of a law, rule or regulation by calling the Commission Fraud Hotline at 1-800-649-7570 or by sending an e-mail with the facts and/or documentation to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please be prepared to provide enough information to substantiate your claims of alleged improper or unlawful behavior.
Q. What happens when a Whistleblower contacts the Public Utilities Commission?
A. When you call the Commission’s Fraud Hotline you will hear a recording that directs you through a series of options. The Fraud Hotline is specially designated for consumers complaining about suspected fraud by companies the Commission regulates. When you press “0” your call will be answered by a staff in our Commission’s Consumer Affairs Branch (CAB). You should state that you are a whistleblower and briefly describe the nature of your allegations. The CAB representative may obtain basic information from you before he/she transfers your call directly to an Enforcement Analyst with the Commission’s Safety & Enforcement Division (SED).
SED’s Enforcement Analyst will obtain as much detail as the whistleblower can provide, asking for facts, dates, names and addresses, documentation, and the names of other people who can substantiate the facts. The Enforcement Staff will review the facts and determine the appropriate course of action.