Minnesota residents may have read about recent accusations of wrongdoing at the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s office. The controversy involves a man whom President Obama had nominated to run the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and so has become highly politically charged. However, at its heart, the accusations concern something that affects many Minnesotans: whistle-blower protection.

A whistle-blower is an employee who reports illegal action by an employer. Minnesota and federal laws contain protections for public and private whistle-blowers to encourage employees to speak up, and discourage employers from firing or otherwise retaliating against employees who report unlawful activity. Some of these protections are written into federal laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Others are spelled out in state laws or judicial precedents.

The accusations against the Minnesota U.S. Attorney’s office claim that an assistant U.S. attorney was suspended and received a bad job review after he made allegations of mismanagement at the office. His supporters claim that he was engaging in protected whistle-blowing activities, and that, therefore, his supervisors violated the law when they took action against him.

To gain protection as a whistle-blower, an employee must believe in good faith that the employer is violating the law. If the employee truly believes this, the employee is protected, even if an investigation later shows that the employer was not violating the law. If the employee is just making things up, the employee is not protected.

Minnesota workers who feel they have been retaliated against at work because they reported a violation of the law should investigate their legal options. The facts can be murky and the law can be tricky, but no one should have to suffer retaliation at work for reporting wrongdoing.

Source: Star-Tribune, “New allegations hit Minnesota’s U.S. attorney at federal level,” Paul McEnroe, Fandy Furst & Kevin Diaz, April 24, 2013.