The word whistleblower may stir emotions in all who hear it, however, which emotion you feel depends on which side of the line you stand. Some see whistleblowers as courageous heroes, putting their careers and their lives on the line to call truth to power and money.
They stand small and often alone against political and financial muscle, against people who like to enjoy a clear path to riches and power unhindered by moralistic do-gooders. But there are many who see whistleblowers as traitors or unpatriotic. The rich and powerful like to hold all the cards in the deck, but the whistleblower is the trump card of the masses. We cannot do without whistleblowers, whose actions ensure that no one, no matter how powerful or rich, can ever operate above the law without the threat of being found out.
Let’s take a look at some of America’s most famous whistleblower cases.
- Mark Felt – brought down the Nixon administration
While Mark Felt’s story is well known, his name wasn’t until he was unveiled as Deep Throat in 2005. Felt was Associate Director of the FBI who turned informant and helped bring down the Nixon Government. He is also the subject of a recent movie, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, which will further propel Felt, who died in 2008, to the fore as one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time – whose impact is still being felt in American politics today.
When five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel in 1972, Felt was the man chosen to head up the investigation. His mission was to determine the involvement, if any, of the White House. After being pressured from upstairs to stay clear, Felt decided the press was the only way to expose the corruption and the White House’s complicity. Using the moniker Deep Throat, he met regularly with Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, helping them uncover the full story which ultimately lead to Nixon’s resignation.
- Columbia HealthCare
John Schilling, a reimbursement supervisor for Columbia Healthcare, together with four colleagues, brought a FCA case against their employers, as well as accountant KPMG Peat Marwick. This was for alleged fraudulent practices, including keeping two sets of books to defraud Medicare.
Columbia settled for $840 million dollars without admitting culpability, while KPMG paid a mere $9 million dollars without admitting or denying liability. The whistleblowers and their lawyers received about $220 million dollars.
- Edward Snowden – released thousands of classified documents to the public
The digital age has ushered in a new era of whistle blowing. With so much information available on digital networks, hackers and whistleblowers alike can have a field day when it comes to accessing classified information.
As a talented IT specialist, Snowden enjoyed many high-clearance jobs including working for the CIA and as a contractor for the United States government. In the course of his work he started to notice the extent of the NSA’s surveillance program, which he found disturbing to say the least. He copied a huge amount of data containing all sorts of details of their spying/ surveillance practices.
Whistleblowing is one thing, but when it comes to national security, it’s an entirely different animal, as the government will always use this as an excuse to do whatever they want and to prosecute any alleged transgressors, whether guilty or not.
Snowden is still on the run today, seeking political asylum and hiding out in countries sympathetic to his cause – mainly Russia. The 1998 Intelligence Community Whistleblowers Act offers some protection to whistleblowers, but due to the sensitive nature of the information that Snowden leaked, these laws may not protect him, and he is not taking any chances.
In 2009, 10 Pfizer employees exposed the parmaceutalcial giant for illegally promoting the arthritis drug Bextra. The 10, including, including original whistleblower John Kopchinski, received $102 million for their efforts.
- Linda Tripp – almost brought down a President
Linda Tripp was a relatively low-level White House staffer in the 90s. She was also friendly with Monica Lewinsky, a 23-year-old intern and colleague of hers. Lewinsky went on to have an affair with Bill Clinton, the President at the time, confiding her personal experiences to Tripp over the phone. Tripp, apparently on advice from a lawyer, proceeded to tape these phone conversations, and when the time came, was happy to blow the whistle on the President’s shenanigans. This, and Lewinsky’s infamous stained dress, almost brought down the President. Clinton ultimately survived, but was exposed as a philanderer and a liar.
Pharmaceutical companies, with their huge bank balances often find themselves in trouble, but are able to escape criminal prosecution by settling, often for huge amounts, and never admitting to any wrongdoing. GlaxoSmithKline fits firmly into this category.
Cheryl Eckard, an employee at Glaxo, uncovered manufacturing faults at one of their plants and turned whistleblower, first exposing their wrongdoing in 2003. The case dragged on for years before Glaxo finally settled in 2012 for $94 million to avoid civil litigation.
- Harry Markopolos – Blew the whistle on Bernard Madoff
Bernard “Bernie” Madoff was a respected investment and financial advisor, and was a non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock market for a while. He rose to infamy when it was discovered that he had been operating one of the largest Ponzi schemes of all time. The size of the fraud was estimated to be close to $65 billion and robbed thousands of investors, charity schemes, pensioners and Hollywood celebrities of billions.
Years before the scam was uncovered, fund manager Harry Markopolos was trying to raise the alarm on Madoff, but was continuously ignored. He had discovered irregularities in Madoff’s scheme and worked out that his consistent gains were impossible. He was right – Madoff’s returns were too good to be true. Markopolos first alerted the SEC in May 2000, eight years before the fraud was uncovered.
Felt, Snowden,Tripp, and Markopolos were all whistleblowers with different motivations, but all brave in their own way. The law can be tricky when it comes to calling out corruption, so make sure you know your rights when you decide to blow the whistle.
Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.