What do you think of when you hear the word “whistleblower”? Perhaps “tattletale” or “snitch” pop into your mind. Maybe the word conjures up the image of a person who, at great personal risk, comes forward to reveal illicit activity the public needs to know. Either way, as you have likely noticed, the term whistleblower has been in the news a lot lately.
History shows the nation’s landscape littered with the shattered lives of those who have exposed corporate or governmental misconduct. Careers have been ruined. Marriages have suffered. Whistleblower suicides have occurred, and it’s likely that vast amounts of liquor have been consumed by whistleblowers as they pondered whether their explosive revelations were worth it.
Some of these concerned citizens reported what they discovered working in various industries — from nuclear power and aeronautics, to tobacco and pharmaceuticals companies, to financial institutions and automobile manufacturers. Others divulged damaging information about questionable operations within the U.S. government. Whistleblower information has forced changes that help keep citizens safer and ensure taxpayer money is more wisely spent.
The Whistleblower Protection Act, passed in 1989 and enhanced in 2012, was designed to encourage federal workers to use official channels to report government wrongdoing. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the protected class of workers to include employees in private companies. Important to note: Whistleblowers must have a “reasonable belief” that a true violation has occurred, and they must first report the allegation through official channels, not through the media to make a big splash.
It is the law of the land that after filing a proper complaint, whistleblowers are not to be retaliated against by their employers: no intimidations or demotions, no pay cuts or termination of employment. But in reality, retribution against whistleblowers happens all the time.
No column about this subject would be complete without mentioning the most famous current whistleblower, the one whose revelations about U.S.-Ukraine relations sparked the ongoing impeachment hearings that have left us with such political fatigue and the sense of not knowing what to believe. The whistleblower’s identity has not been confirmed, although a name has been revealed.
Whoever it is, President Donald Trump has already branded him or her, and the people who provided information about Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, as treasonous and “close to spies.” Trump hinted at the good old days when spies were executed. You decide whether those comments constitute intimidation or retribution. You decide the true motivation of this whistleblower. Were the revelations altruistically offered or politically motivated?
There are those who have pursued whistleblowing the wrong way, leaking classified information via the media or Internet. Some find refuge in a foreign country, as did Edward Snowden after he revealed highly classified information about government surveillance programs to a journalist and a documentary filmmaker. Other rogue whistleblowers have remained in the United States and been charged with and/or convicted of espionage for their efforts.
I believe that until we start uniformly recognizing bona fide whistleblowers as the courageous people they are, until we stop branding them as snitches, narcs or spies, we all lose.
Consider that without a whistleblower, the public would never have learned that tobacco companies added ingredients to cigarettes to guarantee smokers became firmly addicted. Thank you, Jeffrey Wigand, for pressing forward despite the death threats. Thanks to epidemiologist Peter Buxtun, who blew the whistle on the horrific “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” after his bosses at the Public Health Service ignored his ethical complaints. Thanks to those who refused to stay silent about widespread police corruption or crimes such as the Watergate break-in, which led directly to President Richard Nixon’s office. Appreciation goes to several Americans who stepped up to expose the many deceits at big banks and financial institutions that led to the mortgage crisis of 2007-08. And a round of applause to the whistleblowers who revealed that Takata company executives had known since 1999 that their automobile airbags were defective and said nothing, even after their product caused nearly two dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries.
For anyone out there who is considering stepping forward with important information but hesitating, realize that the government offers whistleblowers certain rewards, including a percentage of the money that is recovered as a result of a tip. For example, those who report verified claims of substantial tax evasion could get between 15 percent and 30 percent of what the Internal Revenue Service recovers. Last year, more than $312 million was awarded to IRS whistleblowers. One may commit career suicide by divulging what they know, but the possibility of a hefty award could help ease the job loss.
It’s a fact. There are company and government secrets the public deserves to know — needs to know. Unless and until we fully embrace those with insider knowledge and recognize them as the champions they are, we will continue to be victims of the unscrupulous.
— Diane Dimond is the author of three books, including Be Careful Who You Love Inside the Michael Jackson Case, which is now updated with new chapters and is available as an audiobook. Contact her at [email protected], or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.