Well National Whistleblower Appreciation Day came and went July 30th, without much fanfare or appreciation from most.
Still, the fact that there is such a designated day is a step in the right direction. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore), and their bipartisan Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus led the charge and the U.S. Senate passed the resolution on July 7th, “to honor whistleblowers for the critical role they play in protecting the country against fraud and misconduct.”
Interestingly, July 30th was chosen because on that date in 1778, the first whistleblower law was “inked.”
That it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States … to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanor committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states , which may come to their knowledge.
The Continental Congress passed this resolution as a response to two whistleblowers who had exposed the transgressions of the highest ranking US naval official of the time and were subsequently incarcerated. In that resolution our new government also agreed to pay for the legal defense of the whistleblowers who ironically were the subject of another whistleblower first, our earliest recorded victims of whistleblower retaliation.
Ironic as well that two and a half centuries later Congress says whistleblowers are instrumental in uncovering wrongdoing and we need to encourage their doing so without any threat of reprisal. So whistleblower legislation is increasing. Unfortunately reprisals are part of the package, which definitely does not encourage whistleblowers.
In a recent interview, Senator Grassley says,
Whistleblowers are people, often in government, who come forward to expose fraud, waste or abuse in an effort to help improve the status quo. They often are in a position to have unique knowledge or firsthand experience with a problem, and may even be one of only a few people who can bring it to light. Without whistleblowers, problems can remain hidden and allowed to fester.
When our Founding Fathers created a government accountable to the people, they specifically included tools, like checks and balances, to prevent government from running amok. In that same spirit, they wanted government employees to be the people’s eyes and ears in government, and to speak out when they encounter problems or opportunities for improvement. It said that government whistleblowing was not only encouraged; it was a duty for Americans. Today, we still have laws on the books to protect and encourage whistleblowers, and I am still working to strengthen those protections.
The 150 year old False Claims Act has been updated to increase rewards for whistleblowers and the protection given to whistleblowers, and legislation like Dodd-Frank offers up to 30% of any government money recoveries. The Edward Snowden situation brought whistleblowing into the public debate and companies have been more alert to implementing ethics and whistleblowing policies.
Still if rewards may be up so are reprisals. As Senator Grassley says,
Because the information whistleblowers share could be embarrassing or even incriminating for their bosses, their agency or the administration, they are often treated like skunks at a picnic. Whistleblowers have been transferred, demoted, harassed and even fired for simply shedding light on a problem. Some have seen their security clearance revoked, and even their personal property destroyed in retaliation for their work. Reprisal not only hurts the whistleblower, but it also has a chilling effect on others who may consider blowing the whistle about a problem.
In spite of strong Congressional support, whistleblower retaliation is as virulent as ever. Multiple studies by the Ethics Resource Center puts the retaliation rate at more than one in five for those reporting corporate wrongdoing. And from my own and other whistleblowers’ experience, it’s more than the cold shoulder and being excluded from work decisions or assignments. It even goes beyond demotions, pay cuts and firings. The retaliation is apparently going so far as to include harassment and, in some cases, even physical violence.
As The Hill article points out, “the public still has some ambivalence toward whistleblowers; and even the dictionary uses synonyms to describe them such as snitch, rat, fink, troublemaker, squealer” and so on. Thesaurus and Mirriam–Webster may have 30 synonyms to describe whistleblowers; and most are negative portraying whistleblowers as deceitful, dishonest and disloyal.
My colleagues and I have experienced the discrimination and harassment that goes along with being a whistleblower. Even though we may have saved our government and corporate shareholders millions of dollars, we’ve lost our jobs and will probably never work in our former professions again. Is it any wonder so few take a stand when they see issues one should and could blow the whistle on?
The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency says,
Courageous employees deserve our appreciation but all too often they face harassment, demotion or firing. Such retaliation is unlawful, and we are working together to make sure that it is stopped and that those who retaliate are held accountable. The good news is that, with recognition through events like National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, we continue to advance a culture within the federal government that thanks whistleblowers for their service rather than retaliates against them.
The Council gives several examples of how whistleblowers save taxpayer dollars, uncovers wrongdoing, and makes the country safer such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, where whistleblowers alerted the country to the widespread manipulation of scheduling data that masked true wait times for veterans seeking health care.
At the Department of Homeland Security, employees came forward to put an end to unlawful overtime practices, saving taxpayers $100 million a year. A tipster complained about wasteful spending by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) aviation operations in Afghanistan. Inspector General auditors followed up and found that more than $86 million in taxpayer dollars was spent to purchase and modify an aircraft that, after more than 7 years, is inoperable and has yet to fly a single mission in Afghanistan. The Inspector General community, working with the Department of Justice and whistleblowers, annually recovers over $3 billion for the Treasury in cases of contractor fraud alone.
Senator Chuck Grassley believes whistleblowers should be praised, not punished, for their patriotic acts to improve government. And, at the Government Accountability Project, they took special care that day and week in honoring national Whistleblower Appreciation Day, from a TEDx Wilmington Salon, Whistleblowers and the First Amendment, two panel discussions as part of the Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights and other events. The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization.
National Whistleblower Appreciation Day may not have had a great deal of fanfare, yet it’s a very important day. Ask your friends if they even knew the day existed; tell them about it. And while I couldn’t find any Hallmark cards to send to my Bank Whistleblowers United colleagues and other whistleblower friends, we’re making progress.
Whistleblowing is costly to the whistleblower. Yet the rewards to the public are great and more and more civilians, citizens and companies are becoming well aware of how society profits when fraud is called out. Maybe some day there won’t be such a day – not needed because whistleblowers did their job and honesty, ethics and integrity is the law of the land.
Maybe. We can hope.