Why you should care about National Whistleblower AppreciatIon Day

It’s sadly telling that last month National Whistleblower Appreciation Day (July 30) came and went with little notice let alone the fanfare it deserved. Obviously, we still have a long way to go in showing our appreciation for this undervalued group. But not for lack of trying, at least from Congress.  The U.S. Senate passed the resolution recognizing the special day on July 7 to honor whistleblowers for the critical role they play in protecting the country against fraud and misconduct.  It was driven by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and their bipartisan Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus.

July 30 was chosen to be the celebrated day because it was on this day in 1778 that the country’s original whistleblower law was first inked:

{mosads}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 misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.

The Continental Congress passed this resolution, without any recorded dissent, in response to the incarceration of two whistleblowers who had exposed the transgressions of the highest ranking US naval official of the time.  As part of the resolution, the newly formed government also agreed to pay for the legal defense of the whistleblowers who as it turned out were also the subject of another whistleblower first — the earliest recorded victims of whistleblower retaliation.

Here we are almost two and half centuries later pretty much unchanged with these two competing sides of the whistleblower paradigm.  On the one hand, there remains a clear recognition on the part of Congress that whistleblowers are instrumental in uncovering wrongdoing and must be encouraged to step forward and strongly protected from reprisal for doing so.  The amount of pro-whistleblower legislation has been unprecedented over the past few years.  

The False Claims Act, the 150-year old lynchpin of the American whistleblower system, has been overhauled repeatedly to increase the incentives and protections of whistleblowers reporting fraud against the government.  The Dodd-Frank Act now offers similar rewards — up to 30 percent of any government recovery — for whistleblowers reporting violations of the securities and commodities laws.  And most recently, auto safety whistleblowers have been brought into the fold with the passage of the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act.  Even intelligence whistleblowers, long shunned as outcasts, have been given some additional protections in the wake of the Edward Snowden fiasco with expanded protections under the National Security Act.  

On the other hand, despite this 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 it is not just a cold shoulder from colleagues or superiors or simply 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 case even physical violence. 

And it is not just happening within corporate America.  It is just as rampant within the hallowed halls of some of our most respected government agencies.  Look no further than the brave men and women of the Veterans Affairs Department who have come forward in droves to expose the horrendous treatment of our veterans at the hospitals that are supposed to care for them.   Dozens of our former military have died just waiting to be seen for simple screening procedures, and others relegated to a black box of never knowing when they might receive care.  Rather than celebrate thesewhistleblowers for trying to fix this critical agency gone rogue, the VA tried to silence them through a systematic campaign of isolation, intimidation, harassment and ultimately expulsion.

Even mainstream American continues to maintain a sense of ambivalence, for some even downright hostility, towards whistleblowers.  Look at how they are commonly depicted in our everyday lexicon by Thesaurus.com and Merriam-Webster, the two leading resources for everything word related.  Of the 30 synonyms these publications use to describe whistleblowers to their 90 million monthly visitors, the vast majority of them are deeply derogatory and paint the whistleblower as dishonest, disloyal and driven by unsavory motives — Betrayer, Bigmouth, Fink, Rat, Snitch, Squealer, Tattletale and Troublemaker to name just a few.  Is it any wonder that such a negative perception of whistleblowers persists?

Which brings us back to why this special day to celebrate whistleblowers is so important. We can talk until we are blue in the face about how critical whistleblowers have been in helping root out fraud and misconduct.  The proof is there in black and white — Mark Felt (Deep Throat); Daniel Elsberg (Pentagon Papers); Frank Serpico (NYPD); Jeffrey Wigand (tobacco); Sherron Watkins (Enron); Harry Markopolos (Madoff); Cheryl Eckard (GSK).  The list goes on and on. 

These unsung heroes standing up and speaking out when they bore witness to conduct imperiling all of us.  Not to mention the tens of billions of dollars their hard work has recovered for the government in the past few years.  But until we truly welcome them and their noble quests with open arms and understanding, their persecution and mistreatment will continue, scaring off others from stepping forward in the face of fraud or injustice. 

So if you haven’t done so already, next time you’re given the chance, thank a whistleblower for a job well done.

Gordon Schnell is a partner in the New York office of Constantine Cannon, specializing in the areas of fraud and whistleblower law.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Chuck Grassley Ron Wyden

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