Attorney says 'biggest mistake' whistleblowers make is not being legally prepared

One of the nation’s leading whistleblower attorneys said Monday that most people aren’t legally prepared when they go about exposing potentially illegal or unethical information within an organization or government.

“The problem is all of these very good-hearted people who want to do the right thing don’t have information on how to blow the whistle — it’s very unique,” Stephen Kohn, who is now chairman of the board at the National Whistleblower Center, told Hill.TV.

“I’ve represented whistleblowers [for] thirty-five years, and the biggest mistake is people taking that step without being fully prepared legally,” he added.

Kohn joined "Rising" to mark National Whistleblower Appreciation Day on Tuesday, and the 241st anniversary of U.S.'s first whistleblower law, which the Continental Congress passed at the height of the American Revolution in 1778. 

Kohn previously served as an attorney for for Bradley Birkenfeld, a former international banker who helped expose the largest tax evasion scheme in U.S. history.

In 2017, the IRS awarded Birkenfeld a record $104 million after he revealed that some Americans were storing billions in offshore Swiss bank accounts to evade taxes.

But Kohn noted that when Birkenfeld first came forward he was initially prosecuted and convicted for conspiracy and sentenced to prison.

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing and he hires criminal defense lawyers,” he said. “And they take him to the Department of Justice, where he blows the whistle, but guess what he’s just admitted that he’s a Swiss banker — he’s just admitted to being a felon,” he told Hill.TV.

Kohn said that he helped Birkenfeld come forward to the IRS whistleblower office, which guaranteed confidentiality, and eventually awarded the former banker the largest individual whistleblower reward in history.

“He never had to be prosecuted,” he told Hill.TV. “For what he did, he got paid $104 million dollars as a mandatory reward — we had to fight for four years for that because of the earlier mess-up.”

The attorney emphasized that if people are going to blow the whistle, they must know what their rights are.

“This ability to be confidential and anonymous is critical but you can lose that right like in the first week of blowing the whistle if you do it wrong,” he told Hill.TV.

Kohn’s comments come amid calls for more protections for government scientists under the Trump administration.

Last week, Democrats held a hearing over a bill that would add protections for government scientists, including allowing them to publish research outside of government channels and establish a Scientific Integrity Officer.

Several whistleblowers attended the hearing, including scientists who said they experienced retaliation at the agency for their work on scientific endeavors.

Joel Clement told lawmakers that, under the Trump administration, the Interior Department “has sidelined scientists and experts, flattened the morale of the career staff, and by all accounts, is bent on hollowing out the Agency.”

Republicans, meanwhile, dismissed these claims, calling it nothing but political theater.

—Tess Bonn