Protections YOU Have Thanks to Whistleblowers

You might know that smoking is dangerous, that fracking can produce radioactive waste, or that offshore bank accounts enable tax evasion — but do you know the people who brought those facts into the spotlight?

Whistleblowers — people like Sherron Watkins and Bradley Birkenfeld — are often the first to reveal the risks of hazardous substances or financial crimes. As insiders and bellringers, they take great personal risks to alert the public and inspire cultural and legal reforms. Whether we treasure them or take them for granted, countless laws that keep us safe today were provided by whistleblowers who fought to bring the truth to light.

Here are five ways whistleblowers have shaped public opinion and policy today:

Federal workplace protections — Through their legal cases and public advocacy, whistleblowers have transformed the workplace for federal employees. After U.S. Naval Research Laboratory employee Kiki Ikossi blew the whistle on gender discrimination, her case, Ikossi v. England, helped provide a roadmap for federal employees blowing the whistle on workplace discrimination. Following in her footsteps, Coast Guard whistleblower Kimberly Young-Mclear, blew the whistle on bullying and harassment in her workplace, helping to close investigative loopholes for federally employed civilians.

Environmental health regulations — Courageous whistleblowers have also had a profound impact on the natural environment. In the 90s, tobacco whistleblowers Jeffrey Wigand and Merrell Williams revealed that Big Tobacco had hidden evidence that tobacco was addictive and carcinogenic. Merrell’s documents and Wigand’s testimony enabled 39 state attorneys general to achieve a $246 billion settlement from the industry, paved the way for a successful racketeering case, and significantly altered public perceptions of smoking. More recently, environmental justice has gained a central role in U.S. political campaigns and legislation, in part due to whistleblowers who alerted their communities to lead in drinking water, leaks from petrochemical plants, and radioactive drilling waste.

Digital privacy and social media reforms — Crucial conversations about digital privacy and data collection may never have occurred without whistleblowers’ sacrifices. While evidence of warrantless surveillance by the NSA existed before 2013, it was Edward Snowden’s 2013 Guardian expose that brought debates about surveillance to a global stage, inspiring both the USA Freedom Act and the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation. Since then, whistleblowers like Cambridge Analytica alum Christopher Wylie, former Facebook data scientists Sophie Zhang, and former Apple contractor Thomas le Bonniec have revealed abusive data practices in Big Tech., inspiring investigations, congressional hearings, and a wave of new legislation.

Wall Street Regulations — Through their insider knowledge and specialized expertise, financial whistleblowers have defended our bank accounts, pensions, and markets from complex corporate crimes. In the early 2000s, whistleblowers Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins paved the way for financial whistleblowers by revealing the details of the WordCom scandal and testifying about Enron’s collapse. Their testimony inspired the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which established new reporting regulations and required corporations to establish whistleblower channels.

When the Sarbanes-Oxley Act proved to be ineffective in preventing the 2007 financial crisis, four more whistleblowers stepped forward to help regulators recover billions from banks and inspire stronger regulations through the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Their struggle to raise the alarm in advance motivated the inclusion of strong protections for Wall Street whistleblowers in the Dodd-Frank Act. Using the protections established in the Dodd-Frank Act, whistleblowers have since helped regulators recover $3.7 billion.

Financial Transparency and Tax Justice — Whistleblowers have also provided momentum for global tax reform. In 2014, LuxLeaks whistleblowers Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet revealed Luxembourg’s corporate tax avoidance schemes. Between 2013 and 2018, former Danske Bank employee Howard Wilkinson risked his career to blow the whistle on one of the biggest money laundering cases in history. Bradley Birkenfeld used the U.S. IRS whistleblower law to blow the whistle on the secret Swiss banking system. After Birkenfeld’s disclosures, more than 56,000 delinquent taxpayers came forward, leading to the collection of more than $16 billion in unpaid taxes. Revelations from these disclosures have helped build momentum to tackle transnational tax evasion and to negotiate a global minimum tax rate for corporations.

While some whistleblowers become household names, countless other acts of influential public service have come from whistleblowers who are known simply as “anonymous.” Taking advantage of U.S. laws that provide anonymous reporting channels or technology that enables protected communication, many whistleblowers have shaped key debates and court cases while remaining safely out of the limelight. A $10 billion case against Chevron for Amazon oil spills was aided by “smoking gun” evidence from an anonymous whistleblower in Ecuador. Dozens of prosecutions for marine pollution can be credited to anonymous whistleblowers who took advantage of a little-known whistleblower law to quietly alert regulators. The Panama Papers investigation, which revealed global tax evasion networks, was based on a leak of 11.5 million law firm documents by a whistleblower who remains anonymous today.

Time and again, whistleblowers have taken on corrupt governments, corporate power, and environmental injustice. When the U.S. government recovered billions from oil companies who had stolen from education funds and Native American tribes, it was because whistleblowers used the False Claims Act to reveal an oil pricing conspiracy. When employees are able to successfully report gender discrimination or harassment in the federal workforce, it’s because pioneering whistleblowers blazed the trail. When the U.S. Congress passes a bill to provide new funds for safe drinking water infrastructure, it will be because whistleblowers raised the alarm about lead pipes in Flint, Michigan.

While whistleblowers can be powerful agents of change, they can’t do it alone. They need strong protections and meaningful rewards and a shift in cultural attitudes to support their disclosures and protect their identities. U.S. whistleblower laws have evolved to provide strong protections and rewards for whistleblowers reporting financial crimes, corruption, and attempts to defraud the government. Many of these laws allow whistleblowers around the world to report to U.S. regulators. However, serious gaps remain.

Loopholes, long wait times, and corporate lobbying campaigns have undermined key U.S. whistleblower laws, including the Dodd-Frank Act and the False Claims Act. Many whistleblower programs, including the Consumer Financial Protection whistleblower program, still lack the financial reward provisions necessary to incentivize and reassure would-be whistleblowers.

Law enforcement whistleblowers like Frank Serpico, Lorenzo Davis, and Kelly Donovan have also shown that they could play a key role in addressing misconduct. But as Sherron Watkins recently wrote, meaningful protections are needed to shield law enforcement whistleblowers from serious or life-threatening consequences. As climate change intensifies, new whistleblower laws must also address emerging environmental risks, forest crimes, and the illegal wildlife trade. And while U.S. laws have made significant progress, around the world effective whistleblower laws remain mostly nonexistent.

In the U.S., Congress can support whistleblowers by pursuing an anti-corruption agenda: closing loopholes in the Dodd-Frank Act, clarifying the scope of the False Claims Act, amending the Anti-Money Laundering Act, and establishing financial rewards for consumer protection, auditing, and wildlife whistleblowers. Around the world, whistleblower advocates can introduce reforms to provide strong protections and financial rewards. In the European Union, a whistleblowing directive provides a unique opportunity to pass meaningful whistleblower protection reforms and to incentivize climate whistleblowing.

Whistleblowers need our support now more than ever before. To commend whistleblowers for their tireless work, every year the National Whistleblower Center celebrates whistleblowers through National Whistleblower Day. This year, National Whistleblower Day will be a virtual celebration on July 30th. To thank whistleblowers like Michael le Bonniec, Ifeoma Ozoma, Allison Gill, and Sara Thompson for their contributions to fighting corruption and abuses of power, RSVP to attend National Whistleblower Day 2021.

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National Whistleblower Center

National Whistleblower Center

National Whistleblower Center is the leading nonprofit working with whistleblowers around the world to fight corruption and protect people and the environment.