February 28, 2019

We Need To Change the Way We Talk About Whistleblowers

Maya Efrati Policy Counsel, National Whistleblower Center; ACS Public Interest Fellow

They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. When information about corruption or other wrongdoing comes to light, that transparency results in accountability, both against those who are culpable and for those affected by it. Whistleblowers are the ones with that crucial information.

Whistleblowers are people who bravely come forward with information about fraud, corruption, and other criminal behavior. A whistleblower may be anyone from an employee at a company who comes across fraud to a government employee who sees the law being disregarded and rights trampled to a member of an impacted community whose family is affected by environmental catastrophe because of negligence in the race for profit.

Despite enormous personal and professional risks, they bring to light what would otherwise remain hidden. Often, those who blow the whistle on wrongdoing are disparaged and retaliated against for their actions. Even still, they report such crime knowing they may lose their jobs and income, only to face a negative social stigma while fighting an uphill battle. For the sake of truth and transparency, they are willing to come forward, to step up, and to disclose what they know.

But at present our society does not honor whistleblowers, and because of that we don’t encourage them to step forward.

Studies have shown that individuals who report are then shunned – even in groups that follow the laws and are honest. That means that the stigma is so strong that even organizations that are not corrupt have an aversion to whistleblowers.

“Well of course it changed my life dramatically. It changed the life of my family dramatically…When you go home to your family and you can’t feed them…the stress on that house is unbelievable. That’s the hell that whistleblowers go through.” Nearly 20 years after Dr. Fredric Whitehurst exposed misconduct and forensic fraud within the FBI crime lab in 1997, he recounted how blowing the whistle uprooted his life. Dr. Whitehurst is not alone. Whitehurst’s bravery quite literally got innocent people off death row.

Whistleblowers should be viewed not as informers, but instead as members of an active civil society and as tools for good governance. What is too often overlooked is how whistleblowers actually serve to better the internal integrity of our businesses and democratic institutions.

Corporate culture should welcome whistleblowers as part of a well-run internal compliance program to root out malfeasance. Civil society organizations and grassroots advocacy groups should take pride in the whistleblowers in their midst. There should be widespread support for those who loudly – and without regard for themselves – stand up for transparency and democracy.  Whistleblowers are not “rats,” but rather courageous members of our community and a positive force in our democracy. A cultural shift in how we approach whistleblowers and the benefits they provide is necessary to encourage others to stand up for the truth as well. When information comes to light, transparency results in accountability.

Our legislative and law enforcement processes already recognize this. Government officials not only understand the importance of whistleblowers’ tips in detecting crime, but also the continued and increasing utility of appropriate whistleblower reward laws and protections. That’s because of both the net financial benefit of whistleblowers for those government programs and offices (bringing in millions and even billions per year when utilized well), and the saved time and energy (as whistleblowers provide the tips and so funnel crucial information to law enforcement, it allows for expanded capacity). A bipartisan parade of high-ranking government officials has heralded whistleblowers as the most powerful tools available to our democracy. That’s because, in many cases, whistleblowers make law enforcement possible.

Recent data indicates that whistleblowers are increasingly incentivized to come forward and, moreover, suggests the information they provide is reliable. The number of qui tam (whistleblower) civil fraud cases the Department of Justice has taken on over the past four decades has far eclipsed those that do not involve whistleblowers. In 2017, there were nearly 700 qui tam new civil fraud cases, as opposed to approximately 120 non-qui tam cases.

The Dept. of Justice’s increased reliance on whistleblower information demonstrates that these tips are high-quality and allow law enforcement to identify and prioritize the best cases – those frauds which include significant criminal activity and large amounts of illegal funds, and where the available or ascertainable evidence is strong.

Moreover, incentivizing whistleblowers to step forward through social benefits (for instance, honoring them publicly) and financial rewards can in fact serve to empower the community to protect its own democratic institutions. That’s because this system requires the involvement of the government and rule of law at its core. First, the investigation, prosecution, and sanctions phases necessarily require the involvement of law enforcement authorities. Additionally, this system does not encourage citizens taking the law into their own hands or other types of citizen enforcement. Instead, successful implementation of whistleblower rewards – as a function of law enforcement – encourages faith and trust in the rule of law. Finally, it is the strength of the rule of law in the U.S. that in fact inspires many whistleblowers – both in the U.S. and abroad – to contact American law enforcement agencies with tips about wrongdoing.

The public perception of whistleblowers, however, is much different. Recognition of whistleblowers as a positive aspect of civil society has not yet permeated the public discourse. This is partially because sensationalism surrounding whistleblower disclosures oftentimes shrouds their contribution to detecting and combating corruption down the line.

When whistleblowers come forward, their cases are often framed in terms of the political implications, and the story is dropped by the time there is a court decision months or years later.

However, the public often likes whistleblowers when they are on their side – exposing wrongdoing by their political opponents. In fact, new non-profit organizations have popped up specifically with the goal of fighting for whistleblowers in the current White House administration – and no one else. That is not to say those whistleblowers are not needed, just that blowing the whistle should be not be equated with partisanship, but with our very democracy.

If we change the way we think and talk about whistleblowers, we will also change the way we as a society behave toward those who blow the whistle.  And in doing so, we will encourage further transparency and accountability – further sunlight as disinfectant for the wrongdoing that we all know hides in the shadows.

Maya Efrati is an ACS Public Interest Fellow.