Whistleblowers

American Patriots, Sheroines, Heroes

By Jorge D. H. Prosperi 2019

“Whistleblower!”

Upon thinking, hearing, writing or reading a word, our marvelous highly complex brain begins to sort through its highly elaborate files of information – referencing, sub-referencing, seeking synonyms, antonyms, making connections trying to determine meaning. The results depend on our awareness, experiences and associations with the word and our life long social curriculum that is ever imprinting. The brain is always on point to provide information stored, but leaving it up to us to decipher acuity and truth.

Yes, LANGUAGE MATTERS and therefore, accuracy is vital. As it was warned by the “techies” of the 1960s . . .

“Technology is incredibly powerful, but fare thee well . . .
garbage IN will result in garbage OUT!”

The same as with our brain-based learning.

America, in 2019 was reintroduced to a word not heard since the Nixon years and the Watergate scandal – “Whistleblower.” The nickname for the whistleblower of the1970s was “Deep Throat.” His name was revealed in later years as William Mark Felt Sr. (1913-2008), an American FBI agent who worked for the (FBI) from 1942 to 1973. He was also known as “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”, a film released in 2017.

He had tried to avoid going to the press but walls of power and control denied him. He felt conflicted and trapped witnessing corruption on a daily basis and guilty about remaining silent. As an FBI officer he worked for all three branches of government sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. He was also an American citizen working for the American people – just like all the members of the Senate, Congress, and White House. Above all else, he was an FBI agent sworn to uphold the rule of law.

Aside from the curiosity of knowing his name, Americans wondered why a respected public servant would break loyalty from the Executive Branch of government? America wanted references, evidence, connections and was also left to answer critical questions as, “What is a whistleblower?” “Who are these people?” “What motivates them?” “Are they traitors or heroes?”

I posit that they are patriots, sheroes and heroes deserving of our respect and gratitude. Their transparency and willingness to divulge the truth regarding unethical and corrupt practices places them at great personal and professional peril. They face moments of truth unlike many of us will ever be asked to do. They make tough personal and professional decisions on behalf of the greater good.

After Watergate, we did not hear much about whistleblowers until Jeffrey Stephen Wigand who on February 4, 1996, appeared on 60 Minutes stating that Brown & Williamson had intentionally manipulated its tobacco blend with chemicals such as ammonia to increase the effect of nicotine in cigarette smoke. Jeffrey Wigand was an American biochemist and former vice president of research and development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Kentucky, who worked on the development of reduced-harm cigarettes. Like Mark Felt he discovered corruption and coverups. In 1996 he blew the whistle on tobacco tampering at the company.

Fast forward to December 30, 2002 – January 6, 2003 Time Magazine publishes a Special Double Issue:

Persons of the Year
The Whistleblowers”
Cynthia Cooper of WordCom
Coleen Rowley of the FBI
Sherron Watkins of ENRON

Cynthia Cooper was an American accountant who formerly served as the Vice President of Internal Audit at WorldCom. In 2002, Cooper and her team of auditors unearth $3.8 billion in fraud at WorldCom. At the time, this was the largest incident of accounting fraud in U.S. history. Since leaving MCI, Cooper started her own consulting firm. In addition, Cooper speaks to professionals as well as high school and college students to share her experiences and lessons learned.

Coleen Rowley became a Special Agent with the FBI and was assigned to the Omaha, Nebraska and Jackson, Mississippi divisions. Beginning in 1984, she spent six years working in the New York City field office. During this time she served three temporary assignments in the U.S. embassy in Paris and the consulate in Montreal. In 1990, she was transferred to the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, where she became Chief Division Counsel. In May 2002 Rowley testified to the Senate and the 9/11 Commission about the FBI’s pre-9/11 lapses due to its internal organization, mishandling and misleading information related to the 9/11 attacks which led to the reorganization and expansion of FBI.

Sherron Watkins was a former Vice President of Corporate Development at the Enron Corporation. Watkins was called to testify before committees of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate at the beginning of 2002, primarily about her warnings to Enron’s then-CEO Kenneth Lay about accounting irregularities in the financial statements. In August 2001, Watkins alerted then Enron CEO Kenneth Lay of accounting irregularities in financial reports but her efforts were not only ignored but suppressed.

All whistleblowers come from different segments of our society. They are born in different regions, schooled in different schools and pursue their professions and passions according to their personal vision, mission and passion in life. They never planned to walk the journey of a whistleblower.

Each of them did not wake up one day with the intention to whistleblow. Each shared that whistleblowing does not occur on one day or in a vacuum. The process can take years of trying to work through unethical environments and/or administrators who deny corruption even when faced with undeniable evidence. There is a process that whistleblowers go through in trying to provide facts and warnings regarding unscrupulous – fraudulent behavior and practices. The process can be exhausting physically and mentally as it often becomes the  daily weight of knowing the truth and the truth being suppressed.

As with many whistleblowers, while doing their daily jobs, they began to identify corruption, lies, fraudulent processes and cover ups that clearly were not in keeping with the vision, mission, core values and principles of the institutions they represent, serve and in some cases took an oath to uphold.

Another common experience by whistleblowers is that regardless of their efforts to provide evidence, alert and warn, they confront hypocrisy at the highest levels that blatantly attempts to deflect and defend corruption by choice and design. It becomes evident that the issues are not mistakes and happenstance but intentional, dishonest, unethical and immoral.

Questions on the essence of loyalty begin to be addressed. Is loyalty a two way street? Is it unequivocal up and down? Is it a matter of blind faith regardless of ethical core values? Is loyalty earned, credible and trustworthy or a matter of titles and dogma used to hold others hostage, manipulated and silent?

Eventually, whistleblowers face a personal conflict of the “ethical-unethical-right-wrong-fair- unfair-loyalty-disloyalty” tradeoff leading to an eventual disconnect that can’t be compromised nor corrected. From this point on, the whistleblower faces tough decisions as to resign and walk away with the evidence or confront the institution legally or by exposing the corruption. There are most often no win-win outcomes.

With each whistleblower, there comes a time when they discover that reporting discrepancies, unethical practices, wrongdoing and cover ups to the highest authority is not respected nor appreciated – at times their scrutiny and diligence is confronted by a PR firm – HR Department – Legal Dept depicting the whistleblower as a

disgruntled employee” – “persona non grata” “not being a team player” – “not wanting to play ball” – “biting the hand that feeds them” – “turncoat” – “snitch” – “traitor” –  “Benedict  Arnold”

leaving the whistleblower not able to divulge evidence that would provide evidence, content, context and the reasons for whistleblowing. Vindication is often left to the very end of the arduous process. Most often whistleblowers stand alone under powerful pressure to walk away and relying on their resiliency, commitment and sacrifice dedicated to the greater good.

Each whistleblower mentioned faced the power of institutions that “lawyered up” facing public and personal attacks – an avalanche of denials, deflections and outright mistruth, not to mention threats, pandering, condescension and losing their paychecks that their families depended on.

What was also alarming to whistleblowers was the constant hypocrisy by leaders who did not live up to the mission and core values of the institution – always publicly proclaiming their innocence and honorability. As Sherron Watkins of ENRON remembers, “At Enron the company handed out note pads with inspiring quotes. One was from Martin Luther King Jr.,

‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Watkins saw the quote very day and wondered – “didn’t anybody else?”

Powerful institutions are well insulated from whistleblowers who dare to challenge them. In some cases there is blatant obstruction and law suits in order to intimidate and silence whistleblowers and witnesses to testify and present evidence.

America in 2019 is mirroring some of the same corruption, unethical practices, cover-ups, constructed chaos, anxieties and stresses that surfaced during the Nixon years. To paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Whistleblowers in 2019 are again stepping up – front and center with courage, dignity and focus in order to protect the integrity of our Republic and citizenry. They are walking tall holding on to the essence of their citizenship – their loyalty credible and honorable. A reminder each time their whistle blows that their journey is not only theirs, but ours.

“Integrity, transparency and the fight against corruption have to be part of the culture. They have to be thought as fundamental values.”

José Ángel Gurría