By Darrell Whitman
Presentation to the PSI/UN Symposium
Geneva, Switzerland, 30 October 2017
First, let me thank the organizers of this symposium for the opportunity to speak today. It’s an honor to be invited, and I hope my comments offer some insight into the world of whistleblowing.
Our host briefly introduced me, but let me offer a more detailed account of who I am and why I’m here. My principal occupation is academic, where I conduct research into public policy and global political economy. I’m also an attorney and union activist with a long history of working with peace, justice, and civil rights projects.
In 2010, after 7 years working and teaching in England, I returned to the U.S. to work an investigator in the federal whistleblower protection program. This program, which was created in 1970, represents a clearinghouse for the U.S. regulatory system, with whistleblowers playing a key role in protecting the nation’s safety, health and financial security.
However, what I found was rather than protecting whistleblowers, the program was protecting corporate scofflaws, and particularly the politically powerful ones. When I made that discovery, I became a whistleblower, blowing the whistle on what eventually appeared as widespread corruption within the federal government. In May 2015, I was fired, and in the years since I have continued my fight protecting whistleblowers and advocating for accountability.
I also would like to dedicate my comments this morning to Daphne Caruana Galizia, a respected and courageous Maltese journalist who died two weeks ago after blowing the whistle on wide-spread corruption in her country. It was a corruption, which infested Malta through international links with organized crime, oligarchs, corporations, and corruptible politicians, which puts a finer point on the war on whistleblowers. Ms. Galiza’s death is a testament to the dangers inherent in being a whistleblower, and should give us resolve to protect whistleblowers everywhere.
The War on Whistleblowers
As you already know, the war on whistleblowers has become international, reflecting the way the modern world is knitted together through institutional structures and global systems of communication.
That’s were here today beginning an effort to craft a global response to this war. It’s an important first step, but only a beginning. Achieving global protection for whistleblowers requires not only a UN convention and national laws, it requires we work together as an international community.
During the last eight years, I worked with more than 100 whistleblowers, investigating their reports and the consequences of their making them. In becoming whistleblowers, they joined the legion of workers who form the front lines protecting our societies. They are a diverse group, and while their stories vary in important details they share common qualities. These include: an uncommon attention to detail, a sense of purpose about their work, and a commitment to accountability and justice. In this way, they represent not only valuable of employees, but also role models for our children and communities.
Whistleblowers also play different roles within organizations. They may be the waitress or waiter who serve us coffee at break, the trolleybus drivers and airline pilots who brought us to this symposium, the bank teller or financial advisor who helps us balance our accounts, the nurse or social worker who cares for our health and our children, the scientist or engineer who designs and maintains our built society, the union official construction worker, teacher, journalist, government bureaucrat, or even the corporate officer, who serve us as a partners in producing and protecting our quality of life. I’ve met them all, and they give me reason to believe we can create and maintain a safe, healthy, and secure world, if we protect their central values as whistleblowers.
This morning, I would like to introduce you to some of the whistleblowers I know and respect. I will be posting and making available to you their and other whistleblower’s stories as told in their own words:
Michael Madry was the first whistleblower I tried to protect. He was a regional manager and member of the national quality assurance team for TestAmerica, the largest industrial, environmental testing company in the U.S. He and the company’s National Director of Quality Assurance, tried to honor a request by a federal auditor to ensure the company’s asbestos testing was accurate. However, the company, owned by H.I.G. Capital, a venture capital group, was more concerned with maximizing profits, which they did by corrupting their asbestos testing.
When Mr. Madry and the National Director contested the company’s corrupt testing process, they were threatened, harassed, defamed, and eventually fired. The EPA, the federal agency tasked with regulating TestAmerica and other laboratories, failed to take any action in this case, in spite of the substantial evidence TestAmerica was producing corrupt asbestos tests. This lack of action allowed the corrupt testing to continue for at least ten years, putting at risk the lives and health of tens of thousands or workers, homeowners and children. The EPA’s failed to act in part because of flaws in its regulatory design, and in part because OSHA, the agency where I worked, failed to report the corrupt testing to the EPA.
Aaron Stookey was a Flight Services Specialist providing real time weather reports to pilots for Lockheed-Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor and a politically powerful corporation. Himself an experienced pilot, Mr. Stookey resisted the company’s orders corrupting its weather advisory service, and was fired. When I investigated, I found wide-spread support for Mr. Stookey among the other Flight Service Specialists, all of whom were pilots and agreed that Lockheed-Martin was endangering the public. When I issued my final investigative report supporting Mr. Stookey, Lockheed-Martin fought back, first collaborating with federal bureaucrats to pressure witnesses to recant their testimony, and then to dismiss Mr. Stookey’s complaint by falsifying documents. In the end, Mr. Stookey achieved a small measure of justice. But, he continues to suffer retaliation by the Federal Aviation Administration, which continues to deny a return of his pilot’s license.
Beginning in 2008, several highly qualified aircraft mechanics for FedEx, the world’s largest package delivery service, reported FedEx was violating aircraft maintenance protocols. At least three of those mechanics were fired, including Brian Gruzalski, and a fourth, Dan Forrand was subjected to a long-term hostile workplace for ten years. Sadly, FedEx has yet to be held accountable for attacking these whistleblowers and continues to conduct its business in ways that put FedEx employees and the public at great risk.
The FedEx business model is to use old planes, which requires a vast maintenance network and an army of aircraft mechanics. This puts an economic premium on containing repair costs. But rather than respect laws and regulations, FedEx has chosen to harass and fire employees who report problems, going so far as to collaborate with the Federal Aviation Administration to attack a mechanics license if they become a whistleblower. At the time of my investigation, FedEx had powerful political friends, including then President Barak Obama, and the failure to hold FedEx to account encouraged the company to believe it didn’t need to respect the law.
Other whistleblowers I was honored to defend included: Johnny Burris, a financial planner with a sense of loyalty to the senior citizens he served. He was fired by JP Morgan-Chase, the largest bank in the U.S., for refusing to agree the bank’s defrauding his clients. Yesina Guitron, who worked for Wells Fargo, the third largest bank in the U.S., was fired for resisting and reporting the bank’s wide-spread consumer financial fraud. When this fraud, involving 3.5 million customer accounts, became a public scandal in September 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would investigate. But, once the 2016 election was over, their investigation faded from view. Jason Skolarik, a “problem solver” working for Amazon, was fired for . . . finding and reporting health and safety risks. When he reported retaliation by Amazon to the federal Whistleblower Protection Program, the federal agency was suddenly clueless about what to do. Ben Heckman, a truck driver specializing in transporting hazardous materials, was fired for reporting serious safety violations which put the public at great risk. The company had close ties to the U.S. Department of Defense, and possibly organized crime, but even after finding in favor of his complaint, the federal government refused to honor its mandate to protect him. He has fought for justice for more than six years, and continues to fight even as his health is in serious decline.
Lastly, there’s my own case. When I saw a pattern of corruption, I reported it internally to local management. At the time, I didn’t recognize local managers were not only aware of the corruption, but were stage-managing it. When I saw that, I escalated my reports to the national office, which I later learned was also deeply corrupt, and then to the Secretary of Labor, members of Congress, and the President. In response, I and five other investigators – all experienced attorneys, were purged and replaced with untrained but compliant employees from other federal agencies.
In 2015, I filed a report with the federal Office of Special Counsel, whose job it is to protect federal whistleblowers and investigate corruption in the federal government. When I was fired in May 2016, I added a complaint to the OSC. Almost three years later, I’m still waiting for the OSC to protect me and investigate the corruption.
During the seven years I fought corruption in the federal government, I suffered an increasingly hostile workplace, had my work attacked, was isolated from other employees, ordered to four disciplinary hearings, denied training, subjected to surveillance, accused of crimes, defamed, and ultimately fired. But, I also received tremendous support from my fellow investigators, local union officials, and interested journalists. In January 2016, I received a James Madison Freedom of Speech award from journalists who had followed my fight against corruption, and journalists continue to be my key allies in this fight.
But, journalists are themselves whistleblowers exposed to retaliation, and in the hours before her murder, Ms. Galizia wrote, “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.” After fighting corruption in the U.S., I fully understand what she meant.
What is to be done
The war on whistleblowers is real and intensifying. The politics and economics of modern society revolve around access to and the control of information, which whistleblowers often expose. Yet, access to information is essential to democracy, and without access societies descend into darkness, tyranny, and totalitarianism.
Over the last fifty years, the U.S. passed many good whistleblower protection laws. But what matters, is not the quantity or quality of laws, but the enforcement of law. Through a combination of cronyism, careerism, and corruption, the U.S. is failing to protect whistleblowers, particularly when it threatens powerful corporate and/or political interests. This is not an accident, because over the last half-century there’s been a long-march toward corporate fascism in the U.S. This corporate fascism is not ideological, except for its drive to unite corporations and government. Rather, to advance its interests, it easily adapts itself to different cultural forms, and conveniently adopts popular political discourses. It attacks capitalism by undermining and displacing free markets in favor of creating monopolies, and undermines socialism by invading and controlling public bureaucracies to shape them to its service. When it can, as it did in Malta, it exploits institutional and political weakness to insinuate itself into the economics and politics of a society. But, when it can’t operate by stealth, it attacks directly, and often violently, to achieve its ends.
What must be done to slow and ultimately defeat this creeping corporate fascism is a question of politics. Today, governments everywhere are under attack for failing their public mission. Yet, while there is a popular reaction there’s no coherent defense of government as the protector of the public interest. This is where we must begin, and that beginning is rooted in protecting the basic right to speak and defend the public interest, which is what whistleblowing is all about.
PSI Symposium On The Protection Of Whistleblower
SYMPOSIUM ON THE PROTECTION OF WHISTLE
ILO Room IX