Note: this article, featuring Government Accountability Project and our client Brandon Coleman, was originally published here.
Whistleblowers Play Critical Role in Revealing Wrongdoing
Sunshine Week, when journalists celebrate the free release and distribution of information critical to educating the public so democracy can function, begins Sunday.
As part of its efforts to ensure citizens can stay informed about their government, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project are working together to promote the work of whistleblowers and protect them through legislation.
Whistleblowers have played a critical role in revealing wrongdoing in government and the private sector, and their actions, which frequently provoke personal and professional retaliation, have led to major reforms.
A whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, helped to hasten the end of the Vietnam War when, in 1969, he gave copes of classified documents, later called the Pentagon Papers, to reporters. The papers showed that the administration of Lyndon Johnson had been lying about how well the war was going and whether it could be won.
A whistleblower, Mark Felt, a top official at the FBI, gave information to two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, that began their investigation into the Watergate break-in and the illegal acts of top Nixon administration officials.
Last year, a whistleblower’s report of a phone call between President Donald Trump and the president of Ukraine started an investigation that uncovered a broad effort by Trump and other officials to persuade the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden’s son. At the same time, the Trump administration was withholding congressionally approved military aid from Ukraine. That investigation led to congressional hearings and impeachment of the president.
Many of the most consequential revelations about the misuse of governmental power and resources and about illegal corporate activities can be credited to whistleblowers, coming forward out of concern for the public. Following are details about a more whistleblowers (just a few out of hundreds) who have made a difference in recent years:
Hanna-Attisha, a professor of pediatrics, revealed in September 2015 research she had done that showed the children of Flint, Michigan, were being exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water. Hanna-Attisha’s research was prompted by the protests of people who lived in Flint and the statements of other experts, including Miguel Del Toral, a scientist who worked for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
When I presented my findings I was also dismissed and attacked. It should have stopped when the first mom complained and said there was something wrong,” said Hanna-Attisha.
Lead poisoning can’t be reversed, and since the revelations about the water in Flint, Hanna-Attisha has led a project to help mitigate the damaging effects on the community’s children, through improved nutrition and other programs to aid childhood development.
In June 2017, Joel Clement was working for the federal government as director of the Office of Policy Analysis for the Department of Interior. Part of his job was measuring the impact of climate change on Arctic communities of indigenous people. But that month, he and dozens of senior officials were ordered into different assignments as the Trump administration sought to undercut the work of federal employees who focused on climate change and other environmental issues.
Clement condemned the actions in a letter to The Washington Post titled “I’m a Scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration.” He pointed out the destructiveness of the administration’s actions to Native people and the environment and criticized the silencing of civil servants.
Moved to a job he wasn’t suited for, Clement resigned and now works for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he exposes political interference in science. He also works with the union’s Science Protection Project, where scientists can make confidential reports of political interference.
A former Marine and an addiction counselor, Coleman worked at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, where he saw a pattern of negligence in the care for suicidal veterans. In 2014, he came forward with his observations, despite retaliation and harassment from his superiors. As a result of whistleblowers like Coleman, the VA formed an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which is where Coleman now works.
The scandal stretched over several years and required the courage of several VA employees to speak out before reforms were put in place. It was revealed that wait times for veterans with serious problems such as depression and PTSD were being reported as 24 days when they were actually almost four months. More than a dozen died before they were seen. Further investigations showed that veterans across the country were enduring long waits for appointments, and that other hospitals were involved in cover-ups.