American Whistleblower Tour Wrap-Up: University of Texas at Austin

Dana Gold, October 25, 2011

GAP’s second stop on its American Whistleblower Tour took place last Wednesday at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), in conjunction with the UT-Austin School of Social Work’s first annual Social Justice Week. Ken Kendrick, a Texas whistleblower who exposed that corporate wrongdoing led to the 2008-09 salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people (and killed at least eight) joined me in a two-hour conversation about the important contributions whistleblowers make to promoting social justice, and the injustice of whistleblowers suffering retaliation and isolation for protecting the public interest.

Ken is a former assistant plant manager at Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) who blew the whistle on public health conditions at the company’s Plainview, Texas plant. Ken tried to alert the Texas Department of Health to the unsanitary conditions at the plant. Shockingly, the plant was not even registered with the Department of Health. Ken urgently advocated to set up a more effective Quality Assurance program before he left the troubled plant in 2006.

When his own granddaughter and mother-in-law were eating peanut butter crackers contaminated with salmonella, Kendrick knew he had to counter PCA’s public statements that the batch of peanut butter from a plant in Georgia was an “isolated” event: He knew the conditions at Plainview, which shipped peanut products to the Georgia plant, was rife with conditions that were breeding grounds for contamination, including a roof leak that allowed rainwater contaminated with bird feces to drip onto the peanuts, rat infestation, and no regular testing for food safety, let alone state inspections.

He contacted Safe Tables Our Priority (now STOP Foodborne Illness); they helped Ken blow the whistle onGood Morning America and to The New York Times.

Ken’s disclosures, combined with his partnership with GAP, were incredibly powerful. Lives were likely saved. PCA was bankrupted and closed. New legislation was passed in part because of his efforts: the Food Safety Modernization Act provides strong whistleblower protection for corporate employees who report any food violations enforced by the FDA. The Texas Department of Health registered more than 350 food processing plants that were not even on its books. And Georgia passed strict new laws tightening food safety standards, including making it a felony to knowingly distribute contaminated products.

Ken’s personal experience has not, however, benefitted from the same public validation and tangible success as a result of his whistleblowing. Since he publicly blew the whistle on unsafe conditions after he left PCA and before the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed, he could not benefit from potential whistleblower protection laws that might protect him from retaliation or blacklisting. He has been denied work for which he is qualified for the express reason that he is recognized as a whistleblower, and has only been able to find part-time, minimum wage work to support his family. He lost his home earlier this year, and continues to fight depression in the aftermath of his experience as a whistleblower.

The School of Social Work was a perfect setting for this particular event. Ken’s story highlights how whistleblowers could greatly benefit from the support not only of lawyers, the media, and public interest organizations like GAP, but also from social workers or others skilled at addressing the personal challenges that whistleblowers often confront. Social workers could fill an important, and often unmet, niche in offering whistleblowers psychological support, career development guidance, and connecting them to resources which can help them fight isolation.

Before the official public Tour event, Ken and I were invited to speak to two classes. The first class, Dynamics of Organizations & Communities, was then studying “how to effect social change,” a perfect topic to highlight the power of whistleblowing combined with GAP’s advocacy. The second was a masters level class on Leadership and Community Building. We also had the great fortune to be welcomed and introduced at our public talk by long-time GAP supporter Texas House Representative Elliott Naishtat, who also happens to be a lawyer as well as an alumnus of the UT-Austin School of Social Work.

Both Ken and I were moved by the compassionate, and passionate, responses by many of the students and faculty who attended. In addition to indignation that Ken, rather than being rewarded for preventing additional illnesses and deaths, instead has suffered from depression and rejection by his community and potential employers, many students went out of their way to offer specific assistance to support him in reaching a more secure place that validates his efforts. One student, echoing a common refrain heard that a book or movie telling Ken’s story would be compelling and valuable, suggested resources to find literary agents in Texas. Another student offered to volunteer time to help Ken with a broader job search. The student who reported on the event perfectly captured the compelling message of the evening.

Time for thanks. Dr. Dnika Travis, an assistant professor of social work who studies employee voice, was our primary host, along with three students – Vania Flores, Isa Casas, and Clayton Travis – who were the primary organizers of Social Justice Week. We cannot thank our Tour hosts, Dean Barbara White, and the UT-Austin School of Social Work enough for giving us the opportunity to educate students, faculty, and the local community about the value of whistleblowers in society and how students might approach ethical challenges they witness in their future workplaces. With social workers being required to commit to a pledge of ethics, and with Ken himself having taken many social work classes in college, this message was particularly welcome.

Our next Tour stop is at Brandeis University tomorrow, where I will be interviewing Enron whistleblowerSherron Watkins, along with journalism professor and author Alison Bass, about the role of whistleblowing and journalism in promoting accountability. GAP looks forward to this collaboration with the Brandeis Business and Journalism schools to promote education on this topic that continues to be as timely and relevant as ever.

Dana Gold is America Whistleblower Tour Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.