GAP’s third stop on its American Whistleblower Tour took place at Brandeis University on October 26 as a collaboration between GAP, the Brandeis Journalism Program and the International Business School. Entitled “Enron: A Case Study in Whistleblowing and American Journalism,” the public lecture featured one of most famous whistleblowers in recent history – Sherron Watkins, the former VP of the Enron Corporate who alerted then-CEO Kenneth Lay in August 2001 of accounting irregularities within the company, warning him that Enron “might implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” Her warnings came true just months later when Enron filed for bankruptcy, the then-largest filing in history (exceeded by Worldcom in 2002 and Lehman Brothers in 2008).
After Sherron gave an overview of the scandal, her role as a whistleblower, and the after-effects that continue to reverberate in the world of corporate governance and accountability, I gave an introduction (as Tour Director) to a group of approximately 100 students and faculty on whistleblowing – its value as an antidote to corporate and government wrongdoing, the risks that employees of conscience face when they speak out against corruption or other malfeasance, and the importance of recognizing whistleblowers are the frontline for protecting public interest. I then facilitated a discussion between Sherron and Alison Bass, a lecturer in journalism at Brandeis and Mount Holyoke College and author of Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial.
Sherron and Alison discussed their unique perspectives on how whistleblowers (corporate employees, in particular) and journalists can work together to promote accountability. There was general agreement that journalists are critical allies to whistleblowers, and a necessity for reforming problems. Major issues involving food safety, nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and national security that were detailed in the media all have resulted in public education, legislative reform and direct fixes to problems disclosed because of partnerships between whistleblowers and journalists.
The panelists also discussed unique challenges for whistleblowers and journalists when facing corruption involving big business and finance. Issues can be complex, difficult to understand, and often difficult to access – business journalists, culturally, have had more of a “reporting” focus than an “investigative” focus. Corporate control over major media outlets, as well as the influence of big business and the financial sector over all areas of the economy, can make exposing wrongdoing as threatening as the wrongdoing itself.
It can be particularly challenging for a sole corporate whistleblower with privy financial information, while trying to maintain anonymity, to enlist the support of a journalist who may not understand complex accounting issues. Furthermore, because of a whistleblower’s desire to remain anonymous, journalists may not be able to vet the employee’s credibility thoroughly or expeditiously. Both Alison and Sherron noted the value of whistleblower support organizations like GAP, which can both more effectively protect the employee from retaliation and, because of its reputation and relationships, better work with the key stakeholders (journalists, oversight agency officials, Congressional staff) to amplify the message and enact real change.
In addition to the public event, Sherron spoke to two Masters level classes in the business school. Professor Ben Gomes-Casseres of the International Business School enthused:
Her prepared comments were important, fascinating, and delivered in an authentic voice we seldom get from big-name speakers. In each class of 50-60 students, you could hear a pin drop during her talk. This was followed by an equally thoughtful Q&A. The students in our World Court are still buzzing about it. After her Master Classes she continued this pattern in a small gathering with our finance faculty. In the name of all of us at IBS – many thanks to you and to GAP for making this happen at IBS!
GAP would like to extend special thanks to Alison Bass, our faculty partner who facilitated the Brandeis tour stop; Maura Farrelly, Director of the Journalism program who organized the event; the International Business School that co-presented the Tour stop; and the American Studies Program, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, and the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. We would especially like to thank Sherron Watkins, who generously gave of her time to support GAP’s Tour, and who continues to serve as a model of how ethically conscious workers can defend the public interest and keep institutions accountable.
We are excited to continue the momentum of the American Whistleblower Tour with more than ten Tour stops scheduled for Spring 2012. Check back for more information about Tour stops coming to towns near you!
Dana Gold is the American Whistleblower Tour Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.