On November 15, the Global Fund fired John Parsons, its Inspector General (IG). Because the IG is the official responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct and corruption, as well as whistleblower disclosures, he must be able to function independently of management, and firing him does not look good. In this particular situation, in fact, it looks especially bad. Parsons is a veteran auditor and investigator with nearly forty years of impressive work. He was a Director at the UK National Audit Office and served there for 23 years before moving into high-level international audit assignments in the United Nations system. At the Global Fund, he led an investigative team that uncovered substantial irregularities in a number of projects over a period of years, and it now appears that such findings were too embarrassing for the organization.
When Parsons began to find problems of money laundering in Global Fund projects, the sale and use of sub-standard health products, suspicious activities of celebrity-politicians, and other corrupt practices, he notified the Audit Committee of the Board, among other officials. At the GF, this was extremely inconvenient. The Global Fund promotes itself as open and transparent – the superior public/private alternative to the more secretive intergovernmental organizations. If compromising findings are confirmed, they must be revealed; they can’t be quietly covered up.
The Global Fund’s actions in the face of this dilemma were telling. The organization suppressed the evidence and fired the Inspector General before the problems could be confirmed and made public.
When an organization confronts operational shortcomings like this, management and the board have two choices. They can either address the problems and move on, or they can attack the sources of the information – the IG, whistleblowers, auditors – and seek to discredit them. The Global Fund chose the latter course.
Observers of what happened to Parsons at the Global Fund report that there was a good deal of agitated activity on the morning of Nov. 15. A security guard appeared at Parsons’ office door at 9 a.m., but refused to say why he was there. Shortly thereafter, the locks on the door were changed. Parsons no longer had access to his office, his files, or his computer. His email account was deleted and at about 11 a.m., the entire staff of the Global Fund received a notice from the press office that Parsons had been dismissed for “unsatisfactory performance.”
At GAP, where we have dealt with thousands of whistleblowers over the years, we recognize this as the classic form of retaliation. When staff members – whoever they are – report corruption, the first thing a retaliatory institution does to discredit them is separate them from any files or documents they might use to substantiate their disclosures and vindicate themselves in the face of attacks on their reputations. The institution sends them home, locks the doors, and eliminates e-mail and phone access.
Then, if the retaliation target is a prominent official in the organization, as Parsons was, a formal denunciation circulates widely. It includes vague, defamatory characterizations of the unfortunate target, such as ‘unsatisfactory performance.” Hence the notice from the press office. This step makes the targeted person ‘radioactive,’ and serves a dual purpose. It discourages anyone else from coming forward with similar disclosures, and it intimidates the target’s colleagues, who might otherwise protest the abuse. The press notice about Parsons termination inevitably had a subtext: “This could happen to you.”
Despite the subliminal warning, however, interested stakeholders are coming forward. There will be more on this story.
Bea Edwards is Executive and International Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.