“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Members of the Make It Safe Coalition (MISC) met this week in Washington, DC for the 2014 Whistleblower Summit For Civil & Human Rights. Michael McCray, co-founder of ACORN 8, and Marcel Reid, also an ACORN 8 co-founder and whistleblower liaison for the Pacifica Radio Network, organized the annual summit. Numerous organizations cosponsored panels during the summit, including the Coalition for Change (C4C), the National Judicial Conduct & Disability Law Project (NJCDLP), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Coalition of Minority Employees. Organizers hope that the summit can function as a forum for whistleblowers to collaborate and discuss the impact of whistleblowing on professional and personal life.
On July 30, National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, GAP organized several panel sessions on existing rights and legislative campaigns. “Dodd-Frank 4th Anniversary: Strengthening Anti-Reprisal Rights under the SEC Whistleblower Program” looked at the state of protections for financial-sector whistleblowers. Since passage of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, whistleblowers have new incentives and mechanisms to help successfully report abuse and fraud. The law created the Office of the Whistleblower within the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The office is responsible to hear allegations of corporate fraud. Jordan Thomas, the chairman of Whistleblower Practice at Labaton Sucharow, spoke about the importance of strengthening anti-reprisal rights for whistleblowers under the SEC Whistleblower Program. Lisa Donner, Executive Director of Americans for Financial Reform, spoke on why her coalition of more than 200 organizations has endorsed stronger protections for financial whistleblowers such as Eric Ben-Artzi, a former Deutsche Bank employee. GAP and Labaton recently submitted a petition to the SEC that outlines appropriate rulemaking steps the Commission can take to accomplish this goal.
Even with the creation of whistleblower programs, emotional and physical abuse suffered by those who blow the whistle cannot be dismissed. Increasingly whistleblowers are becoming the targets of criminal investigations, one form of reprisal often conducted by institutions that should be their ally, such as the Department of Justice (DOJ). “Prosecutors are obliged to seek justice,” affirmed Zena Crenshaw, NJCDLP Executive Director, during a panel on DOJ misconduct. However, strong evidence of judicial abuse like the case of Tennessee police officer Mark Lipton has continually surfaced. Whistleblowers find themselves in a workplace environment that stifles dissent and cultivates a culture of corruption. Paulette Taylor of C4C explained how there is no mandatory punishment for management that promotes a hostile working environment. As a result, there is little incentive for employees to speak out, since doing so would open the door for reprisal.
Krista Boyd, counsel for the House of Representatives Oversight & Government Reform Committee, Michael McCray, Air Marshal whistleblower Robert MacLean, and GAP Legal Director Tom Devine spoke about the future of the landmark 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) in a separate panel. One of the major challenges remaining is guaranteeing whistleblowers fair access to appeals. A bill sponsored by Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) recently passed the House of Representatives aims to do just that. The House Oversight Committee also must remain active, since it is crucial for whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing.
Federal whistleblower protections must also include curbing criminal retaliatory investigations, an increasingly severe practice of guilty institutions. During the “From Firings to Criminal Referrals: The Changing Face of Whistleblower Retaliation” panel (pictured right), Tristan Leavitt from the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke about the importance of preventing administrative retaliatory investigations from morphing into criminal retaliatory campaigns. If that transition does occur, it must serve as a trigger for an Office of Special Council (OSC) inquiry. GAP’s Amanda Hitt discussed the growing use of criminal retaliation to silence factory farm whistleblowers through state “ag-gag” laws.
A growing number of whistleblowers are tapping into the power of broadcast media to shed light on abuse and illegality. Director Micky Huff and Associate Director Andy Lee Roth discussed ways in which whistleblowers can harness the power of media. The two are coauthors of a yearly publication on behalf of Project Censored, an independent news outlet that reports on stories that larger media outlets such as CNN and Fox News have failed to cover. They explained how corporate media has undergone a process of self-censorship, as the amount of news that is deemed acceptable for broadcasting has decreased. Huff and Roth quoted the wisdom of one of history’s most famous whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, “Sometimes telling the truth is your worst enemy.” Society must teach the importance of speaking truth to power – “civil courage” – even when it is unpopular to do so.
Mick Anderson (pictured left), former Senior Advisor for the Department of Justice, exercised civil courage when he exposed systematic mishandling of classified documents, sexual abuse and human rights violations committed in Latin America in the 1990s. He went on to receive the OSC “Public Service Award” for his truth-telling. Anderson spoke at a panel that discussed the transformation of the Office of Special Counsel from an Orwellian instrument decades ago into an agency that has grown to be more sympathetic to truth-tellers. GAP’s Devine helped Anderson withstand reprisal after going public with allegations.
While whistleblowers are essential in any government body, those in the intelligence community (IC) are vital to expose activities that might jeopardize American security. Cathy Ball from the National Treasury Employees Union, Shahid Buttar from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Keith Wrightson from Public Citizen and Devine gathered to discuss the need to strengthen protections for IC employees who disclose domestic surveillance and other government abuses. If IC contractors enjoyed enhanced rights, whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden would feel more comfortable coming forward. The panel examined the recent victory in restoring protections for IC employees that were previously stripped. The next fight is extending those protections for contractors, enabling more brave individuals to speak the truth. The MISC campaign kicked off last week and it has already received more than 12 thousand signatures of support!
In recognition of those who work tirelessly for whistleblowers to be heard, several lawmakers and officials were nominated for the Pillar Award. The award is given to outspoken voices of first amendment, human, and civil rights. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, Congressman Cummings (D-MD) (pictured right) , Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Senator John Boozman (R-AR) are among those in government that were recognized this year. It is important to give thanks to these leaders, because they have made unique contributions to whistleblower protections. Congress and OSC must remain a reliable outlet for employees to report waste, fraud and abuse.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the importance of telling a truth that not only exposes wrongdoing but also aligns with the righteousness in one’s conscience. Echoing another civil rights leader, Congressman Cummings spoke of the need for this generation to lead. For too long society sat idle and complacent rather than tackling the challenges looming over us. In order for future generations of whistleblowers to flourish, we, here and now, must act in full faith in order for King’s call for truth to rein supreme.
Kyle Graczyk is a Social Networking Intern of the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization.