Whistle-blowers often risk reprisal from their employers, suffer great setbacks in their careers, and in many cases lack enough evidence to prove any wrongdoing in their workplace, according to a panel of experts gathered to discuss the issue at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG) last Wednesday (April 23).
Cary Coglianese, faculty chair of the Center for Business and Government’s Regulatory Policy Program and director of the Kennedy School’s Politics Research Group, moderated the discussion. Sponsored by the Regulatory Policy Program and Institute of Politics at KSG, the panel included Coleen Rowley, one of Time Magazine’s persons of the year for 2002.
Rowley, a lawyer and special agent in the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, was noted for writing a 13-page memorandum to FBI Director Robert Mueller raising questions about how the agency handled the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“You have to try even if ultimately you might know you won’t have much success,” Rowley said, of why she decided to come forward with her information. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life thinking ‘maybe I should have.’”
Ethical decisionmaking involves integrity, Rowley said. Before deciding to make a complaint, employees should first determine the significance of the problem and must be prepared to suffer the consequences, she said.
“Integrity is about doing right when there is no one to make you do it but yourself,” she said. “Whistle-blowing is almost always a no-win for the person doing the whistle-blowing.”
The recent passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 offers protection for whistle-blowers in publicly traded companies who report violations of federal law, including securities and shareholder fraud. But federal employees have little protection from retaliation, said Louis Clark, executive director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP). GAP, a national nonprofit organization, helps concerned citizens who witness dangerous, unlawful, or environmentally unsound practices in their workplaces or communities.
Calling the Sarbanes-Oxley Act a breath of fresh air, Michael R. Bromwich, a former inspector general for the Justice Department, said he and others like him would be watching to see whether the act is upheld in court. Since the act is less than 1 year old, it hasn’t been tested in the courts, he said.
Despite the new laws offering protection, employees with complaints should heed caution. According to Bromwich, whistle-blower complaints are proven in only 10 to 20 percent of allegations.
“You have to have uncontestable proof to come forward,” he said. “In only a few cases do you have major institutional change as a result of whistle-blowing.” Despite the low number of successful complaints, whistle-blowers remain the early warning signal to prevent avoidable tragedies, according to Clark. They provide a major source of protection from bureaucratic indifference and they often rise above the occasion to strike a note of dissent when the majority remains silent, he said.