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Whistleblower – definition and meaning

A whistleblower, also written ‘whistle blower’ or ‘whistle-blower’, is an individual who exposes criminal, unethical, or improper activity within a company, government department, law-enforcement agency, or any organization. In most cases, though not always, the whistleblower is an employee who reports wrongdoing that he or she is aware of at work.

The wrongdoing that the whistleblower discloses must be in the public interest, i.e. it must affect others, such as the general public.

In many countries today, whistleblowers are protected by law – they should not be treated unfairly or lose their job just because they have ‘blown the whistle’.

Whistleblower - riskyIf you are considering becoming a whistleblower, make sure that you are protected. You might be going against some powerful people who are willing to break the law. Be careful!

According to GAP (Government Accountability Project), America’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, a whistleblower is:

“An employee who discloses information that s/he reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, mismanagement, abuse of power, general wrongdoing, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”

“When information is classified or otherwise restricted by Congress or Executive Order, disclosures only are protected as whistleblowing if made through designated, secure channels.”



Routes the whistleblower may choose

Those who plan to expose wrongdoing may choose to bring the allegations or information to surface either externally or internally. Internally, the whistleblower in most cases should inform his or her immediate supervisor.

Externally, the whistleblower contacts a third party from outside the organization, such as somebody working in law enforcement, the media, or a specific advocacy group.

Whistle blowers need to be sure that their evidence is compelling, because they run the risk of facing stiff retaliation and reprisals from those who are alleged or accused of wrongdoing.

Edward SnowdenEdward Snowden is probably the best-known whistleblower today. When he worked as a Boos Allen Hamilton contractor, he released classified documents on top-secret NSA programs including the PRISM surveillance program to the press. He is currently living in an undisclosed location in Russia. (Image: Wikipedia)

Legality of whistleblowing

Legal protection for whistleblowers varies from country to country and may depend where the original activity took place, when ad how the information was revealed, and how the data was eventually publicized or published.

Most of the advanced economies (rich democracies) today have comprehensive whistleblower protection laws that create mechanisms for reporting wrongdoing and provide the whistleblower with legal protections.

Marginally more than fifty countries across the world have more limited protections for whistleblowers as part of their freedom for information, employment, or anti-corruption laws.



Being a whistleblower takes courage

Barry Adams, a registered nurse working on a sub-acute care unit in a New England hospital, blew the whistle on unsafe health care practices that he witnessed in his work.

Mr. Adams made the following comment regarding the courage and bravery needed for each whistleblower to blow the whistle:

“The list of negative consequences to whistleblowing seems endless: broken promises to fix the problem, disillusionment, isolation, humiliation, formation of an ‘anti-you’ group, loss of job, questioning of the whistleblower’s mental health, vindictive tactics to make the individual’s work more difficult and/or insignificant, assassination of character, formal reprimand, and difficult court proceedings.”

Daniel ElsbergDaniel Eslberg, a former U.S. military analyst, leaked a top-secret Pentagon study in 1971 of the United States government’s rationale behind its decisions during the Vietnam War. Known as the ‘The Pentagon Papers’, these documents were widely published by The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 1998 Eslberg said: “The public is lied to every day by the President, by his spokespeople, by his officers. If you can’t handle the thought that the President lies to the public for all kinds of reasons, you couldn’t stay in the government at that level.” (Image: Wikipedia)

Some notable whistleblowers

2014 – Joseph Y. Ting: Dr. Ting worked as a medical physicist in Florida. He filed a False Claims Act lawsuit accusing 21st Century Oncology of ripping off Medicare.

21st Century Oncology eventually settled with the US Department of Justice to pay back $34.7 million to the US Treasury. In 2016, Dr. Ting and his legal team were awarded over $7 million for his role in the settlement.

2013 – Edward Snowden: Snowden was a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor working at the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. He released classified material on top-secret NSA programs, including the PRISM surveillance program to The Washington Post and The Guardian in 2013. He currently lives in Russia, which granted him temporary asylum.

Jim Wetta - WhistleblowerOn his Twitter account, Jim Wetta, a well-known whistleblower, writes that he: “successfully filed two False Claims Cases against two pharmaceutical companies. With the help of the DOJ, both cases settled reaching over $2 Billion.” (Image: Twitter)

2010 – Jim Wetta: Wetta was an AstraZeneca whistleblower. He filed a False Claims qui-tam case that triggered the US Department of Justice investigation into AstraZeneca – a British multinational pharmaceutical giant – for violating the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute promoting the unapproved use of the drug Seroquel, an anti-psychotic.

Eventually, in a civil settlement, AstraZeneca had to pay $520 million to the federal government to resolve civil settlements.

2009 – Alexander Barankov: – he claimed there was corruption within the Belorussian police force. In 2009, he was charged with bribery and fraud. He became a political refugee in Ecuador in 2012.

Ramin PourandarjaniBeing a whistleblower cost Dr. Ramin Pourandarjani (1983-2009) his life. During the 2009 Iranian election protests, he had examined prisoners, as well as people who had been wounded or killed. He blew the whistle on the practice of torture by the Iranian police. He died of poisoning – his salad had been laced with an overdose of a blood pressure medication. (Image: flickriver.com)

2009 – Ramin Pourandarjani: an Iranian medical doctor who reported on the use of torture on political prisoners in his country. Shortly thereafter he died of poisoning.

2009 – Hervé Falciani: a Franco-Italian systems engineer who is behind the ‘biggest banking leak in history’. In 2008, he started collaborating with a number of European countries by providing allegedly illegal stolen data relating to over 130,000 suspected tax evaders with accounts at HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary HSBC Private Bank.

20005 – Paul Moore: was an executive at HBOS, a British bank. He was fired after he warned senior colleagues that the bank’s sales strategy was at odds with prudent management.

He spoke out about his warnings to the Treasury Select Committee of the British Parliament during its investigation into the turmoil in the country’s banking system.

2005 – Shanmughan Manjunath: a former manager at IOCL (Indian Oil Corporation Ltd.). He spoke against the adulteration of gasoline. On November 19th, 2005, he was shot dead, allegedly by a gas station owner from Uttar Pradesh.

2005 – Toni Hoffman: a senior nurse in Australia who exposed the medical malpractice of surgeon Jayant Patel. At first, she raised doubts about Dr. Patel with other staff and hospital management. Patel’s colleagues were also concerned.

Dr. Patel became the subject of the Morris Inquiry and the Davies Commission. In 2006, Hoffman received the Australian of the Year Local Hero Award and an Order of Australia Medal for her role as a whistleblower.

2003 – Diane Urquhart: a former senior executive in the securities industry, she revealed to the Canadian House of Common’s Finance Committee that Canadian frozen non-bank asset-backed commercial paper caused a giant loss of up to $13 billion. The commercial papers were held primarily by the Canadian government, treasuries, and corporate pension funds.

1998 – Marc Hodler: was an International Olympic Committee member who blew the whistle on the Winter Olympic sandal for the Salt Lake City games (2002).

1997 – David Shayler & Annie Machon: they both resigned from MI5, the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, to expose alleged criminal acts by the agency, including the failed attempt to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi.

Shayler claimed that the Security Services planted fake news in the press – this accusation was substantiated in one example by a court.

1996 – Allan Cutler: the first whistleblower on the Canadian sponsorship scandal or ‘AdScam’. As there was no legal protection at the time, he was soon fired by the Canadian government.

As the case evolved, lawmakers passed federal legislation to protect future whistleblowers in the country’s civil service.

Tobacco company whistleblower and film made about himJeffrey Wigand let it be publicly known that tobacco companies manipulated the nicotine content of cigarettes in order to get smokers more strongly hooked. He currently lectures around the world as an expert witness and consultant for a number of tobacco issues. He spends much of his time working for his non-profit organization ‘Smoke-Free Kids Inc.’ He was portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 1999 movie – The Insider – directed by Michael Mann, which also starred Christopher Plummer and Al Pacino. (Image: Jeffrey Wigand – Wikipedia. Russell Crowe – avclub.com)

1996 – Jeffrey Wigand: an American biochemist who was once Vice-President of R&D at Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Kentucky. He worked on developing reduced-harm cigarettes.

On a CBS News program 60 Minutes in 1996, he accused the company of deliberately manipulating levels of nicotine in cigarettes to make smokers more addicted.

According to Wigand, he was subsequently harassed and received several anonymous death threats. Actor Russel Crowe portrayed him in the 1999 movie The Insider.

1998 – Peter Wright: a former MI5 science officer who claimed in a book he wrote – Spycatcher – that the British Security Service had plotted to remove Prime Minister Harold Wilson from office, and that the MI5 Director General was a Soviet spy.

The book was published in Australia. The British government tried to prevent its publication in the UK, but eventually in 1998 it was cleared for publication – the Law Lords acknowledged that as it had already been published abroad, it no longer contained any state secrets.

1972 – W. Mark Felt: until 2005, he was known only as Deep Throat. He was Associate Director of the FBI when he leaked information about the then President of the United States Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal.

The scandal eventually led to the President’s resignation and prison terms for Presidential Adviser John Ehrlichman and White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman.

1971 – Frank Serpico: a former New York City policeman who reported many of his fellow officers for corruption, bribery and related charges in front of the Knapp Commission that was probing corruption within the New York Police Department (NYPD).

He was the first NYPD officer ever to step forward to report and then testify openly about widespread, systemic corruption payoffs amounting to many millions of dollars. In 1973, Al Pacino starred in the blockbuster movie Serpico

1942 – Jan Karski: a Polish resistance fighter who visited the Warsaw ghetto twice during WWII. He met with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the British Foreign Secretary, and the Polish Shadow Government in London, to report what he had seen concerning the horrific conditions for Jewish people, as well as the extermination camps. Sadly (tragically), none of what he said was taken seriously.

1515-1552 – Bartolomé de las Casas: a 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer and Dominican friar. Before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, he advocated on behalf of the rights for the natives in the New World.

Video – What is a whistleblower?

This Whistleblowerlaws.com video explains what a whistleblower is: “Somebody who sees wrongful misconduct, and decides to report this misconduct. They’re faced with an ethical dilemma of how to deal with the situation, and step forth with integrity and bravery.”