(Whistle)Blowin’ Up: Let’s Talk Corporate Accountability
What happens when you blow the whistle and no one hears it? In case you have not heard, US news is (whistle)blowing up about potential abuse of power and meddling related to the 2020 election and the blockage of the complaint reaching Congress by DNI Maguire. That had us thinking, where does whistleblowing come from?
It turns out that this phenomenon dates back to at least the 7th century where so-called ‘qui tam’ laws were put in place to help enforce the keeping of the sabbath. The name derives from the latin phrase for ‘he who prosecutes for himself as well as for the King’. Under this law, reporting citizens were entitled to a share of the offender’s sabbath-breaking wages. Eventually, ‘qui tam’ laws morphed into whistle-blowing laws aimed at corrupt business activities and, while the details have changed over time, whistle-blowing has played a crucial role in crime enforcement during many different eras. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first whistle blower, actually blew the whistle in 1773 to calm international politics which… backfired. During the Civil War, corruption was so bad that defense contractors on both sides were selling lame mules, rifles that did not fire, and spoiled rations. This led to the passage of the False Claims Act (FCA) which incentivized whistle-blowers with immunity from prosecution and half of the money recovered. World War II saw a reprieve for defense contractors as they were exempted from FCA due to the urgent need for supplies. Later, during the Cold War someone noticed the Department of Defense had been sold a $7,000 coffee maker during the Cold War, which kicked off a period where all major defense contractors plead guilty to fraud. In the 1990s and early 2000s, more focus came to be paid on medical and tax fraud. This can be quite lucrative, as Bradley Birkenfield was awarded $104M for his role in a $780M judgment against UBS for tax evasion (although he did serve 2 years in prison for his role in the crimes).
While many movies have been made about famous Whistleblowers, played by Al Pacino, Merryl Streep, Russell Crowe, Matt Damon, etc., the reality is very unglamorous. Many, if not most, end up like Marsha Coleman-Adebayo (with no biopic) and their heroic, life-saving actions end up losing them their careers (even at the EPA!). The stiff backlash and retribution they face from parties they reported on is not buffered by society, which generally applauds but fails grotesquely in protecting them. And, as one famous whistle-blower noted, in the case of government malfeasance you are often reporting the misdeed to the very persons responsible. Whistle-blowing 2.0 landed on October 4, 2006 with the creation of a communal publication method (‘wiki’) called Wikileaks. The organization has played a role (albeit controversial) in highlighting global corruption and war crimes, potentially swaying a major national election, and landed their founder as an enemy of many developed nations. While Wikileaks has brought sunlight to several major scandals and instances of global corruption, it has also highlighted the problems with lack of oversight, anonymity, and the potential for political agendas to foment cyber-warfare and ‘shark attack’ news drops.
It is crucial that we respect, protect and build transparent and established channels for reporting wrongdoing to encourage whistle-blowers to come forward, cushion the blow from doing so and make their contributions as valuable as possible. And, when we examine our whistle-blowers, it is probably good to remember that they have likely sacrificed their jobs and careers if not also their freedom and safety.
Kellen Parker, Vice President, Product
The FCC announced on Tuesday that Sprint (S) is under investigation for illegally obtaining tens of millions in Lifeline funding meant to help low income people obtain phone service. They had blatantly disregarded the rule to drop people no longer using the service, overcounting by 800k+. Now the proposed T-Mobile merger is in jeopardy. Where was the whistle on that one?!
Countable is an app where you can view what your legislators are voting on and how the public views current issues. There are even whistle-blower apps like Got Ethics, although you should do your homework before using them! OpenGov and others are building tech platforms for more responsible government, including e-Town Halls and reporting.
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