Frederic Whitehurst had no idea what being a whistleblower entailed. He simply became outraged when he witnessed a colleague in the FBI laboratory giving misleading testimony in a criminal case two decades ago. So the supervisory agent decided to speak up, telling the defense experts about the inaccuracies.
It cost him nearly a decade of his career, almost all his life savings, severally emotionally draining internal investigations, the humiliation of a psychiatric exam, and an epic legal fight with the bureau. But the proudly stubborn Vietnam veteran persevered and ultimately prevailed in forcing sweeping ethical and scientific reforms at the vaunted FBI crime lab that began in the 1990s and still reverberate today.
And while he’d do it all again, Whitehurst doesn’t want future whistleblowers to make the same mistakes he did. That’s why he and 19 other of America’s most famous corporate and government muckrakers of the last quarter century have banded together this month to donate thousands of copies of a book by their lawyer, Stephen Kohn, to libraries across America.
Their goal is to give the next generation of American whistleblowers a roadmap, a virtual how-to guide to ensure they can call out wrongdoing successfully, be protected from the customary retributions, and maybe even cash in on False Claim Act awards that can reach into the millions of dollars.
“I was stupid,” Whitehurst told Newsweek in an interview last week. “I thought if you just spoke up about something wrong, people would run to fix it. If you are going to do this, you can’t dump your allegation in someone else’s lap. You have to be right there and fight.”
Whitehurst learned the lessons of whistleblowing the hard way, waiting to get legal help until the FBI had already asked him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation in an effort to discredit him. By that time, he had tangled with his supervisors, became persona non grata inside the bureau’s crime lab, and been put under investigation for various rules and regulations infractions.
“One of biggest things I did wrong is lose my temper. My adversaries, they knew my buttons to push and they pushed them,” he says. “If you are going to blow the whistle you have to have an attorney. You have to have mental, physical, and legal support for what lies ahead of you. And you have to be surrounded by a team. You can’t do it by yourself.”
Whitehurst’s advice is echoed by two dozen other famous whistleblowers, such as Bunnatine “Bunny” Greenhouse, the former Army Corps of Engineers whistleblower who won a $970,000 award in July, nearly a decade after exposing Pentagon contracting irregularities involving Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, and Aaron Westrick, who brought to light the sale of defective bulletproof vests to police departments.
All are using their own money to buy copies of Kohn’s book, The Whistleblower’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing What’s Right and Protecting Yourself, and donating them to libraries around the country. They want to inspire Americans to blow the whistle on the next Enron-sized corporate fraud, a potentially devastating nuclear- or drug-safety issue, or the ethical transgressions of a government leader—but to do it in a way that saves them some of the heartache the original group endured.
“Employees need to know their rights when they insist that powerful special interests follow the laws,” Greenhouse says. “I hope that employees of every defense contractor use the book to ensure that taxpayers are not robbed by unscrupulous corporations.”
The whistleblowers’ common link is Kohn, a scrappy lawyer who founded the National Whistleblower Center in Washington in the 1980s, when the practice wasn’t yet fashionable, and pressed each of their cases to the maximum in the courts of law and public opinion.
Today, Kohn is a feared litigator in government and corporate circles, who wins three quarters of the cases he brings on behalf of aggrieved whistleblowers. He has secured millions of dollars in settlements for his clients, and his cases have saved taxpayers at least $5 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse, while prompting reforms in areas as diverse as Pentagon procurement and FBI forensic science.
Kohn has reviewed thousands of potential whistleblower claims and was struck by how many he rejected over the years. “So many, by the time they are done telling their story, I already know they lost their case,” Kohn says. “They made some technical blunder or let the statute of limitations expire or went to the wrong office to report the wrongdoing.”
So he decided to take his two decades of experience and put it into a book. He didn’t expect a bestseller. He simply wanted to catch the attention of people aware of wrongdoing who might be contemplating blowing the whistle and let them know the dos and don’ts.
“With whistleblowers, if they lose their case, they lose their credibility, and that means they can’t fix the wrong they want to right,” he says. “So this really is about citizen empowerment. Where do people go and what can they do to make change and have a major impact when they know of something wrong.”
Since the book was published this spring, Kohn has seen whistleblowing complaints to his center double to as many as 10 a day.
The book is filled with great anecdotes from his and other epic whistleblowing cases, along with lots of technical advice, such as reminding federal employees they can’t legally remove government documents from the office—but they can make a diary of what documents prove wrongdoing, which can be handed later to investigators or a court.
It also stresses that the new Dodd-Franks financial-reform law gives whistleblowers new freedom to submit allegations for investigation anonymously, protecting them from initial retributions that so often discourage people from coming forward. And it notes that there are upward of 50 laws under which whistleblowers can bring claims, four of which offer potential cash awards. Kohn makes no apologies for stressing the financial incentives.
“Whistleblowing is the No. 1 source of fraud detection worldwide,” Kohn says. “Exposing misconduct isn’t automatic. You have to have a program to get employees to step forward, and that’s what financial rewards can do.”