The Democratic View

The power of the whistleblower

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My late father-in-law was a whistleblower. As a medical officer and drug reviewer for the FDA, he publicized his opposition to the agency’s approval of the drugs that made up the appetite suppressant known as fen-phen. He blew the whistle not only on the dangers of those drugs but also on the cozy relationship between the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry.

Twenty years earlier, consumer advocate Ralph Nader had reclaimed the term “whistleblower” as a positive name for those workers who called out health and safety hazards in their workplaces.

Nader understood the dangers to whistleblowers in publicizing such hazards over the objections of their employers. He worked hard to incorporate whistleblower protections into the consumer protection laws for which he advocated.

U.S. whistleblower protections really began with the so-called Lincoln Law of 1863, the False Claims Act, which protected the jobs of employees who outed defective products (originally weapons, but the law covered any product that might be provided to the U.S. government).

However, as my father-in-law discovered, just because you can’t be fired does not mean the agency or company can’t make your life miserable. Even now, with the existence of the 1986 Whistleblower Protection Act and various anti-retaliation laws, most whistleblower cases do not end well for the whistleblower.

We have all witnessed sketchy actions on the job, from the use of illegal space heaters to harassment and outright fraud. Whether we complain—and to whom—depends on many things.

Our financial situation may make the job more valuable to us than any disclosure would be. Our relationship with our boss may make it difficult to report abuses. We may not think that the situation is enough of a violation to warrant exposure. We may not trust that the chain of command or local laws will protect us against retaliation or a black mark on our resumé.

So, most of us stay silent, or at best, we report a violation to our closest superior and hope that he or she will take it up the chain of command. Very few of us go all the way and blow the whistle, whether by leaking to the media, lodging a formal complaint with a watchdog organization or government committee, holding a press conference or publishing work product related to the violation.

The government whistleblower who set off the current impeachment inquiry described a sudden change in policy toward Ukraine and alleged that Trump had sought help from Ukraine for his re-election campaign.

Because this particular whistleblower was part of the intelligence community, he or she had to follow the rules set forth in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act: Report to the inspector general, who then transmits the information up the chain of command.

Unfortunately, the chain did not work as legally required, and the complaint detoured to the Department of Justice, until pressure from Congress led to its release. Although multiple sources, including the president himself, have corroborated the whistleblower’s report, many Republicans remain hell-bent on revealing the whistleblower’s identity.

Confidentiality is part of many whistleblower protection laws, but usually it is a squishy part—identity of a whistleblower may be disclosed if necessary to conduct a thorough investigation or to provide the accused with the rights of defense.

An exception seems to be SEC whistleblowers—if you blow the whistle on corporate and securities fraud, you are pretty well able to do it with anonymity, thanks to the Dodd-Frank Act.

Why do Republicans want so terribly much to expose the whistleblower? Presumably, they hope to learn his or her motivation, which they feel is political—as if accusations from a Democrat or a “never-Trumper” that are corroborated by multiple sources are tainted beyond repair. Possibly, they want the whistleblower harmed.

Ultimately, it’s a distraction. The name of the whistleblower, a name that means nothing to anyone but a handful of people in Washington, will not make people change their minds about where they stand on impeachment.

In the abstract, we seem to love our whistleblowers. Think Al Pacino in “Serpico,” Russell Crowe in “The Insider,” Meryl Streep in “Silkwood” or Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich.”

Whistleblowers have the power to save lives, as I’m sure my father-in-law did by disclosing the heart valve problems triggered by fen-phen use. They have the power to save democracy, as Deep Throat did and the Ukraine whistleblower might. But one person’s whistleblower is another person’s snitch.

The way we treat whistleblowers today directly affects how likely we are to see people step forward in the future to blow the whistle and right a wrong. Tread carefully, America.

Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at www.tcdemocrats.org.

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