Leading Whistleblower Lawyer Addresses the IUCN U.S. National Committee

IUCN Whistleblower Event

On July 19, whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn joined leading wildlife trafficking prevention advocates to discuss the future of combating foreign wildlife trafficking. Kohn, founding partner at Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto LLP, has represented wildlife and environmental crime whistleblowers from across the globe. He delivered his address in Washington D.C. to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) U.S National Committee, a prominent organization in the field of nature conservation and biodiversity for over 70 years.

Kohn opened his presentation with a statement about the profound impact of transnational whistleblowing on all forms of corruption. He went on to note that while there are many laws on the books that can be used to combat corruption and wildlife trafficking, many of these laws remain underutilized and often, completely unknown. However, Kohn added, the number of laws in this sector are continuing to grow, as is the scope and reach of their impact.

Kohn continued by outlining the power of three specific transnational whistleblower rewards laws that can help combat wildlife trafficking: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AML), and the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA). According to Kohn, these three “revolutionary” regulations have the power to transform the landscape of whistleblower protection. Their strength lies in their ability to enable anonymous and confidential reporting to foreign and domestic whistleblowers, safely allowing for crucial information to reach law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, they offer a significant incentive to qualified whistleblowers, guaranteeing a payout of 10 to 30% of any sanctions or payments resulting from the information they provide. These characteristics make the regulations a powerful force in encouraging and rewarding individuals to come forward with vital information and fostering a safer, more accountable environment for reporting misconduct.

The history of these laws is compelling. In the past 50 years, they have had a tremendous impact. The first transnational whistleblower law in the United States, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, was passed in 1977. This groundbreaking legislation has had far-reaching effects, leading to billion-dollar penalties for organizations engaging in corrupt practices. The core principle of the FCPA is straightforward: it criminalizes the act of any publicly traded American companies offering bribes to gain a business advantage.

According to Kohn, the significant penalties, global reach, and enforcement of this law sets it apart from other anti-corruption measures. The FCPA applies to both U.S. companies and any international company in which American investors are able to buy stock. This means that virtually all publicly traded companies, regardless of their location, are subject to FCPA regulations. Privately held companies are also not immune to the FCPA’s authority. If a company receives investments from American entities, including hedge funds and sophisticated investors, it is also subject to the FCPA. The FCPA’s broad authority effectively makes it a formidable weapon in the fight against corruption across international borders.

The newly enacted Anti-Money Laundering Whistleblower Improvement Act adds further protection for environmental whistleblowers. Banks are held accountable for not knowing background on their customers or reporting when suspicious activity occurs. The third Act Kohn presented was the Commodity Exchange Act of 2010, an equally revolutionary piece of legislation, yet often overlooked. It governs the sale and trading of commodities on international markets, including both publicly traded and non-publicly traded companies engaged in commodity exchange. Commodity transactions have a great impact on business practices that impact climate change. This covers such challenges as over-extensive fishing, oil extraction, and deforestation. The law is particularly powerful because it addresses market manipulation at its broadest level. This allows it to have an impact on virtually any sector that does business in the marketplace.

Kohn cited Eric Holder, the former U.S. Attorney General, on these laws: “The impact of the reward laws has been nothing short of profound. Some of these [cases] may have saved lives. All of them saved money.”

“The bottom line is that these laws work and they’re open for business, Kohn said. “We believe they should be fully integrated into any effort to enforce worldwide corruption in general and specifically crimes related to the environment.”

During the conference, one attendee questioned the level of confidentiality afforded to whistleblowers. Kohn responded by explaining that whistleblowers’ identities are kept completely anonymous, even from the government. He emphasized that, to his knowledge, there have been no instances where a whistleblower’s identity was revealed without their consent.

Another conference member inquired about the bank’s role in creating Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs). Kohn clarified that the law requires the bank to act as a whistleblower and report violations to the government or face penalties for failure to do so.

These laws have been instrumental in making the United States a leader in whistleblower protection. Kohn expressed concern that no other country has implemented such comprehensive measures and criticized the absence of similar laws in Western Europe and elsewhere, deeming it an “international disgrace”. Despite the progress made in the U.S., substantial work must still be done both domestically and internationally. Nevertheless, Kohn remains optimistic that the impact of U.S. laws will inspire others to join him in this crucial work.

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