Over the weekend, the growing scandal engulfing the German digital payment giant Wirecard reached the point of no return.
In the Bavarian city of Aschheim near Munich, police searched Wirecard’s headquarters for evidence showing whether the DAX-listed company made misleading financial statements to investors. The raid rapidly followed a move by German financial regulator BaFin to file criminal complaints against Wirecard CEO Markus Braun and three executive board members, according to media reports.
At the center of the investigation are two public statements in which the e-money company said a special KPMG audit had not turned up anything improper. The rosy assessment led to a 66 percent jump in Wirecard’s stock price from mid-March to mid-April. The price tanked in late April when KPMG said – in fact – it could not verify Wirecard’s third-party profits and had difficulty confirming whether some of its business was real.
It’s been a hard fall for a company that became a leader in the futuristic fintech industry, surpassed the market value of Deutsche Bank, and replaced Commerzbank, Germany’s second–largest lender, on the DAX stock exchange.
Look a little deeper into the extensive media coverage and you’ll see that whistleblowers were integral in bringing the alleged misconduct to the attention of regulators, the investment community and the public.
Financial Times reported last year that insiders exposed a “book-cooking operation” within Wirecard’s offices in Asia. One whistleblower received evidence via the encrypted messaging app Telegram. The internal Wirecard investigation “Project Tiger” unearthed suspicions of falsified accounts and “cheating, criminal breach of trust, corruption and/or money laundering.” FT’s own investigation said internal company documents “point to a concerted effort to fraudulently inflate sales and profits.”
One whistleblower told FT, “If a payments company can do this, how can you have trust in the system?”
The beauty of this story is that the whistleblowers – however many there are and wherever their live – have not gone public with their identities. They did their job. They provided their evidence. Then they went home and went about their day. They had the foresight and self-preservation instincts not become part of the story themselves.
The media can hardly help themselves from sensationalizing the messenger rather than reporting the message. The Wirecard whistleblowers deprived journalists of this pleasure, leaving the media with no choice but to cover the scandal itself. This improves chances that Wirecard could be held to account for any violations. By remaining anonymous, the whistleblowers also are deflecting the sort of scrutiny, privacy invasion, character assassination and industry blacklisting that befall many whistleblowers who go public.
If one or more of whistleblowers live in Germany, they are particularly wise to stay out of the limelight. German companies and officials routinely retaliate against employees and citizens who report misconduct. And because Germany has no private sector whistleblower law, Wirecard employees would have no legal remedies if they are fired or demoted.