In the United States, Women’s History Month is celebrated every March. Congress designated March 1987 as Women’s History Month by passing Pub. L. 100-9, and in the following years, additional resolutions were passed “requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations” designating March as Women’s History Month. WNN would like to highlight just some of the incredibly brave women whistleblowers who have generously shared their stories with courageous FBI whistleblower and staunch whistleblower advocate Jane Turner.
Turner is a highly decorated veteran Special Agent and was the first woman named head of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) resident agency. Turner investigated crimes against women and children on Indian reservations in North Dakota. Turner blew the whistle on misconduct in investigating a child sex crimes case. In retaliation for her whistleblowing, the FBI removed her from her position.
Now, Turner is a dedicated whistleblower advocate and reporter for WNN. In her Whistleblower of the Week written profiles, she interviews whistleblowers from all walks of life and gains insights into their upbringing, their careers, and the story behind their whistleblowing. Past Whistleblowers of the Week have included UBS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld, FBI whistleblowers Rosemary Dew and Theresa Foley, and international whistleblowers Ari Danikas and Trevor Kitchen, among many others.
Turner is also the host of the Whistleblower of the Week podcast, which is a biweekly hour-long conversation between Turner and a whistleblower or whistleblower advocate. Through the podcast, Turner has interviewed incredible whistleblowers and taken deep dives into their stories. Whistleblowers continue to reach out to Turner because of the respect she holds for truth-tellers, and she continues her advocacy online through Twitter, reaching over 2,000 followers.
Turner’s Statement for Women’s History Month
“Academic studies have shown that female whistleblowers face more reprisal than male whistleblowers. Male whistleblowers’ outcomes can depend on the amount of power they hold in an organization, but female whistleblowers, no matter what organizational power they possess, were granted no such favor,” Turner said in a statement to WNN. “The role of a successful woman is destroyed and any protection she might have received prior is lost (unlike male counterparts) because a whistleblower role is not seen as appropriate for a woman. Therefore, the reigning thought is the woman deserves the retaliation for stepping outside her gender role. I have seen this phenomenon myself as an FBI Agent. I have interviewed several women who have felt that the severe retaliation they endured was unique to their gender. Under the general umbrella of ‘nuts and sluts,’ organizations have determined the need to rid themselves of women who do not seem to accept their organizational role.”
“This is why female whistleblowers need to be recognized and honored,” Turner continued. “Their bravery in pursuing the whistleblower path and their integrity in staying on message is unique and requires a personality construct not demanded of male whistleblowers.”
Honoring Women Whistleblowers
“I am not a traitor,” Winner told CBS’ 60 Minutes Overtime after being released from prison. “I am not a spy. I am somebody who only acted out of love for what this country stands for.”
Winner was sentenced to 63 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release after pleading guilty to violating the Espionage Act. Winner worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) as a cryptologic linguist and in May of 2017, she saw a document that contained information about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Winner anonymously leaked the document to The Intercept, which published the document and a story on June 5, 2017. However, the government was able to track the identity of the person who printed out the document, and Winner was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act.
While serving her time in a Texas federal prison, Winner contracted COVID-19. In the CBS interview, she discusses her mental health throughout the case and describes being suicidal and grappling with an eating disorder while behind bars. “The public was being lied to,” Winner told CBS’ Scott Pelley. She confirms that she knew the document was secret, saying to Pelley, “But I also knew that I had pledged service to the American people. And at that point in time, it felt like they were being led astray.”
“It was never my intent to hurt anyone or cause any damage…my only intent was that maybe one- one could restore the foundation of truth and integrity in a really tumultuous year,” Winner said in her CBS interview. Read the Whistleblower of the Week profile on Winner here.
Edwards worked for the U.S. Treasury Department as a Senior Advisor in the Intelligence Division. Specifically, she worked in the FinCEN area, which concerns financial crimes. FinCEN operates under the Bank Secrecy Act’s regulatory functions and “coordinates with foreign financial intelligence unit (FIU) counterparts,” according to the first Whistleblower of the Week profile featuring Edwards.
Through examining information from Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), which financial institutions are required to file “no later than thirty calendar days after the detection of suspicious activity,” Edwards found that the Treasury Department “was concealing information from Congress on certain individuals and entities that appeared to Edwards to be politically motivated.” According to the article, Edwards felt as though “American lives were lost due to the ineptitude of the Treasury Department, and [she] felt it was her duty, by her oath of office, to notify Treasury officials and members of Congress.”
Edwards notified the Treasury’s Inspector General of her concerns but was discouraged from pursuing the issues. She also alerted FinCEN security to counterintelligence threats, and in 2016 she asked Congress “to investigate her whistleblower information and protect her as a whistleblower,” part two of her story states. Later that year, Treasury Legislative Affairs told her she couldn’t speak to Congress, and she began to experience retaliation. She continued to try and notify individuals and offices within the government about the SARs reports as well as ask for whistleblower protection but saw little action.
In 2017, she connected with BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold and provided him with documentation of the suspicious activity. In the same year, she “mailed packets of her whistleblower complaint to Congress, the AG, and FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting assistance and a meeting to discuss the information she had mailed. Only Congress responded, and a Senator advised her that there was dysfunction at Treasury, and it had been going on for a long time, and it had gotten worse.” The documents she provided to Leopold were integral to the FinCEN Files, a collection of documents that revealed global corruption around the world.
In 2018, Edwards was arrested by the FBI and charged with two criminal counts. She was sentenced to six months in prison and served her time at Federal Prison Camp Alderson in West Virginia. While she was imprisoned, her husband told Turner that Edwards was denied her medication and her service dog. She was also not provided proper care for her serious health conditions. Edwards was released on January 24, 2022, about one month early, with three years’ probation. In a recent update piece, Turner wrote that Edwards is seeking whistleblower status. “Each day is a struggle,” Edwards told Turner. “It is just hard.”
Reid worked for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in Washington, D.C. The organization aimed to “teach impoverished people how to work their way out of poverty,” according to a past WNN interview with Reid. She worked her way up to serve as the head of ACORN D.C. and Northern Virginia.
Reid took issue with the fact that ACORN members had to pay a $120 membership fee. “How can you take impoverished people and have them pay that?” she questioned in her interview. She noticed a lack of transparency at ACORN and teamed up with Michael McCray of ACORN in Georgia. Other individuals joined the group, which became known as ACORN 8, and Reid told WNN that the group was “authorized to pursue a forensic accounting, independent audit, and expedited discovery to identify and protect ACORN assets and interests.” She expressed that this put a target on her back at work.
The investigation “revealed that large sums of money had been embezzled by one of the founders of ACORN.” However, Reid was kicked off the Board.
Reid continues to be involved in whistleblower advocacy: she became the first national media whistleblower liaison for the Pacifica Foundation after serving on the Board for three terms. She is also the co-host of the annual Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights, which each year awards a defender of the First Amendment rights the prestigious Pillar Award. Reid also co-created the Whistleblower Summit & Film Festival, which received an award for the best new film festival in the U.S. in its first year. In her interview with Turner, Reid stated that her “mission is to allow people to speak up, and my concern is not the monies, but to mitigate the punishment that comes when whistleblowing.”
Check out Reid’s Whistleblower of the Week profile for more information on her early life, upbringing, and career path to ACORN.
McWilliam wanted to be a police officer since she was young: her father was a police officer of 16 years with the Toronto police force, and her WNN interview says that he was her hero. McWilliam joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in 2004 and reported to the RCMP Academy in Regina, Saskatchewan. She graduated as a Police Constable six months later and was stationed in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Two years later, McWilliam was asked to be a coach officer, a prestigious position responsible for training new recruits. But she noted in her Whistleblower of the Week profile that sexual comments directed at her began early on in training. She told Turner, “I was focused on the street. I was excelling in my job training younger constables, having them for a couple months at a time, shaping their career. I felt good about the officers I trained.”
McWilliam continued to move up the ranks to Detective Constable, as well as investigative and community roles. But a new staff sergeant’s sexual harassment of her led to other sergeants being inappropriate towards her. “I always thought if I worked hard enough, I would get away from these people by changing departments, but it did not happen,” McWilliam said. She expressed that she felt she was being “tested” to see how far her male colleagues could sexually harass her without her complaining.
After she changed platoons in 2011, McWilliam experienced sexually harassing comments from “senior male officers who had control over her career and promotions.” She put in an official complaint about the staff sergeant who was harassing her to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), even though her Superintendent advised her to refrain from filing it. McWilliam told WNN that she found the SIU investigation to be “negligent,” and in 2015 she was notified that the investigation was not going to lead to any charges. A year earlier in 2014, a psychologist told her she was displaying symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. In 2016, McWilliam submitted a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal, which was adjudicated in June of 2020. Over the four years, McWilliam received more harassment and bullying and became so injured from her treatment and enduring the legal process “that she was granted disability” and could not return to work. Now, McWilliam is serving as a beacon for change with her business Braveinspiresbrave.com. Read her Whistleblower of the Week profile here.
One of the more well-known women whistleblowers, Watkins blew the whistle on the Enron financial scandal. She became an auditor for Arthur Anderson in 1982, math having been her strong suit growing up. Watkins was hired at Enron, an energy company, in 1993. She noticed “seeds of fraud at Enron” in late 1996, according to her WNN profile. Soon, she became the company’s Vice President.
Watkins decided to author an anonymous letter about the corporate misconduct occurring at Enron and dropped it into a company communications box. After a few days, she went to HR and identified herself as the person who wrote the memo. HR then set up a meeting between Watkins and Kenneth Lay, the founder, CEO, and Chairman of Enron. Watkins showed Lay the fraud happening at the company and provided additional memos in voicing her concerns about the fraudulent accounting. “Lay said he would look into it, and Watkins went on vacation, thinking that Lay would take care of the problems,” the WNN profile states.
But when she returned from vacation in August of 2001, she faced retaliation: she was moved from the 49th floor to the 16th floor, where HR was located. “She was given no real responsibilities at her job and found that Enron hired a company to investigate the fraud that had a conflict of interest,” Turner writes. Investigations into the company resumed after 9/11: The Wall Street Journal began to investigate and “the SEC started a preliminary investigation.” Watkins told Turner that “she was not the only individual who knew about the fraud, but in a company of 8,000 in the Houston area, she was the only one to write a memo alerting management.”
“When asked if being a woman might be why she was the only one to alert management at Enron, Watkins answered that women are not part of the ‘old boys’ club, so a woman is not concerned about being kicked out of the club, because you didn’t belong to one in the first place,’” Turner wrote in her profile of Watkins.
In February of 2002, Congress found the memos Watkins wrote, and investigations by Congress and the Department of Justice ensued. Watkins was a critical witness in criminal trials in 2006. Her case was highly influential in the creation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which set “new or expanded requirements for all U.S. public company boards, management, and public accounting firms.” Sherron Watkins was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in 2002 as a Person of the Year along with Coleen Rowley, who blew the whistle at the FBI, and Cynthia Cooper, WorldCom whistleblower.
Watkins currently serves as a Senior Fellow for Ethics and Policy for WNN. Read her past articles here. Additionally, listen to parts one and two of the Whistleblower of the Week podcast episodes featuring Sherron Watkins on WNN.
Thank you to each and every woman whistleblower for sharing your stories on WNN. We celebrate your strength, integrity, and courage during Women’s History Month and deeply respect the contributions you have made to your respective fields.