Siri Nelson, the new Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center (NWC), is excited about the future and proud of her past work. As a whistleblower attorney at top whistleblower law firm Kohn, Kohn, & Colapinto (KKC), Nelson discovered her passion for defending and advocating for whistleblowers, as well as promoting whistleblowing in the U.S. and abroad. In a recent interview with WNN, Nelson describes her journey towards becoming first a whistleblower attorney, and then the Executive Director of NWC, the largest non-profit organization in the the world solely dedicated to whistleblower protection. She also discussed her goals for National Whistleblower Day (NWD), an annual event featuring numerous high-profile whistleblower advocates promoting whistleblowing as a solution to combating corruption around the world.
Nelson began her career at Northeastern University, specializing in the field of digital privacy. During an internship at the University, she was surprised to discover how connected whistleblowers were to the essential task of protecting the privacy of citizens. While working as a Internet Public Interest Opportunities Clerk at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Nelson noticed that the predominant opinion among her colleagues was that whistleblowers were not disruptive troublemakers but instead essential heroes who put their lives and careers on the line to further the public interest. Seeing this different attitude towards whistleblowers “helped me understand the connection between whistleblowers and protecting our civil liberties.”
Inspired by this experience, Nelson took whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn’s Whistleblower Law Seminar at Northeastern, a course which Nelson now teaches. It was during this seminar that she discovered the possibility of becoming a whistleblower attorney as a career path, and decided to dedicate herself to the work. For her hard work and excellence, she was asked to become the Estelle Kohn Fellow at KKC, an extremely prestigious honor.
During her time as a Fellow, she worked closely with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) helping guide Commissioners away from approving amendments that might have been disastrous for whistleblowers, had they passed in 2019. People at both the law firm and the SEC took notice of her hard work and her dedication to the cause. While working to become policy counsel at KKC, she received an exemplary recommendation from a prestigious source. “[A]fter a high level regulator commended my efforts on a call with Steve and I, the deal was pretty much set in stone.”
When the position of NWC Executive Director opened up, she set her sights again. “I could not think of a more impactful role to play for someone who wants to fight for whistleblower’s rights,” Nelson said, “so I put my all into the application process and was selected. It is such a huge honor!”
With NWD set for July 30, Nelson is wasting no time in planning a celebration that will go above and beyond already high expectations. Speaking of National Whistleblower Day 2020, Nelson stated:
“Last year, National Whistleblower Day meant normalcy in chaos. The shutdowns began in the early stages of our planning and it was the first time the day would be offered digitally. It was magical how well the teams at KKC and NWC were able to get programming together. So, for me, NWD means teamwork. And, it also means a sense of belonging. I have worked on a lot of purpose driven initiatives in the past, but for the first time I felt like I was working on something that could have a lasting impact and truly spoke to a diverse audience. I also see NWD as an opportunity for education. That is how I first interacted with it, as an attendee who wanted to know more. This year we have an incredible program, so it will be truly informative, and I hope one day soon we can say that NWD is a permanent holiday. Whistleblowers deserve it.”
Watch the trailer for National Whistleblower Day 2021 below, and RSVP for the celebration here.
Nelson is proud of what NWC has accomplished in the past, but says that there is much more work to be done, both at home and abroad. She envisions a future where whistleblowers don’t have to risk their lives and careers to speak truth to power. “My hope is for a future where that risk is not required, where every person who might report wrongdoing can do so anonymously, to a government agency, with anti-retaliation protections and a guarantee of an award that equals at least 10% – but I would love to see a minimum 15% – of any money collected by the government.”
She hopes to avoid “well intentioned” laws that may make it more difficult or more dangerous for people to blow the whistle. Because of this, she sees education as a central tool for improving the safety and effectiveness of whistleblowing. “We need more skilled whistleblower attorneys and more quality information readily available to legislators, because the risk is that well intentioned laws will include disastrous provisions like requirements to report internally first or no mandatory minimum rewards or funds out of which those rewards can be paid.” By educating the general public and lawmakers, she believes that whistleblower advocates can further break the stigma against whistleblowers and avoid well meaning legislative disasters.
Nelson urged the international community to adopt Dodd-Frank Act-style whistleblower protections that would ensure the safety of whistleblowers around the world. The December 2021 European Union (EU) Directive deadline requiring all EU countries to overhaul their whistleblower laws is swiftly approaching, with somewhat mixed results. While Romania seemed at first to be on track to pass strong whistleblower protections, Nelson is worried that the final law will not have the kind of protections necessary to replicate the increased rate of whistleblowing seen in the U.S. “I fear that the debate will focus too much on local issues and ignore the empirical reality that DFA protections work to fight corruption.”
When asked about NWC’s current and future goals, Nelson addressed the issue of climate change and how whistleblowers can help solve the problem. She indicated that NWC is focusing on educating and protecting environmental whistleblowers, in the hopes of “safeguarding our future.” Nelson sees environmental whistleblowers as a method of enforcement that may help keep powerful corporations, tempted to exploit international natural resources, in line. “Companies must be required to report on the issues they claim to care about to attract investors and consumers who also care about those issues. Period.”
Under Nelson’s guidance, NWC will continue with its past agenda, and attack new problems facing whistleblowers with fresh vigor. Nelson described what she thinks sets NWC apart in a field of other anti-corruption and whistleblowing non-profit organizations: its single minded focus on whistleblower rights and issues. While other organizations may split their time between whistleblowing and other interests, NWC’s mission is solely oriented towards finding and promoting whistleblowers, wherever they may be. “Only organizations that devote all their resources to benefiting whistleblowers, like NWC, can expend the energy needed to make the massive impact we have and to identify major opportunities to protect whistleblowers like we did in 2019 and throughout 2020 when we engaged the SEC in an active discussion which meaningfully impacted the agency’s final rule.” With Nelson at the helm, NWC will surely be ready to move mountains for whistleblowers again and again.