Whistleblowers, Advocates, Government Officials Gather for National Whistleblower Day 2023

NWD 2023

The 10th annual celebration of National Whistleblower Day was hosted by the National Whistleblower Center on July 27. The event, which aims to recognize and uplift the voices of whistleblowers, took place in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center to an audience of nearly 200 guests. After two years of virtual meetings, whistleblowers and attendees praised the ability to be able to come together again in person.

Siri Nelson, the Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center, began the event by thanking Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Wyden (D-OR), both of whom have consistently sponsored the resolutions to support National Whistleblower Day (link). Nelson emphasized the unique importance of National Whistleblower Day as a rare event where most of the speakers are themselves whistleblowers. One of them was WNN‘s Jane Turner, who after successfully blowing the whistle on the FBI in the 1990s has worked extensively with the larger whistleblower community. At the event, Turner spoke about the emotional toll that whistleblowers take when they face resistance to doing what they believe is their duty: telling the truth.

Following the event, Turner spoke with WNN and said that “National Whistleblower Day hosted by the National Whistleblower Center is about more than just policy and information. It is about a family, a tribe of whistleblowers and their advocates who connect and assist one another. It is a time for a gathering of like minded individuals and associations to celebrate not only the history of whistleblowing, but also the People of Integrity that speak truth to power and change the world for the better. This year’s gathering was a huge success, and now we continue the push for a permanent Whistleblower Day in 2024. Join us in that effort at www.whistleblowersblog.org/nwdcampaign.”

Senator Grassley and Government Officials

At National Whistleblower Day, Turner moderated a question and answer section with Senator Grassley. The Q&A portion followed Senator Grassley’s speech where he emphatically championed whistleblowers’ cause: “For me, there’s no middle ground when it comes to whistleblowers. They must be protected and fought for. Full stop.” Senator Grassley added that “Whistleblowers risk their jobs, their livelihoods and reputations when they blow the whistle on government waste, fraud and abuse.” Senator Grassley’s speech came directly on the heels of his office announcing his introduction of two major pieces of whistleblower legislation: the False Claims Amendment Act and the CFTC Whistleblower Fund Improvement Act. In his Q&A Senator Grassley specifically commended the work of FBI whistleblower Fred Whitehurst who blew the whistle on the bureau’s crime lab which caused major reforms.

National Whistleblower Day was also joined by Office of Special Counsel attorney Rhoan Jones. In his capacity at the Office of Special Counsel, Jones works to protect federal government whistleblowers. He spoke to the importance of the MSPB’s quorum that was reached on March 1, 2022, as well as the value that the government recognizes whistleblowers bring.

The Whistleblowers

In addition to Turner and Whitehurst, an array of whistleblowers spoke from experience in diverse backgrounds including financial, government, startup, and contracting. The speakers included Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung who spoke about how startup culture contributed in her case to an unwillingness from executives to listen to her when she raised concerns about her company’s products. Just last year the former founder and leader of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, was found guilty of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud by lying to investors to raise money for her company.

Cheung was introduced by former Time Magazine Person of the Year Sherron Watkins. Watkins, who blew the whistle on Enron before its collapse, moderated a panel of speakers. Watkins spoke about life after whistleblowing and how she has become a part of the larger community of those with shared experiences. One of the whistleblowers who shared the cover of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year with Watkins in 2002, Cynthia Cooper, joined the following panel of whistleblowers to speak about her story. Cooper blew the whistle on $3.8 billion of fraud at the telecommunications company WorldCom. Fundamental to her story was that she believed “people need to know the truth.” She went on to highlight some of the challenges of whistleblowing, saying “there is life before you blow the whistle and life after. And you cannot go back.” Her journey, although painful, “fueled her passion for making a positive difference in the world.” She now uses her story to help today’s whistleblowers be more equipped for what they will face.

Dr. Toni Savage spoke just before the halfway point of the event and delivered an impassioned speech about her experience. When speaking about what she experienced at the moment she realized that her employer had turned against her she said “I found myself on that day like Job from the bible, questioning my very existence. Before my removal, however, the agency’s retaliation was swift and brutal.” Employees and coworkers of Savage’s later testified that they were warned to stay away from her by management. Investigations would go on to substantiate her claims of contracting fraud in the Army Corps Of Engineers. Savage highlighted the help she received from her attorney, partner at the law firm Kohn, Kohn, and Colapinto, Michael Kohn: “I am forever grateful to Michael for never giving up in the face of insurmountable odds. Michael believed in me and my case from the beginning.” She was met with applause from the audience as she added that “We are standing here today as a beacon of hope to others who might be facing whistleblower retaliation.”

The final panel of whistleblowers continued with themes of advice for future whistleblowers mixed with stories of success and frustration. Jennifer Griffith and Sarah Carver, whistleblowers from the Social Security Administration, spoke about their experience uncovering a half billion dollar web of fraud centered around attorney Eric Conn. Carver talked about how they “didn’t go to the media until they had gone to every single level of management all the way up to the acting commissioner of Social Security” with their shocking revelations. For Carver and Griffith, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal was the only person they felt they could turn to who would take action with their information. Babak Babakinejad followed by telling his story being in charge of an academic research lab for MIT and witnessing a large-scale fraud. He realized after futile attempts to report internally that he had no clear channel with which to take his information. Their stories highlighted many of the legal gaps that still exist for whistleblowers trying to expose fraud and wrongdoing

National Whistleblower Day’s speakers concluded with Washington D.C., public school system whistleblower Marlon Ray. Ray himself secured a proclamation from D.C.’s mayor Muriel Bowser designating July 30th as National Whistleblower Day. Ray was quick to avoid giving Mayor Bowser too much credit for her support of whistleblowers, saying that her “actions do not align with the words spoken.” Ray emphasized his point by quoting from James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass to the effect of calling out hollow celebrations. While working at Boone Elementary in Southeast D.C., Ray spoke about facing retaliation as a whistleblower. His and his colleagues’ claims stemmed from “doing our core legal responsibilities as mandated reporters. Reporting harm done to children.” Ray drew the crowd’s attention to the fact that when teachers face “fear of retaliation” then children and families suffer. His local perspective offered one of the many unique insights that National Whistleblower Day provided.

Siri Nelson celebrated the ability of whistleblowers to tell their stories and told WNN that “NWC was honored to celebrate whistleblowers who joined us from far and wide for our 10th Anniversary celebration. It was an incredible day on Capitol Hill and in Georgetown!”

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