Jeff Morris was born in Sydney, Australia to a father who worked in the banking industry, and from his parents Morris inherited a sense of “fair play and doing the right thing.” He had a middle class upbringing in the suburbs, and he considers himself “lucky” that he went to a “good school where the teachers were very good.” His headmaster had been a bomber pilot in WW2 and drove a vintage Rolls Royce to school. Morris felt that the headmaster set a certain standard for behavior, and at Morris’ twenty year reunion, some of the teachers were still afraid of the headmaster. Morris stated that in his opinion, today he sees a “sickness pervading institutions in (our) country and around the world where people are prepared to compromise their integrity to get ahead. That comes back to the materialism that is a scourge on society.”
Morris feels that the “values that are inculcated in you as a kid, you carry into adulthood. The boy becomes the man.” His father worked for forty-two years in one bank (there are four major banks in Australia) and told his son that he did not care what his son did, as long as he did not work for a bank. His father felt that his long career in banking had been a waste of a life.
Morris studied Economics and Law at the University of Sydney and got his certification as a Certified Financial Planner. He spent nearly 30 years working in financial services including NatWest Bank, Deloitte & Touche, Towers Perrin, and Bankers Trust. Morris noted that he was an “insider” at those banks at a very senior level, and people at that level in banking normally turn a blind eye to corruption and they “keep clipping the coupon until retirement.” But during his entire time in the banking industry, Morris stated that he never saw anything as corrupt and dishonest as he saw “literally right under” his nose at Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). He had never seen a senior management team in banking try to cover up and lie to their customers, and lie to the regulators as he did when working at CBA.
In Australia, it is common knowledge that the financial services regulator, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC), was “worse than useless.” Morris was still shocked to find out how completely useless they were when he uncovered problems at CBA, the largest listed company in Australia. There are four major banks (known as the Four Pillars) in Australia, and Morris uncovered similar problems at all four; CBA, Westpac, National Australia and ANZ.
In 2008, Morris joined CBA in their Financial Planning department and almost immediately saw a bank where a “culture of bonuses” led the bank to chasing sales at the expense of everything else. Junior staff and mid-level staff would raise concerns but they went unheeded by senior management. The bank system was designed to encourage bank staff to do whatever they had to do to make bonuses. If people raised any questions about what was happening in Financial Planning, they were told to “keep their mouths shut.”
The CBA customers were not given any transparency around bank products or pricing. Households and businesses were paying for low-value products and forced to pay unnecessary fees. There was a widespread practice of charging fees where no advice was provided. CBA charged fees to dead clients, and charged fees for services not delivered.
Morris discovered that Foreign Currency Loans marketed by CBA were presented to unsophisticated borrowers such as farmers, for whom they would be totally unsuitable. When things went wrong, the banks went to war with their customers, using the legal system to take their farms.
Morris found the legal system was used by the banks in their battles with the customer, when obviously the resources or funds available to each side were “hopelessly disproportionate as to preclude any possibility of a fair contest.” The bank completely deprived bank victims of any funds by “selling them up,” which is prolonging the process, and stripping customers of assets. In rare cases where victims had funds, the bank would “engage in deliberate attrition warfare long before the substantive hearing was reached, running the victims out of funds and their lawyers out of time.”
Morris stated that when he worked at CBA Financial Planning, the staff “was expected to lie to clients to make their complaints go away.” The CBA falsified documents that enabled them to seize homes, and trust assets. One of the chief receivers at CBA notified a customer that “assholes like me should not exist, and that he planned to crush (the customer) into the ground.” Asset stripping of customers was egregious and profound.
The ASIC Chairman, James Shipton, noted after the fact, “Unfortunately all too often the firms who have failed in their first line responsibilities have made matters worse by not cooperating with us, and in some unacceptable cases, actually obstructed our work. These firms have not just failed in their first line compliance duty, they have jeopardized the entire regulatory structure. Obstructions cannot stand and if the regulatory structure loses its integrity, our financial system is undermined.” Morris noted that ASIC negotiated enforceable undertakings rather than taking court action to seek larger penalties. ASIC was a “toothless regulatory lion.”
The trouble started when banks started getting into wealth management and investing (IRA or 401Ks) but the banks did “not know what they were doing.” It did not bother them that they did not know what they were doing as long “as they kept making money on it.” The banks literally “threw their customers to the wolves.” The bank staff were salesmen masquerading as investment advisors. The banks “set up a reward system for people who pushed inappropriate products on their customers.”
“As Warren Buffet said, as the tide goes out you get to see who has been swimming naked,” Morris stated, “and I saw people whose portfolios just vaporized, and I saw the most reckless and incompetent advice that you could imagine given to unsophisticated people who then put into very risky investments with borrowing to invest which of course, magnifies the losses.”
The moment for Morris when he realized he had to act was when he had an elderly couple who broke down in his office with what had been done to their retirement portfolio. Morris then saw managers at the bank lie to this elderly couple, and he realized there were a lot of people doing the same thing and the management team was willing to cover it up.
In 2008, Morris told his wife that a lot of vulnerable people at his work were going to lose a lot of money if he did not do something about the corruption. Morris’s wife was a very sophisticated and well-educated woman, with four degrees including three law degrees (one from Harvard Law School). His wife just stared at him and said, “You’re going to take on the Commonwealth Bank? Are you insane? They will destroy you and then what happens to the kids and me?”
Morris’ children were five and three in 2008 and at that time in Australia, whistleblower laws were nonexistent, and it was like the age-old battle of David and Goliath. ASIC had a mandate for consumer protection in a regulatory role for banking which gave customers the idea that there was some protection, which there was not. “ASIC has not done anything for decades,” according to Morris.
Morris blew the whistle to ASIC in 2008 and spent the next five years trying to get ASIC to do their job. During those five years Morris remained at CBA in a highly stressful situation. Morris felt “like Serpico, feeling like I was going to get shot by my own side.” He received a death threat and his wife left him, taking their two children. A psychiatrist diagnosed Morris with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and although Morris kept providing ASIC with information concerning CBA and the continuation of a cover up, the lying to customers and purging of bank documents, ASIC did nothing substantial, and Group Security at CBA started a campaign trying to ferret out bank whistleblowers. Morris had enough and left his high paying job at CBA in February 2013.
Morris decided that he would pursue action against CBA and ASIC for a period of five years. He set a goal of getting a “Parliamentary Inquiry into CBA and ASIC within two to three years and a Royal Commission within five years.” He was astute enough to realize that he did not want his whistleblowing to turn into an obsession.
In June 2013, Morris went public, blowing the whistle not only on the bank but also on ASIC. A journalist, Adele Ferguson, broke the story and Morris persuaded Senator John Williams to ask for a Parliamentary Inquiry which was called in June of 2013. A year later CBA admitted they had “inadvertently mislead both ASIC and the Inquiry” which they labeled as “accidental.” ASIC, according to Morris, presented a “performance” at the Inquiry which revealed they “had a vested interest in downplaying what had occurred on their watch.” Morris noted that a former head of ASIC had stated that Australia was a paradise for white collar crime.
The report of the Inquiry was “scathing of CBA and ASIC, in fact (it) recommended a Royal Commission into CBA.” A Royal Commission is utilized in the United Kingdom (UK), Australia and other Commonwealth countries, and ensures an independent inquiry with “pretty much unfettered powers.” A Royal Commission can compel testimony and require the production of evidence.
Morris noted that customers of banks in Australia usually are attached to their bank for life, as the bank provides money boxes to children to invest their coins at a very early age. People could not believe that banks would betray them like they did. It was “all about greed, collective insanity,” according to Morris. Banks lost sight of the fact that banking is primarily about “probity, prudence and trust. Instead they turned it into a cheap marketing factory for harvesting customers for profit.”
In December 2017, following revelations in the media and the Parliamentary Inquiry, a “Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry” was established. The Royal Commission exposed not only the uselessness of ASIC, the banking regulatory institution, but also exposed the culture of greed within several Australian financial institutions (including CBA), money laundering, terrorism financing, lack of statutory reporting responsibilities, impropriety in foreign exchange trading and lack of oversight by the Boards that oversaw senior management at banks.
Morris was totally vindicated after the Royal Commission found in his favor, and the banking industry was exposed. The Australian Government did try to “divert the Royal Commission because they were afraid the results would shake confidence in the banking industry” but ultimately, ten billion dollars was paid out by the banks for compensation to the bank victims.
One of the interesting things about being a whistleblower, according to Morris, is that whistleblowing is a “family affair.” Every whistleblower Morris has talked to in Australia has suffered from PTSD. “You lose your career, you lose your family and you get diagnosed with PTSD, it is three for three in every case.”
Morris’ wife did return with his children, but Morris noted they suffered financially. CBA has retaliated against Morris not only after he blew the whistle, but much later when Morris tried to develop a business, which CBA successfully “torpedoed.” Morris’s wife noted afterwards that she never really understood the magnitude of the evil that Morris felt he had to confront, but she did after he blew the whistle.
Morris stated that he always felt he would make it up to his family when it was all over, but sadly, “you don’t always get that chance.” Morris got the Royal Commission but his wife was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, and died right before the Royal Commission was called. His wife was only 51, and Morris feels that the stress his wife suffered over his whistleblowing may have caused the cancer.
Morris is a military history buff, and he led his whistleblower case “like a military campaign.” He found a Senator that supported him, and was led to a journalist who wrote award winning articles regarding his whistleblowing and banking corruption.
Morris felt strongly that his whistleblowing regarding the banks had to be done, and he knew that with his background and banking history, there probably “would not be anyone else who would be able to accomplish what I set out to do.” His life up to his whistleblowing “prepared him to do what had to be done, I knew the banking industry and was an insider. “Morris noted that “he had a duty to act.”
In Australia, according to Morris, “if you go to court, you will get destroyed.” Australia is a “long way behind the United States as we have no whistleblower protection.” Morris currently speaks to whistleblowers and gives them the honest story, that they probably will lose their career, lose their family and find no compensation at the end in Australia. A whistleblower will “probably not succeed and it will all for nothing.” Like Churchill said, “A man does what he must regardless of the consequences and that is the basis of human morality.” Morris estimates that ninety nine out of a hundred people make “the rational choice” not to be a whistleblower. One or two people out of a hundred that Morris speaks to will go ahead with whistleblowing. Morris is seen as a very rare example of a whistleblower who was successful, he got his Royal Commission.
Morris feels it is important a whistleblower sets a timetable for themselves. He had told his wife that if he did not find success after five years, he would drop the matter. Morris stated that it is not good to obsess over your whistleblowing. Morris currently counsels whistleblowers and has a website, www.jeffmorris.com.au.
He campaigns for whistleblower laws and is disappointed that although his case has been highlighted in the press, the federal government gave lip service to heightening whistleblower protection, with no real progress. Morris supports Whistleblower Australia.
Morris feels that a whistleblower has to find both a politician and reporter to successfully pursue a whistleblower case. “It is an unreasonable expectation,” says Morris, “that people should lose everything to do the right thing.”
Currently there are Australian whistleblowers who are being persecuted for blowing the whistle. One whistleblower presented evidence of war crimes, another blew the whistle on Australia’s taxation office. Morris stated that “when your own government is persecuting whistleblowers.. prosecuting them.. it is absurd to talk about whistleblower protections.”
Morris stated that whistleblowing has changed him permanently. He is still being treated for PTSD, but he knows that he has “done what I know I needed to do.”
Listen to a Whistleblower of the Week podcast episode featuring Morris here.
See a short interview with Jeff Morris, along with 29 other amazing whistleblowers, in “Whistleblower Voices,” our video series in commemoration of National Whistleblower Day 2022!