What happens when whistleblowers lose their identity? Identity is a grouping of attributes, qualities, and values that define how we view ourselves and how we think other people see us. So, for law enforcement, medical professionals, bankers, accountants, lawyers, politicians, white-collar workers, and blue-collar workers, identity is formed from the career they choose and the roles they undertake. When you blow the whistle because your sense of integrity allows no other choice, and the need to protect the public becomes paramount, it can result in the loss of your job and identity. This loss can result in generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, isolation, loss of self-confidence, loss of value or self-worth, and crippling depression.
And then you have Michael McCray, who lost his old identity but used the experience to forge a new identity, a better identity. He found, “Most whistleblowers focus on individual relief, which is important (I want relief too). But by only focusing on their relief, most whistleblowers limit themselves.” McCray states, “I embrace servant leadership. I understand that the best way to help yourself is to help others. That’s why we focus on advocacy. How does the whistleblower community help others or society?”
McCray was born in Monticello, Arkansas, but he settled with his family in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, after a few months. His dad was a “brilliant” professor with a love of statistics, math, and science. He was an “upright character” who expected excellence in his son. McCray’s mother had a Ph.D. in Tax and Housing, which is the cornerstone of redevelopment. McCray learned a lot about housing development and community development from his mother. His mother also became a Dean of Agriculture at the local university. She exposed her son “to a structured system of how grants worked, and how public policy was supposed to operate.” McCray’s parents were essential to him, and he worked hard to be the best in all things, including sports in high school.
McCray got his undergraduate education at Florida A&M and was pursuing a degree in Finance and Investment, but he said, “A funny thing happened on my way to Wall Street. My Governor became President (Clinton).” McCray’s family had ties with the Clinton family, and McCray said he had “one degree of separation from the Clintons.” McCray graduated in Economics with a minor in Accounting. McCray applied to Georgetown and was accepted in 1991. McCray was involved in the Clinton campaign as a student organizer while attending Georgetown law school.
While attending law school at night, McCray worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the day on a White House initiative. The Clinton administration decided on a new initiative to renew more impoverished areas. They were called empowerment zones, with the concept of empowering the locals. McCray was responsible for grants ranging from $3 to 40 million dollars for these empowerment zones and processed applications for the grants. McCray discovered a grant that was “not worthy,” meaning it lacked detail, had little community participation, and was disorganized but was eventually chosen for the most funds and support in empowerment zones, eventually totaling $40 million.
Michael McCray blew the whistle on the $40 million grant, which was used in a web of waste, fraud, and conflicts of interests. McCray notified the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and copied the President’s Commission on Race. The OIG discarded the complaint without conducting an investigation, and McCray stated, “the sky fell in.” At one point, McCray said that his supervisor told him, you are “not to reason why, you are to do or die,” which McCray felt may have been a threat. His performance standards were not reflecting his work, he became “a pariah in the office,” his co-workers would not work with him, and promotions were revoked. McCray was eventually constructively discharged and blackballed.
In pursuing his Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint, McCray subsequently engaged in judicial reform efforts by filing a judicial complaint that contributed to the early retirement of disgraced Federal District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson (U.S. vs. Microsoft).
McCray left Washington D.C. and became General Counsel for a small boutique hotel company in Georgia, where he became familiar with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). He “wound up getting on the Board of ACORN” and met Marcel Reid, a fellow member of ACORN, who described ACORN as “the voice for hundreds of thousands of otherwise disenfranchised people.” ACORN was founded by Wade Rathke and Gary Delgado in 1970 and grew to more than 500,000 member families. By 2008, ACORN organized 1,200 neighborhood chapters in 103 cities across the U.S. and cities in other countries.
In 2008, Dale Rathke, the brother of ACORN’s founder, Wade Rathke, was found to have embezzled almost a million dollars from ACORN. ACORN executives handled it as an internal matter and did not inform most board members or law enforcement. Marcel Reid, knowing that McCray was a former whistleblower and an accountant, asked McCray to join an inside group formed from ACORN’s national board. McCray joined as the National Spokesman for the group known as the ACORN 8, a watchdog organization dedicated to seeking truth, transparency, and accountability within ACORN. The ACORN 8 requested to see ACORN’s books, but that resulted in attempts to silence the ACORN 8. The ACORN 8 persevered and in 2009 filed criminal, civil rights, and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) complaints in fifteen states and the District of Columbia, which is detailed in a Justice Department complaint.
ACORN also suffered a damaging nationwide controversy after James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles secretly recorded, edited, and released videos of interactions with low-level ACORN personnel, portraying the personnel as encouraging criminal behavior.
Due to the embezzlement and clandestine recordings by O’Keefe, ACORN suffered an immediate loss of funding from government agencies and private donors. By March of 2010, ACORN closed many of its state chapters and disbanded. In November 2010, ACORN filed for Chapter 7 liquidation, and the organization was effectively closed.
McCray wrote a book titled Race, Power & Politics: Memoirs of an ACORN Whistleblower, which detailed the corruption and deceit within ACORN and details of McCray’s second whistleblower matter.
McCray stated that as a two-time whistleblower, he has discovered that “justice can be found more in journalism than in the courts.” As a community organizer, he could “organize the most unlikely community of all, whistleblowers.” McCray stated that he “found his tribe,” the whistleblowers group who attended the first Whistleblower Day in 2007.
In 2011, McCray and Reid got the Arkansas State Assembly to recognize National Whistleblower Day in Arkansas and then decided to make it a national campaign. While McCray lives in Arkansas, Reid lives in Washington, D.C.; they operate smoothly, with McCray referring to the two of them as “the dynamic duo.” In 2012, McCray and Reid, using the ideals of the ACORN 8, established the Whistleblower Summit, which was self-funded.
The Whistleblower Summit consists of all the activities during the week around National Whistleblower Appreciation Day in Washington, D.C., held on July 30th of every year. National Whistleblower Day is an annual recognition of whistleblowers whose actions have protected the public from fraud or malfeasance. The resolution was first passed in 2013 by the U.S. Senate, led by Senator Chuck Grassley.
McCray and Reid “made the genius idea that people may not like whistleblowers, but they like whistleblower movies.” They decided to embrace the culture, adding the film festival to the Whistleblower Summit.
They also decided to embrace the 1st Amendment, the journalism aspect of whistleblowing. They decided to find documentaries highlighting aspects of whistleblowing. As organizers by nature, McCray and Reid had the same philosophy: “the event takes on the character of the host, which is building and maintaining relationships.”
McCray stated he has found that “whistleblowers who had status, who lose status and have no idea how to deal with it, do not have the coping skills nor framework to handle that loss of status, it is mind-blowing for them because they have always been on top.” McCray stated that the Whistleblower Summit could be a buffer for whistleblowers and outside entities. In 2019, the Summit was officially labeled The Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival.
Organizers partner with a wide assortment of interested people plus community organizers with the intent of broader support. McCray stated it is a labor of love to work on the Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival. Hopefully, in the future, it will progress enough that McCray and Reid will not have to fund the venture out of their personal funds.
Every year, the Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival tries to incorporate something new. McCray hopes the Summit will become bigger and better and said that once he “decided that advocating for whistleblowers was the hill he wanted to die on,” he used his skills to magnify the incredible stories of whistleblowers. He feels that once you have blown the whistle, it can be shattering since you probably have also lost your career and, with it, your identity; however, if talents can be re-directed, a whistleblower can survive.
From an initial group at the first Whistleblower Summit of a couple of hundred people, the Summit has grown to an attendance of seven or eight hundred. Many of the attendees are whistleblowers and federal employees. McCray and Reid are considering extending the Summit to two weeks because of the growth. Various locations in Washington, D.C., are utilized to host the Summit. McCray has developed relationships over the years that have resulted in a dozen entities assisting.
McCray has not had a successful resolution of his whistleblowing cases. Still, he has found his labor of love in establishing the Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival. His perspective on life did not allow him to be a whistleblower victim, but rather a whistleblower advocate. It is a role that fits him like a fine leather glove, and he hopes to assist others in finding a new identity, a new role in a world the whistleblower finds shattered at their feet.
Support the Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival via its fundraising page.
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