Experts Explain How Whistleblowers Can Help Defeat International Wildlife Trafficking And Exploitation

Wildlife Whistleblowers

On September 8, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) held a webinar on the importance of protecting whistleblowers who report wildlife crimes. Whistleblower protection: A tool for stopping corruption that threatens the world’s forests, fisheries, and wildlife examined the legal options that potential international whistleblowers have when they witness fraud or corruption abroad and what organizations can do to improve those options.

Stephen M. Kohn, a partner at Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, discussed the current laws in this area. Kohn began by explaining the effective whistleblower rewards system of the 1980 Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) and showed how a U.S. law can be used to enforce global anti-pollution standards. The law requires that all ships that have contact with the U.S. keep accurate records of incidents of pollution for which they are responsible. Although the U.S. cannot enforce that these records are kept when the ship is not in U.S. jurisdiction, as soon as the vessel reaches U.S. waters, the records can be checked and the company fined for any illegal dumping or pollution. Importantly, whistleblowers on board the ships can report shoddy recordkeeping or unlogged dumping and receive up to 50% of the fine that the shipping company ends up paying. As the fines in question are usually in the millions of dollars, the reward money is often life-changing for international workers on these ships. 

Kohn then discussed how the APPS reward model can be used to prevent wildlife corruption and environmental destruction. “[APPS] is a model that can be duplicated, be it timber, be it banking, be it bribery, this is the model,” said Kohn. He emphasized that all U.S. qui tam rewards laws have international applications. In most cases, a company committing corruption or fraud only needs to be connected to the U.S. by publicly trading on the U.S. stock market or have a company in its supply chain publicly trading on the U.S. stock market to be liable. The implications of this are expansive. Kohn mentioned that the False Claims Act offers opportunities for non-U.S. citizens to disclose false claims made to the U.S. government and be rewarded 10 to 30% of the recouped money. 

John Kostyack, the Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center, further explained how current U.S. law can be used to protect wildlife worldwide: “If a whistleblower knows of efforts to mislead U.S. customs officials about a timber, seafood, or wildlife product and its origins, the U.S. Justice Department is likely going to be interested in that false claims case.” Regardless of where a person lives, the U.S. government may be interested in fraud or corruption that they can support with insider evidence. Kostyack also emphasized the importance of the size of the sanction against offending companies. He concluded by saying that the European Union’s (EU) mandate that all EU countries must update their whistleblower laws will hopefully increase the effectiveness of international wildlife protection and enforcement.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, the senior fellow at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institute spoke next. Felbab-Brown commented that the biggest obstacles for encouraging whistleblowers to step forward and use U.S. laws are lack of knowledge and fear of retaliation. She highlighted the need for anonymity and secrecy for whistleblowers who are reporting from countries that have high homicide rates and widespread corruption in their governments and police forces. She also mentioned the risk that many whistleblowers in these developing countries run of ostracization from their own communities. “Very frequently, local communities will participate in illegal logging.” While community members don’t usually participate on the scale of a large company, their participation makes it difficult for a member of the community to report the violations made by a company if the community is also implicated. 

Dr. Louise Shelley, executive director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, finished the discussion by concurring with the other panelists and emphasizing the need to link the people on the ground to the supply chains and larger companies. “Many of the cases that John and Steve mentioned require this integration and the idea of following the money,” Shelley said.

The panelists agreed that the laws are effective as they stand, but are not well known in the U.S. or the rest of the world. To take full advantage of these laws, people need to understand how they can safely blow the whistle and receive a reward for their disclosure. 

Watch the full seminar here.

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