While most whistleblower cases do not make headlines, some of them do because of the scope of wrongdoing found or the fame of the businesses or people involved. Whistleblower laws protecting people who report wrongdoing from retaliation are critical to ensuring that citizens concerned with truth and justice continue to come forward to expose unethical and illegal activity that harms the public. Here are some of the most famous whistleblowers who have effected positive change in the United States.
- Jeffrey Wigand
Jeffrey Wigand was the Vice President of research and development at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., the nation’s third-largest tobacco company. Given his position, Wigand had important access to the production goals and scientific data of the company. He was fired subsequent to arguments with the CEO about tobacco ingredients. Then, on February 4, 1996, he appeared on the show 60 Minutes and declared that Brown & Williamson had intentionally changed its tobacco blend to make their cigarettes more addictive, which was shocking at the time and concurrent with top tobacco executives testifying to Congress that cigarettes were not addictive. Moreover, Wigand alleged that he was fired because of this knowledge. Unfortunately, he was only punished further after actually exposing Big Tobacco, as he had to contend with a smear campaign, unfounded lawsuits, and ensuing family troubles, not to mention death threats. Wigand is now credited with being the most important witness in successful tobacco reform lawsuits and his story was portrayed in the film The Insider. Since blowing the whistle (or, as he prefers to see it, telling the truth), Wigand has been trying to reduce the number of young people using tobacco through his non-profit, Smoke-Free Kids, and seems pleased with the positive influence he has had on so many people.
- Sherron Watkins and Cynthia Cooper
Like Wigand, Sherron Watkins was a Vice President at a big company, Enron Corporation. She testified before the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate regarding her ignored warnings to Enron’s CEO at the time, Kenneth Lay, about accounting inconsistencies in financial statements and ultimately exposed serious corporate misconduct.
Similarly, Cynthia Cooper exposed significant corporate misconduct when she told the board of WorldCom that the company had covered up to $3.8 billion in losses by falsifying the bookkeeping. Both Watkins and Cooper paved the way for corporate law reform, including several laws regulating large corporations and bolstering protections for corporate whistleblowers. In recognition of their efforts and impact, Time magazine named them People of the Year in 2002.
- Colleen Rowley
Colleen Rowley was also awarded Person of the Year in 2002 for her actions exposing FBI mishandling of information regarding the 9/11 attacks. Rowley testified to the Senate about huge problems facing the FBI and intelligence community in general. Specifically, she brought to light how mishandled information and failure to take action regarding a suspected terrorist may have left the U.S. vulnerable to the 9/11 attacks the year before. Her testimony led to a major reorganization in the FBI. Since then, she has permanently retired from the FBI after 24 years of service, has run for political office, and has spoken publicly about ethical decision-making in her writing and blogging.
- Mark Felt AKA “Deep Throat”
Mark Felt, known for a long time as simply “Deep Throat” to maintain anonymity, was instrumental in unearthing the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon’s presidency crashing down. The scandal started when Felt was the Associate Director of the FBI with five men being arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Felt leaked classified information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that described how the Nixon Administration was involved and how they covered it up. This ultimately resulted in Nixon resigning. Felt’s identity remained secret for 30 years until his daughter convinced him to reveal his identity to the world when he was in his 90s. Felt published two memoirs, The FBI Pyramid and A G-Man’s Life. The FBI released his personnel file in 2012, several years after his death.
- Frank Serpico
Frank Serpico is famous for exposing pervasive, systematic police corruption within the NYPD (and for being played by Al Pacino in the 1973 film Serpico). Initially, Serpico reported internally to police investigators, but then reported to the New York Times. Following that, the mayor ordered an investigation of police corruption, which ultimately led to huge changes within the NYPD. Not long after the news of corruption broke, Serpico was shot in the face under suspicious circumstances that led some to believe his colleagues wanted him dead. There was never a formal investigation, however. Serpico later spoke about people who seek truth and justice “even in the face of great personal risk,” calling them “lamplighters” instead of whistleblowers. In 2017, he stood up for Colin Kaepernick, who was protesting a culture of police brutality, and said, “I am here to support anyone who has the courage to stand up against injustice and oppression anywhere in this country and the world.”
- Bannatyne “Bunny” Greenhouse
Bannatyne “Bunny” Greenhouse was a chief contracting officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She exposed fraud and abuse related to Kellogg Brown & Root’s self-dealing, as she strongly objected to the secret contract that would grant KBR a five-year no-bid contract, no-competition contract as the invasion of Iraq was about to begin. Her objection was ignored, and later Greenhouse agreed to testify before the Senate about the corrupt contracting environment. Right before she did, the Army Corps warned her against it, but she was undeterred and went on to discuss the abuse relating to the Restore Iraqi Oil contract awards. This testimony led to legislation prohibiting such abuse and the Army declared they would not award any more “Sweetheart Contracts to KBR.” The Army Corps then retaliated against Greenhouse by removing her from her position and taking away her top-secret security clearance, as well as giving her unwarranted negative performance reviews and taking other adverse employment actions. Greenhouse hired a wrongful termination lawyer and filed a lawsuit alleging racial and gender discrimination in addition to unlawful retaliation and eventually, in 2011, settled for $970,000 to cover lost wages, compensatory damages, and attorney’s fees. She hopes for better protections for federal worker whistleblowers, saying that “integrity in government is not an option, but an obligation.”
Evidently, sometimes exposing unethical or illegal behavior can be met with significant challenges, but it can also have a big impact on the world. Employees who are not sure about their protection under the law should contact an employment attorney to discuss the details of their situation. Moreover, those who have been retaliated against for protected activity should talk to an employment lawyer to figure out how they can get restitution.