It was my first encounter with a real-life whistleblower, a man I'll call Roger. He had read my Mother Jones reporting in 2009 on the subprime mortgage crisis -- so he told me in an early email exchange -- and wanted to discuss some documents that had come into his possession. "This is a huge story, Andrew, and you're gonna blow it open." He always called me Andrew. (My parents don't call me Andrew.)
Half a dozen emails and phone calls later, I was sitting shotgun in Roger's car as we zipped through leafy suburban Maryland, and later holed up in his apartment. It was unnervingly clean, like the model unit that no one lives in. Instead of the usual socks and pants and shirts, his dressers overflowed with papers and cassette tapes. I spent hours riffling through those papers while picking at fried chicken and guzzling bottles of iced tea. Roger never ran out of iced tea.
He could be difficult and exhausting. He called at odd times and talked for hours. He described conspiracies against him, the mounting legal bills he'd incurred for taking on The Man. He also had a big heart, and his documents and his contacts helped me write one of my biggest stories.
Journalists wouldn't be able to do their jobs without whistleblowers. Theirs is the lone voice emerging from the din, the one that tips us off, gets us started, delivers the key documents, provides an insider's view of an otherwise unknown world.
Whistleblowers and those who act against the injustices of a system from the inside don't have to be perfect souls (and they rarely are) for us to celebrate them -- as Eyal Press makes clear. In his moving (and well reviewed) new book, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, he paints remarkable portraits of four people -- a Swiss police captain who saves Jewish refugees against orders, a Serb who defies his superiors to save Croats, an elite Israeli soldier who refuses to serve in the occupied territories, and a corporate whistleblower named Leyla Wydler who captures the strangeness of whistleblowing here in the U.S. in a moment when, it seems, celebration isn't the first thing on official Washington's mind. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Press discusses the treatment of American whistleblowers, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Andy Kroll
Why No One Would Listen
Corporate Whistleblowers Get the Silent Treatment From Washington
By Eyal Press
What's worse: to be persecuted and indicted for trying to expose an act of wrongdoing -- or to be ignored for doing so?
Whistleblowers have been under intense scrutiny in Washington lately, at least when it comes to the national security state. In recent years, the Obama administration has set a record by accusing no fewer than six government employees, who allegedly leaked classified information to reporters, of violating the Espionage Act, a draconian law dating back to 1917. Yet when it comes to workers who have risked their careers to expose misconduct in the corporate and financial arena, a different pattern has long prevailed. Here, the problem hasn't been an excess of attention from government officials eager to chill dissent, but a dearth of attention that has often left whistleblowers feeling no less isolated and discouraged.
Consider the case of Leyla Wydler, a broker who, back in 2003, sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about her former employer, the Stanford Financial Group. A year earlier, it had fired her for refusing to sell certificates of deposit that she rightly suspected were being misleadingly advertised to investors. The company, Wydler warned in her letter, "is the subject of a lingering corporate fraud scandal perpetrated as a "massive Ponzi scheme' that will destroy the life savings of many, damage the reputation of all associated parties, ridicule securities and banking authorities, and shame the United States of America."
It was a letter that should have woken the dead and, as it happened, couldn't have been more on target. Wydler didn't stop with the SEC either. She also sent copies to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), the trade group responsible for enforcing regulations throughout the industry, as well as various newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. No one responded. No one at all.
In the fall of 2004, Wydler called the examination branch of the SEC's Fort Worth District Office to relay her concerns. A staff person did hear her out, but once again nothing happened. More than four years later, as the aftershocks of the global financial meltdown continued to play out, the news finally broke that Stanford had orchestrated a $7 billion Ponzi scheme which cost thousands of defrauded investors their savings.
Making Law for Wall Street
Wydler might have preferred the attention of the Espionage Act to the dead silence that greeted her efforts, and she was hardly alone. As with her, so with Eileen Foster, a former senior executive at Countrywide Financial who, in 2007, uncovered evidence of massive fraud -- forged bank statements, bogus property appraisals -- perpetrated by a company that played a major role in the subprime crisis that eventually caused the U.S. and global economies to implode. No one listened to her then and no one -- in the government at least -- seems to care now, either.
Interviewed recently on 60 Minutes, Foster said she would still be willing to provide the names of people at Countrywide who belong in jail, if she were summoned to testify before a grand jury. She may never get the opportunity. As 60 Minutes reported, a Justice Department that has gone to such extraordinary lengths to prosecute national security whistleblowers has made no effort to contact her.
The experiences of corporate whistleblowers like Foster and Wydler underscore a truth highlighted by legal scholar Cass Sunstein in his book Why Societies Need Dissent. The voices of dissidents who have the courage to bring uncomfortable news to light -- information that can prevent disastrous economic or other blunders from happening -- matter only to the extent that anyone pays attention to them.
"A legal system that is committed to free speech forbids government from silencing dissenters," observed Sunstein. "That is an extraordinary accomplishment." But as he went on to note, the formal existence of this right hardly ensures that individuals who exercise it in situations that cry out for opposition have an impact. "Even in democracies, disparities in power play a large role in silencing dissent -- sometimes by ensuring that dissenters keep quiet, but more insidiously by ensuring that dissenters are not really heard."