How Whistleblowers Changed the World

The stories of incredible whistleblowers who stepped forward and made an impact

Over the years, the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) has had the pleasure to work with some incredible whistleblowers, from courageous Swiss bankers who exposed massive tax evasion at Swiss banks, to scientists exposing forensic fraud at the FBI, to Army officers reporting on millions in contracting fraud, to an Enron Vice President who helped expose corporate misconduct.

Below are the stories of a few of the whistleblowers whose disclosures have had an impact across their entire industry. These brave people prove that whistleblowers truly can change the world.

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Bradley Birkenfeld

Bradley “Brad” Birkenfeld was the first international banker to blow the whistle on secret Swiss bank accounts and had an industry changing impact. His disclosures resulted in unprecedented recoveries for U.S. taxpayers, with over $780 million dollars in civil fines and penalties paid by UBS and over $5 billion dollars in collections from U.S. taxpayers who had illegally held “undeclared” offshore accounts in Switzerland and other countries.

As a result of his whistleblowing, these secret accounts are no longer available for corrupt US taxpayers to hide their earnings, and the Swiss government was ultimately forced to change its treaty with the United States in order to turn over the names of nearly five thousand Americans who held illegal offshore accounts.

He received a reward of $104 million under the IRS Whistleblower Program for his invaluable assistance with the case, the largest whistleblower reward ever given. His reward has helped to drive massive growth in prosecutions of securities, commodities and tax fraud by demonstrating to both whistleblowers and prosecutors the critical role of this economic incentive to motivate high-level executives to take the substantial risk of exposing crime.

At NWC’s National Whistleblower Day 2017 celebration, Birkenfeld shared his whistleblowing story with an audience of whistleblowers and their advocates and returned to National Whistleblower Day in 2019 to introduce Baroness Susan Kramer, a former member of the UK Parliament and staunch supporter of whistleblower rights.

Bunnatine “Bunny” Greenhouse

Bunnatine “Bunny” Greenhouse served as the highest-ranking civilian-contracting official at the Army Corps of Engineers when she blew the whistle on a highly improper $7 billion no-bid contract to Halliburton for the repair of Iraqi oil fields following the 2003 U.S. invasion.

After Greenhouse discovered Department of Defense (DoD) officials illegally steering contracts to Halliburton, she raised concerns, citing the law protecting taxpayers from such fraud. The Inspector General of the DoD investigated Greenhouse’s allegations, while she additionally provided assistance to the FBI in its criminal investigation into Halliburton and the DoD. Her allegations offer the first extended account into discussions inside the military bureaucracy regarding contracts with Halliburton and its subsidiaries.

After a long and contentious legal battle, the Army Corps of Engineers settled the case and provided Greenhouse with full compensation for the damages she suffered, and the legal costs associated with the case.

Before her case settled, Greenhouse testified before Congress about her experience as a whistleblower, stressing the importance of protecting whistleblowers and their ability to protect the American people against fraud. Greenhouse’s disclosures resulted in major reforms prohibiting no-bid contracts. In 2019, CBS News featured her story.

Dr. Tommie “Toni” Savage

Dr. Tommie “Toni” Savage was a highly respected contracting officer at the Army Corps of Engineers who blew the whistle on a pattern and practice of illegal contracting activity at the Army Corps of Engineer’s Huntsville, Alabama Support Center. In 2006, she reported her concerns that this activity resulted in millions of dollars of contracting fraud in the Army’s “Ranges Program.”

After her disclosure, Dr. Savage experienced heavy retaliation as she was removed from her position, denied performance awards, subjected to harmful gossip, faced hostility by the Huntsville Command, and endured insensitive and racist statements. As a result, the hostility she faced at work caused her serious and documented psychological injury, culminating in an inability to work and her subsequent termination in 2009.

After taking her whistleblower retaliation case to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the MSPB concluded that a hostile work environment alone is a sufficient basis to receive protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act, setting precedent for future whistleblowers and their disclosures.

In 2017, Dr. Savage spoke at NWC’s National Whistleblower Day celebration to tell her story of blowing the whistle on the rampant fraud at Huntsville Command.

Sherron Watkins                                                                    

Sherron Watkins is the former Enron Vice President who wrote a now infamous memo in the summer of 2001 to then-CEO Kenneth Lay warning him about improper accounting methods.

At the time, Enron was one of the largest corporations in the U.S. and a giant in the energy-trading and utilities field. Fortune had named it “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years. However, Watkins’ memo revealed that the company’s finances were sustained by systemic accounting fraud and corruption.

Enron was forced to declare bankruptcy in late 2001, and she was called to testify before both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate about the accounting irregularities that she had found in the financial statements.

As news broke publicly about the memo in early 2002, it came to light that that the company had sought legal advice about firing her almost immediately after her initial meeting with Lay.

She maintains that she is the “only whistleblower in any kind of modern history that has a positive story” because Enron imploded before the company had time to pursue its retaliatory plans. For her whistleblowing, she was named one of Time’s Persons of the Year in 2002.

Her story also had far reaching policy implications. It highlighted the glaring lack of protection for Wall Street whistleblowers and became one of the driving forces of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) reforms. SOX ultimately laid the groundwork for Dodd-Frank years later, one of the most important whistleblower laws in recent U.S. history.

To share her experiences blowing the whistle, Watkins spoke at National Whistleblower Day in both 2017 and 2019, telling her story and discussing the critical need for whistleblowers and their protection.

Dr. Frederic Whitehurst

 Dr. Frederic Whitehurst blew the whistle on the systemic forensic fraud in the FBI crime lab. In 1994, he reported his concerns with FBI lab practices internally – concerns that included, alterations of reports, alterations of evidence, and inexpert testimony. Some of the cases he reported included the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the O.J. Simpson murder case.

After his superiors failed to take any action, he took his concerns to the Department of Justice. Whitehurst faced significant and ongoing retaliation from the FBI, who highly criticized his claims, attacked his credibility, and fired him from his position at the FBI crime lab as chemist and lab supervisor.

Eventually, investigations were launched into Whitehurst’s allegations but it wasn’t until ten years later that a scathing 500+ page study of the lab by the Justice Department Inspector General, Michael Bromwich, concluded major reforms were required in the lab and vindicated Whitehurst.

As a result, the FBI agreed to unprecedented reforms. These included outside accreditation of its crime lab, the appointment of an objective and independent scientist to oversee lab operations, and the removal of various lab officials who had engaged in misconduct. The FBI pledged to review all cases potentially affected by the lab’s flawed forensic science.

While Dr. Whitehurst received $1.16 million as settlement from the FBI in 1998, he continued to investigate and research FBI misconduct in cases that used hair analysis. He discovered the Justice Department had failed to keep its promise to review the potentially affected cases and to notify the adversely affected defendants.

In 2012 the Washington Post published an extensive review of the FBI and DOJ failures to properly review the cases impacted by the FBI lab scandal, based on Whitehurst’s research. As a result, the DOJ agreed to conduct yet another review of hair cases in collaboration with the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

At National Whistleblower Day 2018, Dr. Whitehurst spoke about his experiences blowing the whistle on the FBI, and why we need whistleblowers.

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