Whistleblowers are our lifeline

Nick Younger, Communications Associate

Published on January 13, 2021

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The National Whistleblower Center (NWC) begins 2021 with a new video celebrating whistleblowers around the world and reaffirming its commitment to protecting those who expose wrongdoing for all of our benefit. Without whistleblowers, fraud, bribery, environmental destruction and other illegal activities would destroy lives and go largely unpunished or even undiscovered.

The video kicks off with a tribute to three brave whistleblowers:

1. Howard Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a former Danske Bank employee, confidentially brought forth concerns regarding an illegal money laundering scheme in Estonia through Danske Bank. Wilkinson’s disclosures revealed the existence of a $234 billion laundering enterprise, one of the largest money laundering schemes in history. Now the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), IRS, and Department of Justice, as well as European law enforcement, are investigating this scandal. Unfortunately, Wilkinson’s anonymity was short-lived as an Estonian newspaper leaked his name shortly after news broke of the scandal.

“Mr. Wilkinson is an international hero. He risked his career and livelihood to stop this massive money-laundering operation and to hold banks accountable,” NWC’s co-founder and Wilkinson’s chief counsel Stephen M. Kohn said. Wilkinson stepped forward when he saw wrongdoing and deserves to be protected. Confidentiality is a critical aspect for the protection of whistleblowers, as retaliation cannot occur if the whistleblower’s identity is unknown. NWC fights to create and strengthen whistleblower channels for whistleblowers around the world, like Wilkinson, to report fraud, and fights for whistleblowers’ right to remain anonymous when reporting in order to minimize such risks to life and career.

2. An Anonymous Chevron Whistleblower. In 2011, an anonymous whistleblower from Chevron (formerly Texaco) provided videos to Amazon Watch, a nonprofit founded to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, documenting dangerous toxic oil waste pits in the Ecuadorian Amazon, revealing that Chevron had been failing to abide by a court order to clean them up. Chevron had been sued by Ecuadorian residents in 1993 over Chevron’s contamination of the Amazon Rainforest through unlined toxic oil waste pits and the illegal dumping of toxic wastewater that endangered the local people in the Oriente region of Ecuador and the rainforest itself, culminating in a 2011 court order to clean up the pits. The Ecuador disaster is considered one of the world’s largest oil-related catastrophes with 16 billion gallons of toxic waste dumped and 17 million gallons of crude oil spilled. From this contamination, local indigenous communities and campesino farmers suffer from mouth, stomach and uterine cancer, birth defects and miscarriages; the land still being poisoned by the waste. The whistleblower’s outing of Chevron aided the court in finding the company guilty, ordering Chevron to pay $9 billion to fix environmental damages and pay for clean water and healthcare for the affected communities. While Chevron has yet to pay, the Ecuadorians have filed a lawsuit seeking to seize Chevron’s assets to pay for the environmental remediation. To this day, the whistleblower’s identity is still unknown.

Amazon Watch’s Associate Director, Paul Paz y Miño, said that the footage was “smoking gun evidence that shows Chevron hands are dirty…” Without folks like the anonymous Chevron employee who do the right thing in the face of overwhelming opposition, pollution, corruption, and other frauds would continue to lurk in the shadows.

3. Sherron Watkins. In 2001, Enron VP Sherron Watkins exposed corporate misconduct in the infamous Enron scandal, surrounding accounting irregularities of Enron financial reports. Her whistleblowing led to the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) corporate reform law, which protects employees of publicly traded companies who report violations of SEC regulations or any provision of federal law relating to fraud against shareholders.

Watkins still fights to oppose fraud, waste, and abuse. In 2020, NWC teamed up with Watkins in advocating before the SEC for stronger whistleblower protections. Watkins joined NWC leadership in meetings with SEC Commissioners to persuade them to oppose potentially disastrous rulemaking changes. Watkins also provided comments on these rules, joining the nearly 15,000 public comments submitted to the SEC, the largest-ever set of comments on an SEC rule change. At the 2019 National Whistleblower Day celebration, Watkins, who speaks publicly about whistleblowing and corporate leadership, said, “[whistleblowing] is a check and balance that needs protections, and I hope we all continue to fight.” Through Watkins’ disclosures, whistleblowers of publicly traded companies were provided a crucially needed avenue to report fraud. Through her continued efforts to advocate on their behalf, whistleblowers have a strong ally in their corner.

These whistleblowers represent what the National Whistleblower Center fights for: employees, insiders, and regular citizens standing up for what they believe in and taking a risk in order to see justice through. For protecting all people from terrorist financing, corporate greed, pollution and much more, whistleblowers, in turn, must be equally protected. In 2021, the National Whistleblower Center will continue fighting to protect these brave whistleblowers.

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