One of the most common questions that we’re asked is: “what is a whistleblower?”
On the simplest level, a whistleblower is someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in the position to rectify the wrongdoing. A whistleblower typically works inside of the organization where the wrongdoing is taking place; however, being an agency or company “insider” is not essential to serving as a whistleblower. What matters is that the individual discloses information about wrongdoing that otherwise would not be known.
Individuals who want to enjoy the protections and rewards of whistleblower law cannot rely on this simplified definition. Instead, they must adhere to the definitions and procedures in the laws under which they are seeking formal whistleblower status.
In the U.S., dozens of whistleblower laws are now in place at the federal, state and local levels, ranging from the False Claims Act to the Clean Air Act to the Antarctic Conservation Act, and each has unique definitions and procedures.
Following these rules and procedures is important. Although serving as a whistleblower outside these channels may be noble, those who operate within them can secure important protections against retaliation and, in some cases, financial rewards for assisting in a prosecution of the wrongdoer. More than two thirds of whistleblowers report experiencing retaliation. In addition, since 2011, whistleblowers have received more than $4 billion in rewards under just four federal whistleblower programs. The National Whistleblower Center recommends that would-be whistleblowers find an attorney before attempting to blow the whistle. One way to do this is through the NWC’s Legal Assistance Program.
While the tangle of laws regarding whistleblower rights and protections can be confusing, the four-plus decades of success in getting these laws enacted speaks to an important truth: there is a widespread bipartisan consensus that whistleblowers are a critical tool in combatting fraud and other wrongdoing.
Thousands of people blow the whistle around the world each year on everything from bad accounting to tax fraud to pollution to illegal wildlife trade. These crimes can have a significant financial impact on the government, company shareholders, and taxpayers, and many would be extremely difficult for law enforcement to discover on their own. Without whistleblowers, they would go undetected.
It was whistleblowers who exposed Watergate and the failures of the Vietnam War; who exposed the massive accounting fraud that brought down Enron and WorldCom in the early 2000s; who exposed secret Swiss bank accounts; and who exposed the health dangers of nicotine in tobacco products.
Those are just a few key examples of the magnitude of change that whistleblowers can make. They are integral to the health of the government, the economy, and the public. That is why the National Whistleblower Center is working every day to support whistleblowers by providing them with legal assistance, advocating for policy protections, and celebrating their achievements.