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THE WORLD OF WHISTLEBLOWERS: ARE THEY SINNERS OR SAINTS?
Jacqueline P. Taylor, Esq.

Turn on the television any night of the week, listen to talk radio or open any newspaper and you inevitably will discover one or more government scandals du jour. Most likely, courageous employees will be the people in the news educating you in varying degrees about the specifics of recent scandals involving government officials who have once again engaged in mismanagement, law breaking, waste, fraud, or abuse of office.

Do you ever wonder who these brave people are, how they got to you with their story, or what happens after the story is told? I do. Recent events in my own life have helped to answer those questions for me.

In the past, I listened with interest to many of these stories but I was ignorant about how the story made it into my world and what happened after the story faded. Like most people, my primary response to such revelations was to discuss them briefly with others, shake my head, and move on to the next day###s news. I was too busy practicing law as a General Counsel and Senior Vice President in a commercial banking corporation to do anything more.

In 1992, my perspective and knowledge of the whistleblower arena changed, however, when, I, along with my legal partner Bruce J. Pederson and a third attorney, blew the whistle on gross indiscretions, violations of law, and mismanagement within the Resolution Trust Corporation ("RTC"). The RTC was the federal agency entrusted with the savings and loan cleanup. Suddenly, I was in the media attempting to educate the public about the most recent government scandal. I was a whistleblower risking my career and financial stability in an attempt to "let the people know" what their government was doing. My life, like so many other lives, was changed dramatically and irreversibly because of a whistleblowing experience.

One important result for me of that whistleblowing experience was that in 1996, Bruce Pederson and I formed the Denver law firm of Pederson & Taylor, LLC. Our goal was to help other whistleblowers avoid our whistleblowing mistakes, repeat our successes, and realize that there is life after the whistleblowing has run its course. Another important goal of the firm was to give potential whistleblowers wise counsel in deciding whether or not to blow the whistle, and if they decided to go forward, how to effectively blow the whistle with the least amount of personal harm.

So far, I believe we have been successful in pursuing our goals. Since its inception, our firm has been privileged to represent numerous whistleblowers, potential whistleblowers and other clients employed in federal, state and local governments, as well as in private industry.

WHISTLEBLOWING IS A SIGNIFICANT, LIFE CHANGING EVENT.

My partner and I know that whistleblowing can be a tortuous, confusing and legally dangerous event. Therefore, we attempt to guide our whistleblower clients through the maze of competing legal forums, counsel them on media relations, and advise them about the intricacies of dealing with Congress, state legislatures and other government oversight bodies. We advise them about various whistleblower strategies and the inherent risks to the whistleblower of each strategy used to promote their issues. We warn them about the various forms of retaliation, when to expect them and how to combat them. We advise our clients not only about defensive strategies, but also about how to go on the offense.

Further, we know that whistleblowing impacts not just the whistleblower but also their family and friends. Thus, we also strive to give them and their loved ones personal support and empathetic counsel when that is needed, as well as sound legal advice. We attempt to be mentors in a process that can impact everything they know, think, do, believe, or feel, in every aspect of their lives.

WHAT IS A WHISTLEBLOWER? SNITCH OR PUBLIC PROTECTOR?

How is a whistleblower defined? Today, the law and public consensus usually define a whistleblower as someone (frequently a government employee) who discloses significant acts of waste, fraud, mismanagement, law-breaking or abuse of authority by government officials or in government programs which threaten the public good. This was not always the case.

Unfortunately, during most of this century many people equated whistleblowers with tattle tales. For instance, until the early 1980s, legal indices often listed the law of whistleblowing under the word "snitch" or "informant." During the Nixon era, much of that negative attitude changed. With the advent of Watergate and the discovery of $800 toilet seats at the Pentagon, the public began to recognize the service whistleblowers were providing to taxpayers at great risk to themselves.

The term "whistleblower" was substituted in the legal treatises for "snitch" and laws began to be passed to protect these courageous employees.

WHO ARE WHISTLEBLOWERS? WHAT DO THEY WANT?

Diversity is the norm. Whistleblowers are a diverse lot. This diversity is seen in the many agencies from which they come and the varying jobs they perform. For example, since our law firm opened its doors in 1996, we have represented employees from throughout the government. We have been engaged by clients from the U.S. Attorney###s Office, U.S. Geological Survey, FBI, Federal Aeronautics Administration, FDIC, U.S. Army, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Colorado State University System, Colorado Department of Corrections, IRS, National Park Service, Postal Service, Colorado Department of Labor, local police and firefighters, and Department of Energy. We also represent clients who are employed by private contractors who do business with government.

Whistleblowers perform in many careers and are found at all levels of an organization. For instance, our clients are scientists and secretaries, lawyers and paralegals, managers and staff, security personnel and computer specialists, etc. They are as varied in age, ethnic background, education, profession, sex, and income as the population at large.

Described as Sinners

 

Although whistleblowers have many different backgrounds, skills, professions, interests, and experiences, their adversaries customarily paint whistleblowers in one-dimensional negative terms. Frequently, they are described as whining, disgruntled, problem employees with low standards and little or no talent, who are seeking publicity, money or special privileges for themselves. A favorite accusation is that they are not "team players."

Often, their employers shamelessly accuse them of suffering from severe psychological problems, low morals, or serious defects in job performance. For example, at least one newspaper article reported that RTC management unfairly referred to whistleblowers as "M & Ms—misfits and malcontents." A rule in whistleblowing seems to be that the more serious the whistleblower allegation, the more hostile and one-dimensional is the employer description of the whistleblower. This is a time-tested tactic that is used to diminish the message by attacking the messenger.

Behaving as Saints

Contrary to such negative allegations by their detractors, research and scholarly writing conclude that whistleblowers usually are the opposite of how their foes describe them. My experiences with clients and personal observations agree with the conclusions of the scholars. The most consistent common denominators among whistleblowers are their ethics-driven reasons for whistleblowing, their whistleblowing experiences, and the resulting retaliation directed at them by their adversaries.

Research has shown that whistleblowers usually are described as top performers and model employees before they commence whistleblowing. They are honest, hard working, upwardly-mobile individuals, who operate with moral codes. They are team players who believe they are pursuing issues affecting the greater good of the team. That is why they blow the whistle. Afterwards, most whistleblowers are fired for trumped up reasons or forced to leave their jobs, their business communities, and often their professions due to the severe retaliation and negative professional publicity directed at them by their adversaries. Despite these severe damages, the whistleblower