Whistleblowers often risk reprisal from their employers,
suffer great setbacks in their career and in many cases lack enough
evidence to prove any wrongdoing in their workplace, according to
a panel of experts gathered to discuss the issue at the John F.
Kennedy School of Government.
Cary Coglianese, faculty chair of the Center for Business and Government's
Regulatory Policy Program and director of the Kennedy School's Politics
Research Group, moderated the discussion. Sponsored by the Regulatory
Policy Program and Institute of Politics at KSG, the panel included
Coleen Rowley, one of Time Magazine's persons of the year for 2002.
Rowley, a lawyer and special agent in the FBI's Minneapolis field
office, was noted for writing a 13-page memorandum to FBI Director
Robert Mueller raising questions about how the agency handled the
investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui in the weeks leading up to the
Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
You have to try even if ultimately you might know you won't
have much success, Rowley said, of why she decided to come
forward with her information. You don't want to spend the
rest of your life thinking maybe I should have.
Ethical decision-making involves integrity, Rowley
said. Before deciding to make a complaint, employees should first
determine the significance of the problem and must be prepared to
suffer the consequences, she said.
Integrity is about doing right when there is no one to make
you do it but yourself, she said. Whistle-blowing is
almost always a no-win for the person doing the whistle-blowing.
The recent passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 offers protection
for whistle-blowers in publicly traded companies who report violations
of federal law, including securities and shareholder fraud. But
federal employees have little protection from retaliation, said
Louis Clark, executive director of the Government Accountability
Project. GAP, a national nonprofit organization, helps concerned
citizens who witness dangerous, unlawful or environmentally unsound
practices in their workplaces or communities.
Calling the Sarbanes-Oxley Act a breath of fresh air, Michael R.
Bromwich, a former Inspector General for the Justice Department,
said he and others like him would be watching to see whether the
act is upheld in court. Since the act is less than one year old,
it hasnt been tested in the courts, he said.
Despite the new laws offering protection, employees with complaints
should heed caution. According to Bromwich, whistle-blower complaints
are proven in only 10 to 20 percent of allegations. You have
to have uncontestable proof to come forward, he said. In
only a few cases do you have major institutional change as a result
Despite the low number of successful complaints, whistle-blowers
remain the early warning signal to prevent avoidable tragedies,
according to Clark. They provide a major source of protection from
bureaucratic indifference and they often rise above the occasion
to strike a note of dissent when the majority remains silent, he