The negative reputation of whistleblowers primarily stems from backlash against their success from the forces that have the whistle blown on them. A successful whistleblower is usually revealing the truth about something big. With that said, it’s not easy to blow the whistle against something big. Big forces fight back. In addition, the whistleblower is often the last person people hear about as deserving of the credit.
For example, there have been a few successful False Claims Act cases where whistleblowers have gotten a lot of money, and so there’s been some attempt to say that the whistleblower was lucky or fortunate in some way. However, what people that say this don’t think about is the actual result of the case, including how much money the government ended up recovering and the unsafe, illegal, and/or unethical business practices that stopped as a result of that whistleblower.
To get to the point of receiving a settlement requires a lot of time and debate. Additionally, it is ultimately the government, which often takes the information and prosecutes the case. The government will often receive much of even takes credit for prosecuting the case, despite the fact that the whistleblower is often the one who pushed the case forward. For this reason and many others, being a whistleblower is difficult, as you’re fighting something large and costing these large companies a lot of money in some cases. These targets obviously don’t like this, and that is often where the bad national perception of whistleblowers comes from.
Focusing on the Positive Impact of Whistleblower Cases
Whenever there is a successful False Claims Act (pdf) or whistleblower case, it is important for people to look at what it was the whistleblower was reporting and why it was a successful case. Filing a case under the False Claims Act allows you to show extremely bad practices that some companies and individuals partake in. For a claim to be successful, those practices have to be beyond negligence or just not doing the right thing, it has to be extremely bad behavior for the government to decide to prosecute and be successful in obtaining damages.
Without whistleblowers, that type of fraud or activity would not stop costing taxpayers money, and in many cases including obviously in healthcare fraud, hurting the public. It is incumbent upon the whistleblower attorney in DC to make that point about a valid case, because often that fact tends to get lost in the shuffle of what the settlement was and how much money might have been involved. However, the driving issue remains that there were underlying practices that were brought to light by the whistleblower, and without the whistleblower these practices would have continued.
Whistleblowers and Greed
There have been some successful cases recently and some large awards to whistleblowers, and that tends to get a lot of press attention. Certainly, defendants are not excited about paying settlement money, and especially not excited about paying money to whistleblowers.
The Justice Department is usually happy to award whistleblowers, but understandably they want to take credit in the press for the job that they do to win the cases. So that leaves a lot of room for those who are unhappy with paying for the fraud committed to attack whistleblowers, call them greedy, and attempt to muddy the water a bit and build a negative perception of them. There have even been attacks on the False Claims Act because it has been so successful in fighting fraud.
Since successful whistleblowers get awarded money, the easiest thing to do is to smear them with an attack that they are all greedy or something, but I don’t think that really should be the issue. The False Claims Act was created by Congress to provide monetary incentives to whistleblowers based on their actions. It’s a reward for people who take the uncommon and courageous action of blowing the whistle, and that is really what is important about the whistleblower rewards.
I think what bothers me about all this is nobody seems to be outraged at the greed of the defendant. Nobody seems to say, “Well, the contractor was greedy,” but of course the contractor or the defendant is greedy, they’re the one who is ripping off the government, the person who’s doing something wrong for money. If you are committing fraud against the government, you are the greedy party. The person coming forward and risking their career and attempting to set things right is not greedy. That person is doing the right thing and deserves an award, and this should be considered in the national perception of whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers Are Heroes
I think it takes some level of independent, moral belief to come forward and protest when something is wrong. I don’t think that is an easy thing to do. Obviously, for many whistleblowers there are serious professional consequences, but it takes some belief in right and wrong and some understanding as to what is right and what is wrong to come forward. In addition, you’ve got to take on the culture where you work and disagree with it, and make your own independent decisions that what is going on should not be tolerated.
That, in my opinion, is a heroic thing to do, and I am always struck by how difficult it can be just to make the decision to do it. So in stark contrast to the sometimes-negative national perception of whistleblowers, I consider them to be heroes.