Come Hither, Whistleblower

Do you know how dangerous it is to be a whistleblower – downright dangerous? Do you know how important it is that some number of men and women are willing to play the part?
Whistle blowing is at the margin of our collective life. We imagine whistleblowers to be brave but decidedly odd loners, foolishly far out on limb to right some grievous wrong. We imagine right: whistleblowers are followers who refuse to follow. As a result, they are, by definition, poorly positioned to protect themselves against those more highly positioned than they.
Whistle blowing is so risky an undertaking – whistleblowers get used, lose their jobs, get demoted or isolated or marginalized or in some other way penalized for speaking out – that in 1898 Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act, which was intended to protect against retaliation anyone who works for the federal government and reports agency misconduct. The act has been effective to only a modest extent – there is, moreover, no private sector equivalent.
There is, however, another federal law, the False Claims Act, which dates back to 1963, and is intended to be invoked by those reporting fraud against the federal government. In rare instances, these claims are successful, in which case whistleblowers benefit from whatever the financial settlement.
Just such a case was recently settled – the largest settlement ever involving a pharmaceutical company. As reported by the New York Times, “Glaxo-SmithKline agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay $3 billion I fines for promoting its best-selling antidepressants for unapproved uses and failing to report safety data about a top diabetes drug.”
To read about this case is to be outraged – outraged at how one of the world’s leading drug companies sacrificed the public interest on the alter of self interest. But it is also to be reminded of the critical role of the whistle blower – in this case, four whistle blowers, employees, all mid level managers – who tipped off the government about Glaxo’s improper practices. To all appearances, this revolting story of corporate greed would not have come out without them – at least not now.
These particular whistleblowers will be rewarded for their efforts. But they are a tiny minority. By and large, for daring to tell the truth, whistleblowers are punished, sometimes severely, which is precisely why they merit fierce protection.

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