The Whistleblower Project

A collaboration between the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project

Introduction A Call to Action Whistleblower Basics Voices Best Practices 25 moments that changed history

25 Times Whistleblowers Changed History

By Robert Dealey, Luke Drabyn and Katie Miller

Kathryn Bolkovac, 2002

Kathryn Bolkovac is a former Nebraska policewoman who served as an International Police Task Force human rights investigator in Bosnia. Working for a private contracting firm assigned to support the UN peacekeeping mission in that country, she discovered that officers were involved in gross wrongdoing, including human trafficking and forced prostitution. After bringing her findings to light, she was retaliated against and fired. Fearing for her safety, Bolkovac fled the country. Her courageous actions and subsequent reprisal were portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the film “The Whistleblower.”

Image credit: POGO

British firm accused in UN 'sex scandal' []
Insight: Kathryn Bolkovac, whistleblower []

Richard Bowen, 2006

As a business chief underwriter for Citigroup during the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis, Richard Bowen repeatedly warned executive management and the board of directors that roughly 60 percent of prime mortgages were defective. He also warned about risks associated with Citigroup’s practice of lowering its standards for subprime mortgage pools. His warnings were ignored, and Citigroup eventually stripped him of all responsibilities, placed him on administrative leave and told him his presence was no longer required at the bank. Bowen later testified before the Securities and Exchange Commission, providing 1,000 pages of evidence of fraudulent activities, with the bank bailouts occurring three months later. In 2010, Bowen was a key witness about the mortgage mishaps as he gave nationally televised testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. His story was covered by 60 Minutes, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, among other outlets.

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Prosecuting Wall Street []
The Man Who Tried To Blow The Whistle At Citi []
Meet a Citigroup Whistleblower: Richard M. Bowen III []
Was This Whistle-Blower Muzzled? []

Joel Clement, 2017

Joel Clement directed the Department of Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis and assessed the impacts of climate change on Native Arctic communities. In June 2017, Clement and dozens of senior officials were involuntarily reassigned as part of a larger systematic effort within President Donald Trump’s administration to marginalize employees whose work focuses on climate change and other environmental issues. Clement wrote a scathing letter of condemnation in The Washington Post entitled “I’m a Scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration.” He called out the administration for its dismissal of climate change issues and for silencing civil servants. Clement’s willingness to exercise his rights as a whistleblower rather than stay silent prompted widespread media coverage. His next publication in The Post was his resignation. Clement won the Callaway Award for Civic Courage in 2017.

I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration. []
Interior Department whistleblower resigns after reassignment from climate change duties []
Climate Scientist Says He Was Demoted For Speaking Out On Climate Change []

Brandon Coleman, 2014

Brandon Coleman blew the whistle on patient mistreatment he witnessed as an addiction counselor at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital. A former Marine, Coleman disclosed a patterned history of negligence of suicidal veterans during the height of the 2014 VA Hospital scandal. His story went viral nationally after Coleman testified before Congress about retaliation and harassment he faced from superiors. He now advocates for veterans and whistleblowers in the VA’s newly-formed Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

Phoenix VA whistleblower assigned to new national accountability office []
VA retaliation alleged in sworn statement []

Larry Criscione, 2012

Larry Criscione is a reliability and risk engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In 2012, Criscione warned Congress that the NRC was deliberately suppressing research that showed 39 nuclear power plants were structurally susceptible to flooding — any of which could cause meltdowns potentially worse than Fukushima. Though Criscione did not speak directly to the media, the NRC opened an investigation into whether Criscione committed a crime by sharing a document marked “For Official Use Only” with Congress and environmental experts. The harassing investigation and threat of prosecution was eventually dropped as meritless. Subsequent media investigations demonstrated a culture of silence at the NRC and further vindicated Criscione’s claims that the NRC knew the potential public-safety consequences of their deliberate inaction. Criscione won the Callaway Award for Civic Courage in 2016.

Image credit: NRC

Nuclear regulator downplays safety warnings []
2018 St. Clair Bayfield and Joe A. Callaway Award Presentations []

Daniel Ellsberg, 1971

In late 1969, an employee at the RAND Corporation named Daniel Ellsberg secretly made photocopies of classified documents now known as the Pentagon Papers. Releasing the documents to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others, Ellsberg revealed that, among other things, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration had deliberately lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about the country’s potential for success in the Vietnam War. As agencies scrambled to discredit Ellsberg, the government brought unsuccessful lawsuits against the publications. Both newspapers were eventually vindicated, as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of media’s right to publish. The men who committed crimes in an attempt to suppress Ellsberg were later indicted for their roles in the subsequent Watergate scandal.

Pentagon Papers []
Review of Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg []

David Graham, 2004

Food and Drug Administration safety researcher Dr. David Graham’s research showed that the painkiller Vioxx had caused 88,000 to 139,000 heart attacks, with a 30-40 percent fatality rate. Graham went to Congress after the FDA attempted to suppress his findings. His disclosures not only resulted in Merck pulling Vioxx off the shelves, they also exposed FDA bias in favor of pharmaceutical industry interests over health science.

Face Of The Year: David Graham []
Congress Told FDA Failed Public on Vioxx []
Dr. David Graham's Full Story []

Mona Hanna-Attisha, 2015

In a September 2015 press conference, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha risked her career to reveal research findings that showed children's blood lead levels in Flint, Michigan, had doubled after the city’s water source was switched to the Flint River in April 2014. Despite immediate blowback from state and local officials, Hanna-Attisha persisted with her research and continued to speak out on the subject. After her findings were corroborated independently by The Detroit Free Press, she became internationally known as the face of those fighting the Flint Water Crisis.

Image credit: Michigan State University

Marc Edwards and Mona Hanna-Attisha []
Doctor who sounded alarm for Flint water crisis honored by Heinz Family Foundation []
High school friend sounded first alert to Flint’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha []
State data confirms higher blood-lead levels in Flint kids []

Cathy Harris, 1998

Cathy Harris, a senior inspector for the U.S. Customs Service at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, disclosed that African American women were wrongfully targeted for detention and strip searches as possible drug couriers. In fact, only 3 percent of those women were actually carrying drugs, whereas drugs were found on 30 percent of white travelers who were detained and searched. Harris personally observed numerous incidents of black and Hispanic female travelers being body-cavity-searched, illegally detained or restrained for several days and even forced to undergo bowel monitoring. Her disclosures were made public in March 1999 by a Fox 5 investigative news team, which won a Peabody Award for her story. Later, corroboration by a damning Government Accountability Office study of USCS profiling practices prompted federal legislation to reform American customs policies and practices.

The Cathy Harris Story: A Whistleblower's Victorious Journey To Justice []
Better Targeting of Airline Passengers for Personal Searches Could Produce Better Results [] [PDF]

Kenneth Kendrick, 2009

Ken Kendrick left his job at Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA) Plainview, Texas, plant in 2006 after his numerous reports of safety and health violations were ignored by both ownership and the Texas Department of Health. When his granddaughter grew ill in late 2008 as a result of a major salmonella outbreak, which had already killed at least nine people and sickened hundreds more, Kendrick gave an exclusive to Good Morning America. He told a harrowing tale of rat feces, water damage and unsafe practices at the Texas plant, belying PCA's defense that a tainted batch of peanut butter from the Georgia plant was an unexpected and isolated event. Kendrick’s disclosures prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, drove passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act and supported the successful criminal prosecution of former PCA executives.

Image credit: ABC News

Former Manager Says Peanut Plant Complaints Ignored []
Praise for an Unlikely ‘Whistleblower’ []

Robert MacLean, 2003

In 2003, Federal Air Marshal Robert MacLean successfully blew the whistle after he discovered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was planning to make up for budget shortfalls by temporarily canceling long-distance air marshall coverage, including during a known threat on the anniversary of 9/11. Public outcry and congressional pressure led DHS to withdraw the plan, but soon saw agency officials open retaliatory internal investigations. MacLean was fired by top DHS officials three years after his initial disclosure. In a targeted attempt to justify his firing, designations of “sensitive” were retroactively applied to materials he had previously given to reporters. After an 8 1/2 year legal battle, MacLean won a 7-2 decision in the Supreme Court, affirming that his disclosures were covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA).

Robert MacLean, Air Marshal Whistleblower []
U.S. labels 2003 leaked memo 'sensitive' []

Rick Piltz, 2005

In 2005, Rick Piltz, a senior associate in the U.S. Global Change Research Program, blew the whistle on the George W. Bush administration's improper editing and censorship of reports on global warming. Piltz wanted the scientific findings — which evidenced observable impacts of human activity on climate change — to become public knowledge. After 10 years working for the government, he resigned, and his story detailing the administration’s suppression of climate science appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Two days later, the head of the White House environmental office resigned and took a job with ExxonMobil. Piltz's disclosure received substantial media coverage, but he went almost a year without any income after his whistleblowing.

Bush Aide Softened Greenhouse Gas Links to Global Warming []
Rick Piltz Dies at 71; Quit Bush White House Over Climate Policy []
Rick Piltz []

Casey Ruud, 1986

Casey Ruud was a safety auditor for Rockwell International, the primary contractor running the Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Site, which previously had produced the plutonium used inside the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Ruud revealed significant safety violations, including plutonium leaks into the Columbia River, unsafe design and risk of nuclear explosions. Ruud testified in Congress and was soon joined by several other scientists, engineers and quality control workers who validated his concerns. Yet Ruud was fired from Hanford and engaged in legal battles for years. Ultimately vindicated, Ruud’s whistleblowing about problems at Hanford ended the production of plutonium at the site in 1988, two years prior to the end of the Cold War. Employees at Hanford today have followed in Ruud’s steps, with many reporting problems that plague the ongoing nuclear cleanup efforts at the country’s most contaminated nuclear site.

Image credit: High Country News

Radioactive waste from Hanford is seeping toward the Columbia []
Designed to Fail: Why Regulatory Agencies Don’t Work []
Whistle-Blower Becomes Watchdog — Doe Hires Casey Ruud To Police Troublesome Hanford Tank Farm []

Aldric Saucier

Physicist Aldric Saucier blew the whistle on gross mismanagement and waste of funds associated with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), otherwise known as the Star Wars program. The project’s biased and incomplete research was funded by misleading Congress about its efficacy. Saucier’s disclosures were validated, and substantially eroded political support for the SDI program.

Image credit: Fairfax Memorial Funeral Home

Army Again Targets Fraud Whistle-blower []
Scientist Says Army Seeks To Fire Him For Criticizing SDI []

Frank Serpico, 1970

Sometimes referred to as the “godfather of whistleblowers,” Frank Serpico, a New York Police Department (NYPD) plainclothes officer, worked with investigative journalist David Burnham of The New York Times to expose widespread corruption within the NYPD in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a result of Serpico’s disclosures and the Times’ story, the Knapp Commission was established, which set out to investigate and ultimately revealed systemic corruption within the NYPD. Retaliation against Serpico for blowing the whistle was severe, and some suggest that he was set up to be shot by his former colleagues in law enforcement during a drug raid. His story was dramatized by Al Pacino in the film “Serpico.”

Serpico Testifies []
‘Never Run When You’re Right’: The Real Story of NYPD Whistleblower Frank Serpico []
Former NYPD Detective Frank Serpico reflects on Knapp Commission, exposing police corruption and today's brutality issues []
Frank Serpico []

Edward Snowden, 2013

Edward Snowden, a former employee of federal contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, disclosed information regarding the National Security Agency’s blanket surveillance of United States citizens. He exposed a secretive data-mining program that collects the phone records, email exchanges and internet histories of hundreds of millions of people around the globe. In mid-June 2013, Snowden fled the U.S., passing through Hong Kong on his way to Moscow, where he still resides under the protection of political asylum. Countries around the world, including U.S. allies in Europe, condemn the U.S. for its extensive surveillance operations. Before Snowden fled, his passport soon to be revoked by U.S. authorities, The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed that he was the source of the massive national security revelations. His story was portrayed in the Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” and in the Oliver Stone film “Snowden.”

Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations []
Edward Snowden: The Untold Story []
Snowden Timeline []
Who Is Edward Snowden, The Self-Styled NSA Leaker? []

Jack Spadaro, 2001

Jack Spadaro headed the National Mine Safety and Health Academy when the Martin County Coal Slurry Spill occurred in October 2000, dumping 300 million gallons of coal slurry into 100 miles of streams in Kentucky and West Virginia. The disaster polluted waterways and the drinking supply, killed all life forms in the streams for 100 miles and affected 27,000 people. Spadaro participated in the federal investigation of that disaster and found evidence that Massey Energy Company — the owner of the impoundment dam — had prior knowledge of problems with the mine. When the George W. Bush administration took office in January 2001, however, Spadaro's team was told to stop its investigation, and repeated interference weakened the report. Spadaro refused to sign off on the erroneous report and resigned from his position before going public with evidence of gross wrongdoing.

A Toxic Cover-Up? []
Mine Safety Official Critical of Policies Faces Firing []

Thomas Tamm, 2006

Thomas Tamm was a Justice Department attorney in the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), where Tamm became aware of a program that bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. After Tamm's inquiries about the program repeatedly ran into walls of silence, he contacted The New York Times, which in 2005 ran an explosive Pulitzer Prize-winning cover story about President George W. Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. The program was part of wide-ranging covert surveillance activities authorized by Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Although the law creating the FISA court made it a federal crime for any official to engage in such surveillance without adherence to strict rules, including court approval, it was Tamm who became a target of law enforcement. In August 2007, 18 FBI agents raided Tamm's home, executing a search warrant as part of an attempt to locate the source of the Times story. Tamm was also the subject of a six-year federal criminal investigation. As the result of his courage and the ensuing ordeal, Tamm received the 2009 Ridenour Truth-Telling Award.

Eavesdropping and the Election: An Answer on the Question of Timing []
Warrantless Wiretap Whistleblower Agrees to Punishment for Exposing Bush-Era Surveillance []
Thomas Tamm []

Walt Tamosaitis, 2011

The Hanford Nuclear site famously refined the plutonium used in “Fat Man,” the nuclear weapon dropped on Nagasaki, and over the next 30 years produced thousands of tons of nuclear waste. Walt Tamosaitis was deputy chief process engineer and research & technology manager for Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant, a facility built to process, for safe storage, a majority of the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste contained in aging tanks. After raising numerous concerns regarding technical design issues that could result in a Fukushima-like explosion, as well as wasteful practices, Tamosaitis was demoted, relegated to the basement, and eventually fired. Coverage of his story by the L.A. Times, USA Today, Rachel Maddow and numerous other outlets helped prompt agency and congressional investigations that validated his safety concerns and ultimately stopped work on the WTP, pending resolution of the design flaws. His wrongful termination settlement of $4.1 million is the largest known legal award paid to a whistleblower in the Department of Energy's vast nuclear waste cleanup program.

America’s Fukushima? []
Walt Tamosaitis: A Year Ago He Blew The Whistle on Hanford's Waste Treatment Plant []

ThinThread and Trailblazer Whistleblowers

Former United States National Security Agency (NSA) workers (pictured, from left) William Binney, Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis, and J. Kirk Wiebe believed an in-house-created electronic surveillance data collection system named ThinThread, which was both cost-effective and protective of American citizens’ privacy rights, was wrongly rejected in favor of Trailblazer, a conceptually similar program created by NSA contractors for millions of dollars. Loomis, Wiebe, and Binney led the design of Thinthread at a mere $3.2 million cost. But they were all also concerned that the NSA’s umbrella mass surveillance program, STELLARWIND, would violate constitutional protections. Drake also raised concerns about massive 9/11 intelligence failures. After lodging individual internal complaints, testifying to Congressional committees, and drafting collective motions, members of the group took actions that ranged from protest resignations to leaking unclassified information to media. A May 17, 2006, article in The Baltimore Sun (primarily sourced by Drake) detailed the failings of the NSA and Trailblazer. The stories prompted massive public outcry about NSA surveillance activities, and all of the whistleblowers faced considerable retaliation, including FBI home raids, with Thomas Drake even being charged in April 2010 with 10 felony charges, including five under the Espionage Act for improper retention of classified documents. After stories ran in The New Yorker and 60 Minutes in May 2011, the Department of Justice dropped the charges against Drake on June 9, 2011, four days before trial, in exchange for a plea to a misdemeanor charge of "Exceeding Authorized Use of a Computer" with no jail time or fines but was sentenced to 240 hours of community service and one year of probation. Drake is the recipient of the 2011 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, regarded as the nation's highest honor that a whistleblower can receive.

Image credits: NBC News (Binney), PBS (Wiebe and Loomis)

NSA rejected system that sifted phone data legally []
Drowned in data, whistleblowers speak of NSA's "largest failure" []
The Secret Sharer []
U.S. v. Whistleblower Tom Drake []
Bio: Thomas Drake []
Former NSA executive Thomas A. Drake may pay high price for media leak []
United States of Secrets []

Sherron Watkins, 2002

Sherron Watkins was vice president of corporate development at Enron when the financial scandal broke in 2001. She is considered by many to be the whistleblower who helped expose widespread fraud when she alerted then-CEO Ken Lay to accounting irregularities within the company, warning him that Enron “might implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” She later testified before congressional committees investigating Enron’s demise. Watkins’ whistleblowing drove passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, sweeping financial reforms that included whistleblower protections. Watkins was named one of TIME Magazine's 2002 Persons of the Year.

Persons of the Year: The Whistle-Blowers []
The corporate conscience []
Enron Whistleblower Sherron Watkins joins American Whistleblower Tour at Brandeis University []
The Woman Who Saw Red []

Craig Watts, 2014

Craig Watts was a typical American farmer, with three kids, two dogs and a barn full of chickens. When Watts released a short video revealing the inhumane and dangerous conditions under which Perdue farms contractors were required to raise their chickens, his life changed forever. A New York Times Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof further detailed Watts’ concerns and brought national attention to Perdue’s exploitative practices. Watts bravely faced the headwinds of retaliation and explicit intimidation to become a leading face for modern farming safety regulations.

Abusing Chickens We Eat []
Better Chicken Initiative []

Mary Willingham, 2013

Mary Willingham was the principal witness in a groundbreaking CNN investigative series detailing fraud at numerous NCAA Division I universities, where academically failing student athletes were kept on the athletic court. As a learning specialist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she saw students who could not read or write, and administrators who nonetheless intimidated and manipulated both teachers and processes to funnel those students through the university. Retaliated against for her disclosures, Willingham won a $335,000 lawsuit against the university in 2015.

In Fake Classes Scandal, UNC Fails Its Athletes—and Whistle-Blower []
UNC 'fake classes' whistleblower to get $335K in settlement []
Charges dropped in University of North Carolina 'paper classes' case []

Jeffrey Wigand, 1996

In one of the most famous disclosures of the 1990s, Jeffrey Wigand appeared on 60 Minutes to reveal Big Tobacco agency Brown & Williamson was consciously adding known carcinogenic chemicals to its products to increase their addictive properties. He faced dismissal, reprisal and death threats for his efforts. His story was characterized by Russell Crowe in “The Insider.”

Jeffrey Wigand on 60 Minutes, February 4, 1996 []
The Man Who Knew Too Much []
A Tobacco Whistle-Blower's Life Is Transformed []

Susan Wood, 2005

Dr. Susan Wood formerly served as the Food and Drug Administration’s assistant commissioner for women’s health and as director of the Office of Women's Health. When she concluded in 2005 that the President George W. Bush Administration’s politics was tying up the approval of Plan B, not the safety or efficacy of this “morning-after pill,” she resigned and spoke out forcefully to say FDA science was being held captive by the anti-abortion movement. Following her resignation, Wood traveled around the country sharing her story and voicing her concerns over the state of public health policy. Currently, Wood is a professor of health policy and of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, where she also directs the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health.

FDA Official Resigns over Contraceptive Delay []
5 Questions: Susan Wood on quitting the FDA []
Woe to the whistleblowers []
The FDA is Finished []

Correcting the record: A previous version of this post stated “the Department of Justice dropped charges against [Thomas] Drake to ‘improper handling’ of classified documents with no jail time or fines.” Charges under the Espionage Act against Drake were for improper retention of classified information, and were dropped as a condition for a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of “Exceeding Authorized Use of a Computer.” The post has also been updated to include more background information. Also, Edward Snowden resides under the protection of political asylum, not under the protection of the Putin regime, as previously stated.

Next: Mary Willingham: An Attempt To Make The College Athletic System Better For Athletes