To understand the origins of whistleblowing, one must go back in time to Medieval England. Although the term as we know it today did not exist, the whistleblowing spirit was very much alive.
The foundations of whistleblowing emerged from the idea that institutions and people who run it are not infallible. When systems fall apart, the responsibility lies with the common man to point out transgressions and seek justice.
Long before a national police force existed, people who knew about wrongdoing could file reports with the King’s representatives under the qui tam provision. To prevent backlash, the court rewarded the person who reported the crime in the event of a successful conviction.
The English carried the legacy of these provisions to the colonies in North America. Once America gained independence and formed its first federal government, its leaders recognized the importance of whistleblowing to ensure government accountability or those associated with it in any capacity.
Qui tam provisions almost became obsolete around the 19th century until a landmark case brought them back during the Civil War.
The First Landmark Whistleblowing Case
Both the Union and Confederate groups vied for profits during the Civil War, mostly through blatant fraudulent activities. When the Union Army was at a breaking point, corrupt contractors seized the opportunity to sell defective ammunition, lame mules, and expired ration that caused debilitating scurvy and dysentery.
Charles H. Van Wyck, a New York Congressman and abolitionist, collected testimonies from hundreds of witnesses to the fraud and put them into a report. His efforts led to the passage of the 1863 False Claims Act. The landmark law established fines for contractors who cheated the system and rewarded whistleblowers with 50 percent of the money if the case was successful.
The Decline of Whistleblowing
As military spending increased during World War II, defense contractors succeeded in undermining the False Claims Act. Attorney General Francis Biddle declared that qui tam cases were 'parasitic' attempts to undermine war efforts. Subsequently, he got the reward component removed - effectively discouraging citizens from filing new litigations. As a result, whistleblower cases virtually disappeared during the next forty years.
However, during the 1960s to 1970s, growing distrust in the government brought several prominent whistleblowers to the fore once more. Ernest Fitzgerald made public that Lockheed Martin was overcharging the government by billions. Frank Serpico was the first cop to expose rampant corruption in the NYPD. One of the most celebrated whistleblowers was “Deep Throat," later identified as Mark Felt, whose testimony in the Watergate Scandal brought down the Nixon presidency.
The 1986 Amendments
The 1980s saw rampant fraudulent activities and corruption within the military industry. With a massive increase in military spending during the Cold War, the media got wind of wasteful military spending and grossly inflated contract prices. By 1985, four of the biggest defense contractors working with the government were found guilty of fraud.
Soon after, Congress amended and strengthened the False Claims Act in 1986 to combat the occurrence of criminal schemes.
Whistleblower Laws Today
For a long time, America’s whistleblower laws applied solely to defense contractors. The law evolved with changing times and today covers fraud and securities-related legislation covering a host of public and private sector industries.
Laws to safeguard whistleblowers could do with more regulation. In the last forty years, however, Congress has passed a series of legislations that encourage and provide support systems for whistleblowers. Whistleblowing is as old as the American republic, and in the 21st century, it has become an effective institution to uphold democratic rights.