• Transparency Networks

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.

  • Transparency Networks

It is no secret that figures of authority routinely abuse their power and wealth, all in the pursuit of shortcuts to gain profits. If you ever find yourself in a situation where an employer’s ethics continually verge into the grey, it becomes crucial to find legal mechanisms to address your concerns.

Whistleblowers are individuals who put the greater good above their own needs and speak up about injustice. Oddly enough, the popular perception of whistle-blowing tends to be negative. However, this is mostly due to a lack of understanding about whistleblowing and the extraordinary ways it benefits society. Law enforcement agencies have high regard and respect for whistleblowers whose testimonies have brought many criminals to justice.

What Is Whistle-blowing?

Whistle-blowing is a colloquial term referring to the act of disclosing wrongdoing in an organization. A person “blows the whistle” when they reveal unethical practices by public or private institutions. Whistle-blowing concerns usually relate to unscrupulous behavior of management and staff but they can also cover the actions of a third party.

What Is the Difference Between Making a Complaint and Blowing the Whistle?

An individual is not a whistleblower if the report deals with a personal grievance. A complaint or personal grievance relates to an individual personally. Personal grievances could comprise cases of harassment, discrimination, unlawful termination, or any other breaches in contracts. However, in exceptional situations when the personal grievance is in the realm of public interest, individuals can report their cases through channels at their respective workplaces.

In comparison, whistleblowers disclose information that is in the public interest. These may include cases of financial fraud or mismanagement, a risk to public health and safety, potential or existing damages to the environment, bribery, or failure to comply with legal obligations or regulatory requirements.

How Do Disclosures Happen?

Depending on its nature, disclosures are usually made to employers, a responsible second-party, or a person authorized by law to hear a whistle-blowing case. In some cases, protected disclosures are not limited to these three particular types.

Whistleblower Laws and Rights

Whistleblower rights are contextual to procedures laid out in various state and federal laws. The key lies in finding one that protects you the best and following its guidelines to the letter. Legal protection has a direct correlation to the information you disclose - as well as to whom and how.

While going through whistleblower laws, remember that the most effective ones usually contain two key components: protection against on-the-job retaliation and the provision to earn monetary rewards if the disclosure leads to a successful conviction.

Reward laws provide people incentives for being the first to file a claim. All whistleblower laws, therefore, contain statutes of limitation. Missing a deadline could mean all the difference between successful enforcement and automatically losing the case.

While this seems like a no-brainer, whistleblowers must ensure they don’t break the law while disclosing confidential information. There have been far too many precedents when whistleblowers have lost cases or convicted of crimes for violating the law. Disclosing one wrongdoing by committing another would be the strangest contradiction of sorts.

The practice of whistle-blowing is an integral part of the democratic landscape. Whistleblowers have been at the heart of some of the most landmark prosecutions since 1987, obtaining over $5 billion in rewards.

Cases have seen a considerable rise in the 21st Century because of powerful new laws and growing recognition of whistleblowers and their contributions. Anyone considering filing a successful claim must regularly remain updated on regulations and know their rights.