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Famous Whistleblowers

It’s no secret that government agencies and law enforcement rely heavily on whistleblowers to expose government and corporate corruption. Recognizing this vital role, whistleblower protection programs have been included in many state and federal laws. While most whistleblower cases don’t make the news, some have dominated the headlines, with fines on offenders reaching into the billions. Below are a few famous whistleblowers who exposed massive or egregious wrongdoing by corporations, individuals, and government organizations.

Edward Snowden: Outing the NSA

With films, video games, and songs created about him, Edward Snowden is probably the most famous modern-day whistleblower. While working for the National Security Agency (NSA) as a government contractor, he leaked vast amounts of classified information exposing secret global surveillance programs. He’s been labeled a hero whistleblower and an attention-hungry traitor. Regardless, his actions sparked a wide debate about government spying, national security, and individual privacy.

Snowden stated that he leaked the documents to the media rather than using internal reporting mechanisms because whistleblower protections would not have applied to him as a contractor. He was charged with violating the Espionage Act but fled to Russia where he was granted asylum.

Jeffrey Wigand: Exposing Big Tobacco

As Vice President of research and development at the country’s third largest tobacco company, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., Jeffrey Wigand had significant access to the company’s scientific data and production goals. After he was fired over disagreements with the CEO regarding tobacco ingredients, he became a famous whistleblower when he appeared on 60 Minutes and stated that the tobacco company had intentionally manipulated the level of nicotine in cigarette smoke to make it more addictive. This sent shock waves across the country, especially at a time when the top tobacco executives were testifying to Congress that cigarettes were not addictive. Wigand’s story later served as the foundation for the film The Insider.

Sherron Watkins and Cynthia Cooper: The Enron and WorldCom Scandals

In response to significant financial fraud perpetrated by large corporations, the government has enacted numerous laws regulating these businesses and strengthening protections for corporate whistleblowers. Two such whistleblowers are Sherron Watkins and Cynthia Cooper, who helped expose fraudulent accounting practices at Enron and WorldCom, respectively.

Watkins first reported the accounting discrepancies to her boss, Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, and later testified to Congress about the fraud. Cooper worked tirelessly as a Chief Audit Executive to expose $3.8 billion worth of accounting fraud at WorldCom. Both famous whistleblowers were awarded Time’s 2002 Person of the Year.

Mark Felt: Deep Throat and the Watergate Scandal

While the name “Mark Felt” may not be very familiar, the scandal he helped uncover has made him one of the most famous whistleblowers in U.S. political history. The Watergate scandal began when five men were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. At the time, Felt was the Associate Director of the FBI and leaked classified information as the anonymous source “Deep Throat” to Washington Post reporters, detailing the involvement and cover-up within the Nixon Administration.

This scandal eventually led to President Nixon resigning. While Felt was an anonymous whistleblower, there are whistleblower programs today, such as the Whistleblower Protection Program, that are designed to encourage and protect federal workers who help expose misconduct occurring in a government organization.

Frank Serpico: Exposing Police Corruption

If Al Pacino portrays you in a movie, chances are you did something noteworthy. Frank Serpico is another famous whistleblower who reported on widespread police corruption within the NYPD. He first made his reports internally to police investigators, and then to the New York Times, leading the city’s mayor to appoint a commission to investigate accusations of police corruption. Although he feared retaliation, Serpico was the first officer within the NYPD to report and testify about widespread, systemic corruption within the force, and his actions led to drastic changes within the NYPD.

Other Famous Whistleblowers

The list of whistleblowers whose actions have had significant ramifications could go on. Other famous whistleblowers include the following:

  • Linda Tripp: helped expose the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky White House affair
  • Chelsea/Bradley Manning: US Army soldier who leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks
  • Coleen Rowley: outlined the FBI’s inaction with regard to pre-9/11 intelligence reports
  • Brad Birkenfeld: exposed a multibillion-dollar international tax fraud scandal relating to UBS
  • Bunnatine “Bunny” Greenhouse: exposed illegality of no-bid contracts in Iraq by a Halliburton subsidiary

Thinking of Exposing Illegal Behavior? Contact a Whistleblower Lawyer First

Whether you’re helping to expose massive corporate corruption or reporting a coworker for sexual harassment, whistleblowing plays an important role in holding individuals, corporations, and government entities accountable for wrongdoing. However, many different state and federal laws, as well as your organization’s own policies, may apply to your situation. Be prepared and take appropriate action by contacting a local whistleblower attorney who can advise you on the protections available to you.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified whistleblower law attorney to make sure
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