When dodgy business dealings that impact the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of lives are taking place, it takes people of integrity and courage to step forward and highlight the wrong doings. They risk their income, their jobs, and in extreme cases, even their lives.
In recent years, with the advent of social media it might seem that it has become much easier for them to be heard around the world. It still does not make it any easier to step up and do the right thing. They risk being called a traitor to their coworkers, job or career. They often find that they are speaking to a boss who doesn’t care, or worse, is in on the scam and has no intention of letting their voice be heard.
It is often a long hard journey to get the truth out. The ones we hear about are the ones who were successful, the ones who were willing to risk it all, to continue to stand up even when the opposition was great. They had a strong case, the courts on their side, and authorities who would listen. Many others have fallen, despite the most courageous of stands and evidence to back up their case.
Not too surprisingly, some of the successful whistleblowers are now enjoying lucrative careers in consulting or public speaking. Others have faded into obscurity, their experiences no doubt made them want to stay out of the public eye. So, even though the company that they spoke out against crumbled in to the abyss of business failures, they were able to pick themselves up, brush off the dust and begin life anew.
What follows are the stories of some of those who have had a lasting influence on the world of business as a result of their courage against the odds.
Mark Whitacre Of ADM
Mark Whitacre was an executive working for the firm Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) when he became concerned about the price-fixing that was taking place within his company. At the time he was the president of the BioProducts division of ADM. It was his wife who encouraged him to speak up and tell somebody about what was going on. He decided to approach the FBI and he worked with them for three years, providing them with recordings of conversations between ADM and some of their competitors.
There was more than enough evidence for a case against the company. Federal charges were pressed and ADM ended up having to pay out $100 million. Unfortunately Whitacre did not get off scott-free, as he had been laundering money while working with ADM. He was sentenced to 10 and 1/2 years in prison, three times as long as some of the conspirators in the price-fixing scandal. He is now Chief Operating Officer of a biotechnology firm in California.
John Kopchinski vs. Pfizer
John Kopchinski was a sales representative for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and was alarmed by the company’s desire to make money at any cost. As a West Point graduate, his military training had imprinted on him the ethics of protecting people at any cost. When Pfizer’s campaigns with the drug Bextra put lives at risk, he spoke to management about his concerns.
In 2003 the company fired him and he went from earning $120,000 a year to living off his pension. He continued his campaign against the company and filed a “qui tam” lawsuit in march of that same year. This lead to a federal probe of the company and the eventual fine of $2.3 billion that Pfizer had to pay as civil and criminal penalties. This is, to date, the largest healthcare fraud settlement ever made in the US.
Cheryl Eckard vs. Glaxosmithkline
Cheryl Eckard was another to take on a pharmaceutical giant, this time GlaxoSmithKline. In 2002 she was a quality assurance specialist for the company and was sent down to Puerto Rico, by management, to deal with issues around one of their biggest manufacturing plants. She realised that the company was covering up contamination issues at the plant, which was more than the FDA was even of aware of that time.
After repeatedly being shut down by her superiors when speaking up, Eckard informed them that she would not participate in any cover-ups. Her employment at the company was ended in 2003, but she continued in her attempts to communicate with the compliance department. She filed her concerns with the FDA in late 2003 and during the following year they seized documents from Glaxo. A lawsuit was filed by Eckard, and in 2010 she was awarded $96 million.
Richard Bowen III vs Citigroup
Richard Bowen III blew the whistle on Citigroup for the first time in 2006. At this time, 60% of the mortgages that the company was selling were defective, and many were even fraudulent. At the time, he was the chief underwriter of its Consumer Lending Group and was responsible for assuring quality and maintaining their credit worthiness.
As with other whistleblowers, he first approached his own management and the board of directors of the company. He simply wanted to let them know that their internal monitoring process had broken down and that the extreme risks being taken would result in massive losses. He even requested an investigation of the business from outside of the company.
You will probably not be shocked to hear that because of the financial risk to the company, his warnings were ignored and he was asked to leave the bank. In 2010 he was asked to testify as a witness by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in relation to Citigroup’s role in the mortgage crisis that unfolded at the end of 2008.
Sammy Kamkar vs Silicon Valley
Sammy Kamkar is a computer hacker who has not been afraid to make enemies. He first became known to the public when he inflicted a virus-like attack upon Myspace users, affecting 1 million accounts. After that incident, he seems to have focused on helping the public instead, and in 2010 he exposed the illegal mobile phone tracking by technology companies.
Those highlighted by his process included Microsoft, Apple and Google and their respective mobile devices. They were tracking people illegally by sending WiFi and GPS signals to home base from the device being used. A user could explicitly say that they did not want to track their current position and the device would still do so, which was obviously illegal. This lead to lawsuits being filed against the companies, as well as a privacy hearing within congress.
Cynthia Cooper vs Worldcom
At one point in time Worldcom was the second largest telecommunications company, now it exists a subsidiary of Verizon. A series of bad choices and fraudulent cover-ups within the company lead to their gradual fall from grace. It was sped up when, in 2002, a team of auditors quietly worked away within the company and eventually discovered a whopping $9billion worth of accounting fraud.
Cynthia Cooper was the Vice President of Internal Audit for the company at the time and was in charge of the team that blew the whistle on what was, at the time, the US’ largest accounting fraud case. As a result of the work they did the CEO, Bernie Ebbers, and five other executives were given prison time.
Unlike most whistleblowers, who would promptly leave after a situation like that, Copper stayed on another 2 years with the company. When she did finally leave, Cooper started up her own consulting firm, with the intention of educating people on the lessons she learned in the process. At the end of 2002 she was featured in Time Magazine as one of that publication’s “People of the Year”.
Sherron Watkins vs Enron
Energy giant Enron made international news in 2001 when it was revealed that much of the company’s claimed revenue was fraudulently managed at many levels within the company. The downfall of this once giant company had ripple on effects within the business world and brought about the creation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that set new standards for management, public boards and accounting firms.
Sherron Watkins was the Vice-President of Corporate Development for Enron and alerted CEO Kenneth Lay of financial irregularities that she was seeing. She did not step forward straight away, but eventually her conscience guided her to speak up.
In 2002 she testified against the company and about her role in the fraud. Though she was criticized by some for coming forward too late in the day, she was eventually recognized as one of Time Magazine’s “People of the Year” in 2002. Now she is actively touring around, speaking of her experiences and sharing the lessons learned.