Whistleblowers perform an important service in our society, especially as companies grow bigger, corporate financial statements grow murkier, and cheating sometimes generates little more than a cynical shrug. Many whistleblowers have saved untold numbers of lives. Some have had their own lives threatened, and a few have died. At times they have been considered heroes, at other times, traitors.
You’ve likely heard of some of the more famous US whistleblowers, because movies have been made about them:
- Frank Serpico, who reported widespread corruption in the New York City Police Department in the Sixties and Seventies. Film: Serpico, starring Al Pacino.
- Karen Silkwood, an employee of Kerr-McGee who documented unsafe working conditions at the plutonium plant where she worked. Contaminated with plutonium herself, she died in a car crash, with her proof documents missing, on her way to meet a journalist. Film: Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep.
- Jeffrey Wigand, who appeared on national television to reveal that Brown & Williamson Tobacco intentionally included more nicotine in cigarettes in order to addict smokers more heavily. Film: The Insider, starring Russell Crowe.
No doubt in the recent past you’ve also heard of Harry Markopolos, who blew the whistle on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme (the largest one in history), and Sherron Watkins, whose information took down Enron. Additionally, whether or not you agree with what he did, Edward Snowden can be called a whistleblower.
But we’d like to introduce you to some folks you might not have heard of, who have done good, have saved money, and, sometimes, have saved lives.
- In 1984, John Michael Gravitt filed a qui tam lawsuit under the False Claims Act against General Electric, becoming the first person in 40 years to do so. Gravitt sued GE for falsely billing the U.S. Department of Defense for work on the B1 Lancer bomber. He was laid off from his job after he complained to supervisors. His case led to new federal legislation that strengthened the False Claims Act of 1986, which made it easier for whistleblowers to collect damages. The settlement was a record (at the time) $3.5 million.
- In 2009, John Kopchinski, a former Pfizer sales representative who is also a West Point graduate, launched a qui tam suit which led to a government investigation into Pfizer’s illegal marketing of Bextra, a prescription painkiller that had caused deaths. The result ultimately was a $1.8 billion payout by Pfizer for the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history.
- In 2003, Courtland Kelley headed up the General Motors inspection and quality assurance program. When he reported problems with the Chevrolet Cavalier and Cobalt models to his superiors, he received little response, so he sued. Even though he lost his case, he had done the right thing; ignition switches in the Cobalts ended up being linked to a number of crashes, resulting in 13 deaths. Because of Kelley, Cobalts were recalled and lives were saved. GM was fined $35 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for failing to recall the cars initially.