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2019 Whistleblower Summit: Joining Forces to Speak Truth to Power

By Shanna Devine

(from left to right) Tom Devine, Tanya Ward Jordan and Michael McCray at the Summit's plenary session

This is the first in a three-part series.

The 8th Annual Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival took place on Capitol Hill from July 29 through August 1, 2019. Over the last decade, members from the Make It Safe Coalition have arranged an assembly of whistleblowers and advocates in Washington, DC for this event. The Summit is co-hosted by ACORN 8, Coalition for Change, Project Censored, Justice Integrity Project and Federally Employed Women Legal Educational Fund. Throughout the week, whistleblowers, advocates and lawmakers gathered to share advice, network, and watch social justice films. It was an invigorating week centered around how to effectively and safely speak truth to power.

During the Summit’s opening plenary session, Summit organizer and ACORN 8 founder Marcel Reid discussed the power of solidarity between whistleblowers – whether they are exposing government fraud or unsafe medical practices – since the strength of the whistleblower community only increases as it grows and unites.  Given that most whistleblowers face retaliation, from workplace harassment and with-hunts to being blacklisted from their industry, it is critical to have a support network. Reid knows the importance of solidarity firsthand, as she and her former coworkers joined forces to expose multi-million dollar embezzlement and cover-up at the community-based organization ACORN. Andrew Craig, editor of the Justice Integrity Project, joined Reid’s plea for collaboration, as he encouraged whistleblowers to “form bonds and tell our story…Our power is in unity.” The Project advances that goal by reporting on misconduct in the justice and political systems.

Summit organizer Michael McCray described his experience disclosing more than $40 million in waste, fraud and abuse at the United States Department of Agriculture. He cautioned, “All you have to do is ask the wrong question at the wrong time and you become a threat to the system. Often you’re already on your whistleblower journey before you realize it.”

Tom Devine, Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project, described the final legislative reforms needed to help truth-tellers survive that life-changing journey. He cautioned that despite sweeping bipartisan congressional support for whistleblower laws, “the reality hasn’t changed for whistleblowers, it’s still professional suicide … We’ve been winning all the battles, but we’re losing the war for free speech.” Take for instance Robert MacLean, who won a landmark federal whistleblower U.S. Supreme Court case after reporting airline safety breakdowns post-9/11. He has continued to expose gaping airline safety loopholes, and in March, the Transportation Security Administration fired him again.

Devine described three remaining cornerstones needed to strengthen the Whistleblower Protection Act (the primary whistleblower law for most federal employees): access to jury trials to challenge retaliation; protections against retaliatory investigations, and; temporary relief from reprisal actions. Dr. Matthew Fogg, a former Chief Inspector U.S. Marshal who disclosed systemic racism within the Marshal Service, benefited from stronger due process rights when he sued the Department of Justice for racial discrimination and a jury ruled in Fogg’s favor. However, he warned that even with strong legal rights, “whistleblowing is a mutating thing; no matter what laws we come up with, they will always come up with something to get around it,” underlying the need for cultural change to accompany legal reform.

Whistleblower Tanya Ward Jordan formed Coalition for Change (C4C) to help employees who want to address race discrimination and retaliation in the federal government. She was compelled to help her peers after she disclosed gross mismanagement, violations of civil rights laws, and abuse of authority in the Department of Commerce. In response, Jordan described how she received the whistleblower treatment: she was placed in a storage area where she had difficulty breathing and started experiencing panic attacks. She cautioned, “retaliation is real, you must prepare your mind for it.” It took Jordan 17 years to settle her complaint, and that experience informed her new book, 17 Steps: A Federal Employee’s Guide for Tackling Workplace Discrimination.

Join Public Citizen and our allies in the Make It Safe Coalition (MISC) as we call not just for stronger whistleblower protection laws, but also a shift in workplace culture so that our nation’s truth-tellers are treated as the modern-day heroes that they are. Join MISC’s Open Letter to Congress today!