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Famous Whistleblowers

Employees who report an employer's misconduct are referred to as whistleblowers. They are instrumental in exposing illegal activity that includes everything from discrimination and harassment to public health and safety violations. Sometimes whistleblowing results in multimillion-dollar jury awards or high-dollar settlements.

Whistleblowers often receive a reward for exposing wrongdoing. They qualify for a percentage of the total sum recovered through their efforts.

By taking a stand, whistleblowers risk retaliation. There is legal recourse for victims of retaliation. Whistleblowing is a legally protected activity and whistleblower protection laws exist on a state and federal level

Many federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, have whistleblower programs. This means that employers can't terminate your employment or take any other adverse action against you for coming forward. If so, you could have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit.

This article looks at a few of the most notable whistleblower cases.

Largest Securities and Exchange Commission Whistleblower Award

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued its largest whistleblower award in 2023. A whistleblower was awarded nearly $279 million for information and assistance that expanded the scope of charged misconduct. The agency's previous top award was a $114 million whistleblower payout issued in 2020.

Whistleblower awards through the SEC's program range from 10%-30% of the collected money. This happens when the sanctions are over $1 million.

Taxpayers don't foot the bill for the awards. The money comes from investor protection funds and penalties that securities law violators paid to the SEC.

Record Fine for Pharmaceutical Giant

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Pfizer agreed to pay a $2.3 billion fine. The DOJ was investigating Pfizer for illegal and fraudulent promotion of its drug, Bextra, and other drugs. At the time, the fine broke several records:

  • Largest healthcare fraud settlement
  • Largest criminal fine in the U.S.
  • Largest civil fraud settlement against a pharmaceutical company

The DOJ accused Pfizer of using its sales team to sell and promote the off-label use of unapproved drugs. Pfizer promoted the sale of Bextra, an anti-inflammatory drug for uses and dosages the FDA hadn't approved. Pfizer also gave several kickbacks to physicians to promote the drug to their patients.

John Kopchinski, a Pfizer sales representative, was one of the many salespersons who blew the whistle on Pfizer's actions. Pfizer later fired Mr. Kopchinski.

U.S. Government Security Contractor Exposes Global Surveillance Program

Edward Snowden was a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. Snowden disclosed highly classified documents in 2013. The documents showed the existence of a government mass surveillance program called “Prism." The Prism program gave the NSA access to a vast amount of user data such as email and videos from tech companies, including:

  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Microsoft
  • Apple
  • YouTube

The documents also implicated foreign governments and telecommunications companies in the surveillance program.

The U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

In 2020, a U.S. federal court ruled in United States v. Moalin that the mass surveillance program exposed by Snowden was illegal.

Improper Billing of Federal Programs by Pharmacy Chain

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. agreed to pay $269.2 million in 2019 to settle two whistleblower cases. The civil fraud lawsuits accused Walgreens of overbilling MedicareMedicaid, and other health programs. From 2006 to 2017, the company billed these programs for insulin pens it knowingly dispensed to patients who didn't need them.

Walgreens also overcharged Medicaid from 2008 to 2017. In that instance, it did not disclose and charge the discount drug prices it advertised as part of its Prescription Savings Club program.

The whistleblower brought their claims under the False Claims Act.

Whistleblower Fired for Exposing Unsafe Roofing Practices

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted a safety and health inspection of Jasper Roofing Contractors. The company fired its safety manager after he gave OSHA information about Jasper's safety compliance.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) filed a lawsuit against Jasper in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The suit resulted from an investigation by OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program.

The lawsuit alleged that Jasper retaliated against the safety manager when it fired him. The company agreed to pay the employee $48,000 in back wages and compensatory damages. The company's owner also agreed to expunge disciplinary actions from the employee's personnel file.

Cancer-Causing Additives in Cigarettes

Jeffrey Wigand was an executive who headed up a cigarette manufacturer's research and development department. In February 1996, he appeared on the CBS news program “60 Minutes" and said that top officials at the company approved additives to their cigarettes that were known to be addictive and cause cancer.

Wigand's disclosures were an important element in the case brought by the states' attorneys general against the tobacco manufacturers. The states alleged deceptive practices in making and marketing cigarettes. The goal was to recover the money they had paid to treat tobacco-related illnesses under Medicaid.

The lawsuit was settled in 1998. Seven tobacco companies agreed to pay the states an estimated $206 billion and change the way they market tobacco products, according to California's Office of the Attorney General. The agreement is one of the largest civil settlements in U.S. history.

The agreement also mandates that tobacco companies provide ongoing annual payments to states as reimbursement for past tobacco-related costs. The companies will pay for as long as they sell cigarettes in the United States, according to Maryland's Office of the Attorney General. The Maryland Attorney General notes that the cigarette companies pay a total of about $6 billion to the states each year.

Cigarette companies that did not join the settlement are obligated to comply with state laws that have similar provisions to the agreement.

Wigand's story was made into a movie, The Insider, starring Russell Crowe.

Accounting Fraud

Sherron Watkins was a corporate executive at Enron Corporation, a Houston, TX-based energy trading company. In 2001, Watkins sent a memo to the company's CEO detailing financial wrongdoing. She discovered that Enron was using complicated accounting tricks and setting up fake companies that seemed valuable but had no real assets, just declining Enron stock.

The memo played a key role in bringing Enron's issues to light. As a result, Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001, the largest bankruptcy reorganization in American history at the time.

The scandal also led to the fall of Arthur Andersen, one of the largest audit and accounting firms in the world. The company had been auditing Enron. Arthur Andersen was found guilty of crimes related to how they managed Enron's audits. The company gave up its licenses to be Certified Public Accountants in the United States in 2002.

Several of Enron's top executives went to jail because of the fraud.

The Pentagon Papers

Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, made headlines in 1971 by leaking “The Pentagon Papers" to several newspapers.

The document is a top-secret study by the Pentagon. It analyzed the decision-making of the U.S. government during the Vietnam War. The study revealed that, despite assessments that the war was not “winnable," the U.S. government decided to escalate involvement in the unpopular conflict. There were claims that the study showed the Johnson Administration had misled Congress and the American public about Vietnam.

Ellsberg gave the papers to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1969. He released the papers to several newspapers in 1971. The New York Times was the first newspaper to publish the papers, but publication was halted due to a court order. 

Ellsberg then distributed the papers to The Washington Post and about 16 other newspapers to ensure the damaging information became public.

Authorities charged Ellsberg with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 as well as with theft and conspiracy. In 1973 the charges were dismissed because of governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering.

Nuclear Whistleblower

Karen Silkwood was a laboratory analyst and union activist at an Oklahoma-based nuclear facility. She raised alarms about health and safety issues at the plant as well as the possible theft of plutonium by workers. Plutonium is a radioactive material used in nuclear bombs. It poses significant health risks.

Silkwood testified before the Atomic Energy Commission in 1974. Following her testimony, Silkwood believed that both she and her apartment had been exposed to dangerous levels of plutonium. The highest levels of contamination were detected in her bathroom and on a sandwich in her refrigerator, suggesting deliberate plutonium contamination.

Silkwood died in a car accident in November 1974. She was on the way to meet a New York Times reporter and a union official.

The 1983 movie, Silkwood, is based on her story.

Associate Director of the FBI Brings Down a President

In 1972, five people broke into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters (DNC). The Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., housed the DNC offices. At the time, Richard Nixon was running for re-election.

Investigators linked the crooks to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President. This revelation led to Congressional hearings about the incident.

During the scandal, an anonymous source known as "Deep Throat" fed information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Both were reporters with the Washington Post. Deep Throat's disclosures led to Nixon's impeachment and eventual resignation.

Deep Throat's true identity was a secret for three decades. In 2005, Mark Felt revealed that he was Deep Throat. He was an Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the time of the scandal. Felt provided critical information to Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate scandal.

Legal Help for Whistleblowers

The success of whistleblower and retaliation lawsuits varies. Your case's circumstances will determine if you qualify for whistleblower protection. Contact an experienced whistleblower attorney to understand your legal options. An employment law attorney can also help if you are the victim of illegal whistleblower retaliation.

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