GAP's fourth stop on its 2011-2012 American Whistleblower Tour took place last Monday (January 30) at Auburn University (AU) in Auburn, Alabama. Hosted by the School of Accountancy and the College of Business, I was joined by two incredible whistleblowers who disclosed serious wrongdoing in the corporate sector: Sherron Watkins, famous for blowing the whistle on accounting fraud that brought down the Enron Corporation in 2001, and Kenneth Kendrick, who in 2008 exposed unsanitary conditions and corrupt testing practices at the Plainview, Texas plant of Peanut Corporation of America that contributed to the deaths of at least eight people and sickened hundreds more from salmonella poisoning, resulting in the largest food recall in history.
The panel presentation (the centerpiece of most Tour stops) was sensational, gathering an enthusiastic crowd of more than 350 students, faculty and friends. Warmly welcomed by Dean Hardgrave of the College of Business and by our host, Dr. Sarah Stanwick (who invited us to campus and coordinated our visit), I opened the event asking for a show of hands of how many people had ever seen or been asked to do something they thought was wrong, unethical, illegal or dangerous. Nearly everyone in the room raised their hands. When asked how many chose to speak up about the problem, very few hands stayed up.
And that's a primary thrust of our Tour – to introduce collegiate students, who are America's incoming workforce, to the concept of whistleblowing. After defining the term, I offered numerous examples of how whistleblower disclosures protected the public interest (removing unsafe pharmaceuticals from the market; halting nuclear reactors because of serious design flaws; stopping the practice of repackaging spoiled meat for resale, etc).
With countless examples, it's not hard to show people how important whistleblowers are to a functioning market and democracy. But students seemed surprised upon learning that those who muster such amazing acts of courage are typically retaliated against for raising concerns, ranging from poor reviews to firings and smear campaigns.
This led naturally into an introduction to Sherron and Kenneth, who both blew the whistle on large-scale issues that affected the entire country, and whose actions resulted in major policy and legal reforms. Sherron, famous as the VP at Enron who warned CEO Ken Lay that the company "might implode in a wave of accounting scandals," also offered critical Congressional testimony that ultimately led to the prosecution of several senior Enron executives and the most sweeping financial reform legislation (Sarbanes-Oxley) that had been passed in nearly 80 years. Chosen by Time Magazine in 2002 as one of three whistleblowers to be the "Persons of the Year," Sherron was lucky to avoid some of the more extreme forms of reprisal, because of Enron's bankruptcy filed just months after her disclosures, and the positive accolades she received in the press.
Kenneth blew the whistle on something arguably even more serious than financial fraud: that widespread Salmonella-tainted peanut butter product could be traced to conditions he witnessed working at the Plainview, TX plant of Peanut Corporation of America, which shipped peanut products to the Georgia plant – believed to be the source of the 2008-09 outbreak that killed at least nine individuals. When news of the outbreak hit, and Kenneth was feeding his own granddaughter peanut butter crackers that were part of the initial food recall, he knew what he had to do. He contacted dozens of public agencies and companies to report the conditions he witnessed – including a roof leak that allowed rainwater contaminated with bird feces to drip onto the peanuts. Finally, Safe Tables Our Priority (now STOP Foodborne Illness) helped Kenneth blow the whistle on Good Morning America and to The New York Times.
Unfortunately, Kenneth did not receive the same accolades that Sherron did. Rather, the public attention he received likely prompted his termination from his then-current job with an FDA regulated industry. This was followed with refusals by potential new employers to hire him expressly because of his whistleblowing. Kenneth suffered death threats, the foreclosure of his house after losing work, and extreme depression. And because Kenneth reported the problems after he left his job at PCA (notably, he did alert management and the Texas Department of Health while he was still employed at PCA to no avail), he fell through all of the legal cracks that could have potentially protected him from retaliation for blowing the whistle.
Kenneth's disclosures had profound effects – likely saving lives by prompting the widespread food recall, and as being a catalyst for passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which provides strong whistleblower protection for corporate employees who report any food violations enforced by the FDA. His disclosures also triggered Georgia to pass a series of new, rigorous laws to ensure the quality of peanut production in that state.
But the personal toll on Kenneth has been serious and difficult, and important for our Tour audiences to hear in our effort to create a culture that offers support and thanks to those who speak up about wrongdoing to protect the public interest.
Sherron and Kenneth shared the arc of their stories from the point they discovered the wrongdoing, how they disclosed it, what they experienced after raising concerns, and the nature and degree of vindication they felt for having blown the whistle. While both said they would do it again, they offered that having legal advice and support, before and after blowing the whistle, is of paramount importance. The audience joined me in loud, sustained applause for Sherron and Kenneth's public service and their willingness to share their experiences. The next day, the three of us had the opportunity to speak directly, more in-depth with students during classroom visits.
Too often, the messenger is still viewed as the problem instead of the message they deliver. One goal of our Tour is to stop the paradigm of some who label whistleblowers as "disloyal," "snitches," or motivated for self-serving ends. Healthy workplace cultures are those in which employees who report concerns are treated with gratitude and support for their willingness to come forward.
Local Georgia CBS affiliate WRBL ran a strong story about the Tour and our visit to Auburn the night of the event toward this end:
Lastly, enormous thanks are in order. First, to Dr. Sarah Stanwick who contacted us immediately upon learning about the Tour wanting to know how Auburn University could be a stop – her enthusiasm and effort in organizing our visit was truly incredible. Likewise, Dr. DeWayne Searcy, Associate Professor and Director of the School of Accountancy, joined us for every event and meal, not just out of the profound level of Southern hospitality that we experienced from the entire faculty at Auburn University, but out of sincere interest in the issue of whistleblowing and its important role in business ethics curriculum. From all of the many Accountancy faculty who joined us for meals to Dean Hardgrave to the student members of the Executive Society who volunteered at the Tour event, Sherron, Kenneth and I felt so welcomed by everyone. We look forward to building on our new relationship with Auburn University in the future.
The next Tour stop starts today at Florida International University, where GAP President Louis Clark will be joined by famous journalists and whistleblowers in a two-day multi-pronged event entitled What If Nobody Listened? How Whistleblowers and Journalists Expose Corruption, Skullduggery and Injustices. The presentations over two days include:
- How Whistling Smoked Out Big Tobacco
- The Politics of Concealment and Revelation in the Nixon Era
- No Secrets: How Whistleblowers and Journalists Have Changed the World
Click here for more info on any of these. We have at least eight more Tour stops scheduled at this point through Spring 2012. If you are a faculty member or student interested in learning how you can bring the Tour to your college or university, please contact our terrific Tour Coordinator, Heather Hoffman, at email@example.com.
Dana Gold is the American Whistleblower Tour Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.