American Whistleblower Tour visited Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), a small liberal arts school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This third stop of our 2012-13 collegiate tour brought prominent whistleblowers Kenneth Kendrick (food safety) and Rick Piltz (climate science) to campus to share their experiences with the public and help educate students – our country's incoming workforce – about the phenomenon of whistleblowing.Earlier this month, GAP's
The main event on Thursday, January 17 featured a panel discussion as part of F&M's weekly televised Common Hour series. GAP President Louis Clark gave an overview of notable whistleblower cases and laws passed to better protect truth-tellers in the government and private industry, including the recently enacted Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act for federal employees. He then moderated a Q&A with Kendrick and Piltz about their incredible truth-telling experiences.
Kendrick was an assistant plant manager for the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), where he witnessed numerous public health violations at their Plainview, Texas facility – including rodent infestation and a leaky roof, which he explained can transport Salmonella from bird feces into products. After he left PCA, he made his disclosures public on Good Morning America amidst the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak tied to PCA's peanut butter (which sickened 714 people across 46 states, contributing to nine deaths). Only then did state health officials finally take a look at the Texas plant. Learn more about Kendrick’s whistleblowing here.
Although Kendrick unveiled major threats to the food supply, he struggled to find work afterwards. "I've been told at three separate job interviews that they won't hire me because I'm considered a whistleblower," he told the audience. Students were surprised that other whistleblowers had not come forward, and after the event, one young woman personally thanked Kendrick for the risks he took in service to the public.
Rick Piltz described his experience as a senior associate in the coordination office of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. In 2005, he blew the whistle on the George W. Bush administration's improper editing and censorship of science program reports on global warming intended for the public and Congress. Piltz wanted the scientific findings – which detail the observable impacts of climate change, half of which he said is caused by human activity – to become public knowledge. But the head of the White House environmental office at the time, Philip Cooney – a former oil industry lobbyist – "decided to make it vanish," according to Piltz. So after 10 years working for the government, Piltz finally resigned and resolved to get the information out another way. He turned to GAP for legal advice, and his story appeared on the front page of The New York Times, which detailed the administration's censorship of climate science. Two days later, Cooney resigned and took a job with ExxonMobil. Piltz's disclosure received a lot of media coverage, but he went almost a year without any income after his whistleblowing. He then started GAP's Climate Science Watch, serving as a commentator and watchdog on government policies (or lack thereof) related to climate change.
Watch video of the full panel discussion below.
In addition to the panel, the two whistleblowers and Clark spoke at several F&M classes on Thursday and Friday, allowing more intimate discussions about the presenters' topics of expertise and the repercussions they faced when speaking truth to power. Clark answered student questions in an advanced crisis management class, where he explained GAP's process of taking on whistleblower clients and how the laws really work. "The students were giving a lot of energy into the discussion," he said.
The same type of engagement occurred in the public health class that Clark and Kendrick both attended, where discussion of food industry whistleblowing sparked the mention of last year's "pink slime" scandal. Piltz was also the featured speaker at a climate change luncheon on campus. Students and faculty were able to dive deeper into the subject, questioning how climate scientists could stand up to the political influence of the energy industries. Piltz stated that climate science censorship is less outright under the Obama administration, but he believed the president's silence on the subject is just as concerning (See his Climate Science Watch blog commenting on Obama's Inaugural Address).
Overall, the feedback from Franklin & Marshall College was overwhelmingly positive, which means a lot to these whistleblowers who have suffered professionally and personally for the sake of transparency.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.