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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Why IMF Whistleblowers Were Silent

Shelley Walden, May 18, 2011


The arrest of International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn for alleged sexual assault has recently made headline news.  Prosecutors in the case now claim to have information that suggests that Strauss-Kahn had previously engaged in similar misconduct.

Indeed, in 2008 Strauss-Kahn was investigated at the IMF for sexual harassment and abuse of power. According to a 2008 IMF Ethics Office report:

In the fall of 2008, an allegation of a close personal relationship between the Managing Director and a senior staff member was brought to the attention of the Dean of the Board. The staff member in question had already voluntarily left the Fund and found employment at another organization. The issues to be resolved were whether the establishment of the relationship constituted sexual harassment and an abuse of authority by the Managing Director, in particular, either through encouraging the staff member to leave the Fund, or through preferential treatment in the terms and conditions of the staff member’s employment.

An investigation was launched and the Board ultimately concluded that no misconduct had occurred. But as one former IMF official told The New York Times:

Had Mr. Strauss-Kahn been a less senior person, he might [sic] been fired or at least ‘sent to Siberia’ because of the affair with his underling. He survived an investigation, in part, this person said, because the culture at the I.M.F. dictated ‘no rules’ for the managing director and because there was little appetite to rid the agency of a charismatic and effective leader when an international financial crisis looming.

In 2008, the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) issued a warning about the repercussions of this ‘no rules for the Managing Director’ culture. According to the IEO, “neither the policies nor the structure of the Fund encourages any person to report misconduct by an executive director or Managing Director to any authority.” Furthermore:

The fund lacks clear and protected arrangements for reporting possible misconduct. The system may discourage reports of wrongdoing and increase the risk (and perceived risk) of retaliation by executive directors and the Managing Director against those who report misconduct. Without guaranteed, credible protection from retaliation for staff members who report concerns about misconduct, there is an increased risk that conflicts of interest and other ethical problems of an executive director or Managing Director will go undetected…

Even executive directors may not feel empowered to report misconduct by a Managing Director for fear of retaliation by the Managing Director. To retaliate against an executive director who complained about his conduct, a Managing Director could, for example, delay an initiative that is important to an executive director’s constituency, or complain to an executive director’s home country that the director was being uncooperative. (p. 12-13)

It is therefore no wonder that IMF employees who may have had information about sexual harassment or other misconduct by the Managing Director stayed silent.To its credit, the IMF did subsequently establish an Integrity Hotline to process whistleblower complaints, but this Hotline did not go far enough in addressing the concerns raised in the IEO’s report. In 2009, GAP evaluated the IMF’s whistleblower protection policy and found the rights of IMF whistleblowers to be nonexistent or deficient as a rule compared to those at other Intergovernmental Organizations. The Fund passed only 1 out of our 20 standards for a credible whistleblower protection policy.

Last month, GAP sent a letter to the IMF Managing Director and Executive Directors urging them to formulate a stronger whistleblower protection policy, but we have yet to receive a reply.

In light of the Managing Director's subsequent arrest, it is crucial that the IMF create stronger whistleblower protections and procedures for reporting misconduct not only by the Managing Director, but by all senior managers and executive directors.

Shelley Walden is International Officer for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.