My guest today is Donald Ray Soeken, author of Don’t Kill the Messenger! How America’s Valiant Whistleblowers Risk Everything in Order to Speak Out Against Waste, Fraud and Abuse in Business and Government.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Don. What made you qualified to write this book and why are you called “The Bulldog” for whistleblowers?
DS: I take cases no one else will – and I win. I’ve counseled hundreds of whistleblowers over the past 40 years. I tell all in my recent book, focusing on just a few of the whistleblowers I’ve helped. In some cases, we have gone to trial and won, as in the Hyatt case against Northrop. Judges have declared me an expert witness uniquely qualified to testify about whistleblower psychology. It’s a tough road – all whistleblowers and all whistleblower advocates face setbacks from some of the most entrenched corrupt interests. Nevertheless, since 1980, I’ve helped whistleblowers win more than 100 million dollars in court awards and settlements.
JB: Wow. 100 million dollars! That’s encouraging.
DS: My work has been featured around the globe, including in the New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian (U.K.), Time Magazine, Psychology Today, Business Ethics Magazine, USA Today, CBS Evening News, Associated Press, Parade Magazine, CNN and National Public Radio.
I’m proud to work for the most patriotic, hard working and committed people who want positive change for our country. Only a few people are willing to stand up against fraud, and put their jobs, their families and sometimes their lives on the line. I felt compelled to write this book to share just a few examples.
JB: Okay, you’ve made your case! So, what happens to people after they’ve blown the whistle? What is going on with the VA whistleblowers that are in the news? [See USNews.com, 5.19.14: More VA Whistleblowers Coming Forward, Campaign Says]
DS: The VA whistleblowers are a perfect example. These patriots are standing up so that our returning veterans can get decent care. Many of my clients have been blowing that whistle for years. What citizen can argue that the VA whistleblowers aren’t doing the right thing?
If someone had listened to whistleblowers, we could have stopped the Wall Street slide. We could have stopped the loss of America’s industries, the Challenger and Columbia disasters, and avoided some wars.
We have got to stop disasters before they happen. Time and again, the only way to protect the public is to protect whistleblowers.
If you want good health care, safe streets, clean air and honest judges, value for taxpayers, basic decency and continued democracy, thank a whistleblower. For goodness sakes, without Daniel Ellsberg, Mark Felt and Jack Anderson, Richard Nixon could easily have prevailed. Citizens can never know the truth without insiders coming forward.
The truth is the most powerful weapon of all. The powerful always find the truth inconvenient. Look all the way back to the Roman emperors- they shot the messenger rather than fix the problem! Had Caesar listened to the soothsayer, things would have been a lot different.
Mark Galen wrote a long piece [see his review] tying the decay of nations to failure to heed truth-telling whistleblowers. That’s where we are now. If we don’t start listening to truth-tellers, we will be joining the Do-Do bird. There is no margin for error. We need people to tell the truth, and listen, fix problems, and protect our citizens.
Just like the whistleblowers at the VA are doing.
JB: What fallout do whistleblowers suffer for acting on their principles?
DS: The price patriotic whistleblowers pay is incredible. There are ancient taboos against tattling. Companies exploit this to isolate patriotic whistleblowers. No; the guys in the white hats don’t always win.
My wife and I have published a comprehensive list of retaliation. You can look at our statistics at: file:///Users/donsoeken/Documents/Soeken.pdf by Don and Karen Soeken.
What did our statistics show?
1. Whistleblowers are not misfits. The average whistleblower is a 47-year-old family man employed seven years before exposing wrongdoing. Most were driven by conscience. And virtually all would do it again.
2. The whistleblowers are ethical and half were religious. They tended to assume that the best could be achieved by following universal moral codes, which guided their judgments.
3. Whistleblowers put their jobs on the line to protect the public. One out of every five of those in the survey reported they were without a job, and 25 percent mentioned increased financial burdens on the family as the most negative result of their action.
4. Whistleblower families suffer tremendously. My wife and I got replies on the survey like “People made fun of me” or “People who I thought were my best friends stopped associating with me”.
5. Despite hardship, whistleblowers would do it again. A truck driver said: ”I went through hell emotionally. The insults from management and fellow workers were extreme. It made me a colder, callused person, and yes, I would do it again.”
6. Effects are long lasting. A government worker said, ”Don’t do it unless you’re willing to spend many years, ruin your career and sacrifice your personal life.”
7. Whistleblowers find that doing right is its own reward. An engineer in private industry put it more positively: ”Do what is right. Lost income can be replaced. Lost self-esteem is more difficult to retrieve.” Another federal employee confided, ”Finding honesty within me was more powerful than I expected”.
8. Eighty percent reported physical deterioration, with loss of sleep and added weight as the most common symptoms. Eighty-six percent reported negative emotional consequences, including feelings of depression, powerlessness, isolation, anxiety and anger.
There are seven stages of life for the whistleblower: discovery of the abuse; reflection on what action to take; confrontation with superiors; retaliation; the long haul of legal or other action involved; termination of the case, and going on to a new life.
The last stage is the most difficult to reach, and most of them don’t reach it.
JB: In your book, you zeroed in on a handful of whistle blowers. You’ve worked with hundreds. How did you choose?
DS: I chose the best examples of how government agencies and one private corporation treated whistleblowers. Some of my clients are under gag orders. Some of the best stories remain untold because they are sealed.
I was successful in stopping the Executive and Legislative Branches from routinely using the forced psychiatric fitness for duty exam. The next target is to stop misuse in security clearance by psychiatric “hired guns” that the various agencies hire.
The public ought to be outraged that psychiatric professionals cook up exams to discredit targets with biased, false, misleading, distracting, and useless psychological reports.
JB: Were you ever concerned that you yourself would be a target for retaliation?
DS: Yes. I have lost my career because I advocated for a whistleblower. I have known their pain. When I went to Congress in 1978 to report my findings about the forced fitness for duty exams, I got permission from HEW [Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now the Department of Health and Human Services].
In 1992, I blew the whistle regarding the death of a patient at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in DC, and became a witness for her and her family.
I faced blowback after I was in a Parade Magazine article written by Jack Anderson [August 18, 1991, “A Haven for Whistleblower” by Jack Anderson with Tim Warner contributing] in which he praised my work exposing the government’s use of Forced Fitness for Duty Exams. I had close friends who warned me I could be retaliated against.
After I was constructively retired, I spent two weeks on the Brian Hyatt case against Northrop [chapter seven in my book]. Mr. Hyatt won his case with my assistance and testimony.
JB: Lucky for both of you! How do you think your book will be received?
DS: This book is a must read for everyone who has a career. It’s a must read for every taxpayer, for every patient in a hospital, every person who wants a strong defense, and wants to preserve our jobs. For anyone who believes we need to return to truth-based politics.
I wrote the book because I want America to persist. We can only continue if our policies are fact-based. The average American does not know how profound truths are being suppressed.
I expect a tidal wave of sales of Don’t Kill the Messenger! Once we get the word out.
JB: I like that positive attitude, Don! Have conditions for whistleblowers improved over the four decades spanning your career? How’s the current president doing?
DS: Unfortunately, things are getting worse. Judges have hit a new low. Elected judges need corporate contributions. Appointed judges also have deep ties to establishments. It is sad so many judges are hostile to truth-tellers.
The Obama administration is a great disappointment. This is truly a “war on whistleblowers.” Witness the VA scandal this week. Are the whistleblowers being thanked for trying to save veterans? One of my clients has tried to sound this alarm for 14 years and despite decades of service to veterans, he has been blackballed.
The system is so messed up that even the best attorneys don’t know what to do. My VA client has spent his life savings and his lawyers don’t know what to do – even in this crisis!
Even wealthy whistleblowers run out of funds needed for trial. All good cases are appealed by the defense if they lose so that more funds are needed for the appeal. The Brian Hyatt case against Northrop shows how this appeal process works: the trial awards dwindle as the attorneys take 40% of the court award, and the appeal takes another cut, and the IRS gets around 30% of the award. The whistleblower is then left with less than 30% of the award which could be needed by multiple appeals. The defense bleeds the whistleblower of funds and the lesson is that many whistleblowers go bankrupt.
People think that whistleblowers get rich; that is totally false. The chance that a truth-teller will get back his lawyer fees is less than the chance of winning the lottery. That’s pretty tough for people who are blacklisted from their industry.
Shocking: how can the administration charge whistleblowers with the 1917 Espionage Act? This act was to be used on spies and traitors not people who want an open and honest law abiding government which is transparent with its citizens. This is absolute mendacity!
“They deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth.” [Plato, The Republic] This is the approach of the present Justice Department to treat whistleblowers as untruthful law-breaking citizens.
Nothing will be left of our colossal country if we don’t start listening to truth tellers. Future civilizations will look at the sands covering our great land and wonder how we could have missed the truth staring us in the face.
JB: Sadly, I agree; this administration’s attitude toward whistleblowers is very disturbing. Anything you’d like to add before we wrap this up?
DS: Jack Anderson received classified material many times. He was the giant who helped me get started in this field. Read his obituary* if you get the chance.
Anderson knew well the inclination of the powerful to ignore unpleasant news. Since the time of Ozymandias, Plato and Caesar, empires fell because they shot the truth-tellers. This week, America has the chance to embrace the VA whistleblowers or trample and lose yet another cherished patriotic institution. We lost our industries, our mortgage banks, countless other trillions. When are we going to end waste, fraud, and incompetence? We must listen and protect truth!
It’s time for America to read Don’t Kill the Messenger! so we don’t go the way of either the Dodo bird or lost civilizations.
JB: It was a pleasure talking with you, Don. Thank you for all your efforts on behalf of whistleblowers over the years. And good luck with your book.