Whistleblowers in 2020
This article features our client Dawn Wooten and Jay Brainard and was originally published here.
In 2020, it seemed as though whistleblowers were in the news more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic was, of course, the year’s biggest news story, and whistleblowers played an important role throughout its development. Early on, whistleblowers in China warned of the dangers of the virus before facing retaliation from government officials. In the United States, whistleblower Rick Bright was an outspoken critic of the government’s response to the crisis. Countless other COVID whistleblowers have risked their safety and livelihoods to expose COVID-related safety issues or mismanagement of COVID relief funds. The COVID pandemic has reinforced how important whistleblowers are to society, but it has also highlighted how much work needs to be done to ensure that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation and their disclosures are taken seriously. For example, a September report from the U.S. Department of Labor found that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) needs to drastically improve its handling of whistleblower complaints.
Whistleblowers have played a central role in other top news stories of 2020. Amid nationwide protests against white supremacy and police brutality, police whistleblowers broke from the police “culture of silence” to report on police brutality and other forms of misconduct. For example, a Compton police officer whistleblower exposed the existence of a brutal gang within the Los Angeles Police Department. Similarly, whistleblowers throughout the federal government have come forward in 2020 with allegations of misconduct and corruption. In one case, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official blew the whistle on officials in the DHS pressuring analysts to change intelligence reports to align with the White House’s agenda.
In addition to these major overarching stories of 2020, it was a big year for whistleblowers in a number of other ways. The 2020 fiscal year was a record year for both the SEC and CFTC whistleblower programs. In October, the SEC issued a $114 million whistleblower award – the largest in program history. A number of key whistleblower-related court decisions were also issued in 2020. For example, a November ruling by a D.C. District Court judge closed a key loophole in the False Claims Act.
Whistleblowers are more important to Americans now than ever before, as evidenced by a 2020 Marist poll commissioned by WNN. The results showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans support increased protections for corporate and federal whistleblowers. Support was strong across demographic lines and political affiliations, proving that Americans care about supporting and protecting people who are brave enough to stand up to fraud and corruption.
Here are some of the top whistleblower stories of 2020:
- Court Issues $69.6 Million Judgement in Qui Tam False Claims Act Whistleblower Case
- On April 30, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt issued a $69.6 million judgment against the defendants in the high-profile qui tam False Claims Act case U.S. ex rel. Chepurko v. e-biofuels, LLP, et al. The qui tam case was triggered by whistleblower disclosures of the then 21-year old Alexander Chepurko regarding fraudulent transactions in the renewable energy biofuels industry. Chepurko’s case developed into the largest environmental and securities fraud cases in Indiana history, was highlighted in the CBS television show “Whistleblower,” and resulted in successful fraud and securities prosecutions by the government.
- Court Rules In Favor Of Whistleblower, Closing Key Loophole In False Claims Act
- On November 6, a D.C. District Court Judge issued a ruling on a key False Claims Act (FCA) whistleblower case that may have repercussions for years to come. Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled in the case of United States ex rel. Scollick v. Narula that a controversial “materiality requirement,” used mostly by companies trying to escape allegations of submitting false claims to the government, does not apply to the defendants in the case.
- COVID-19 Whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright Has Resigned
- In October, whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright, who worked for the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health resigned after facing retaliation for being an outspoken critic of the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In November, President-Elect Joe Biden named Dr. Bright to his COVID-19 task force.
- Whistleblower Alleges Widespread Medical Neglect at ICE Facility, Including an Alarming Rate of Hysterectomies on Immigrant Women
- A whistleblower complaint filed on September 14 alleged widespread medical neglect at an ICE detention center in Ocilla, Georgia. Nurse whistleblower Dawn Wooten and several detained immigrant women alleged that the facility grossly disregarded COVID-19 health and protocols and that immigrant women were subjected to forced hysterectomies.
- Danske Bank Whistleblower Wins Allard Prize for International Integrity
- On October 21, the Allard Prize for International Integrity announced Danske Bank whistleblower Howard Wilkinson as a co-winner of its 2020 Prize. The Allard Prize is awarded to those who fight against corruption and for the protection of human rights. Wilkinson blew the whistle on the largest money laundering scheme in history, worth at least $230 billion, while acting as the head of Danske Bank’s trading unit in the Baltics.
- DHS Whistleblower Claims Top Officials Told Him to Change Intelligence Reports to Support White House Agenda
- In October, the former head of Intelligence and Analysis for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging that senior officials at DHS are asking analysts to alter intelligence reports to support political goals. Among the claims are allegations that DHS officials downplayed reports containing possible Russian election interference and reported instead on Chinese and Iranian interference activities.
- Police Whistleblower Joins Compton Mayor In Claiming Existence Of Brutal Gang In Los Angeles Police Department
- In June, a whistleblower from the Compton Station (CPT) of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department claimed that more than 20 of 100 active deputies are part of a violent and brutal police gang The Executioners. Deputy Art Gonzalez, a decorated Marine Corps veteran, filed a whistleblower claim alleging that a fraternal police organization had infiltrated CPT.
- SEC and DOJ Charges in FCPA Case Prove Bribery Allegations by Greek Whistleblowers
- On June 25, the SEC and the U.S. Department of Justice announced Novartis AG, a global pharmaceutical and healthcare company based in Switzerland, agreed to pay over $300 million in sanctions to resolve FCPA charges for bribery in Greece. The enforcement actions were based upon information from anonymous Greek whistleblowers who documented the crimes.
- SEC Approves Rule Changes to Whistleblower Program; Rejects Notable Anti-Whistleblower Provisions
- On September 23, the SEC approved sweeping rule changes to its highly successful whistleblower program. The changes were multifaceted and include some changes that drew criticism from whistleblower advocates. However, the rule change was mostly seen as a win for whistleblowers because the SEC did not approve proposals that would automatically reduce the largest whistleblower awards and modified a proposal that would have set strict requirements that could have disqualified countless whistleblowers who failed to file a mandatory form.
- SEC Issues $114 Million Whistleblower Award – The Largest in SEC History
- On October 22, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of over $114 million. The award was issued to a whistleblower whose information and assistance led to the SEC’s successful enforcement action and successful related actions by other agencies. The $114 million award is more than double the amount of the second largest whistleblower award in SEC history.
- TSA Orders New COVID-19 Safety Precautions In Response to Whistleblower Complaint
- Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Federal Security Director Jay Brainard filed a whistleblower complaint in June of 2020, alleging that the TSA had failed to take proper COVID-19 safety precautions. His complaint prompted changes to the TSA’s safety protocols, and after meeting with TSA officials, Brainard felt satisfied that the changes would improve passenger safety.
- Whistleblower Claims Federal Officials Were Stockpiling Weapons to Use Against Protesters in DC
- After a late August protest in which law enforcement officers moved protesters out of Lafayette Square in downtown D.C., a whistleblower alleged that the defense officials were seeking out weapons to use against the protesters. The whistleblower claimed in a sworn testimony that officials considered using weapons that had previously been deemed too dangerous for use in war zones.
- WNN Exclusive: Transportation Department Violates Congressional Requirement To Protect Auto Safety Whistleblowers
- This WNN Exclusive revealed that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is in violation of a mandatory Congressional requirement to enact rules to protect auto safety whistleblowers. The FAST Act mandated that DOT approve and publish rules for their whistleblower program on or before July 6, 2016. In a statement provided to WNN, DOT confirmed that the agency has failed to even publish proposed rules. It merely stated that the agency is “working” on the rules.
- Department of Labor Report Finds OSHA Must Improve Handling of Whistleblower Complaints
- On August 14, the Department of Labor released a report detailing how the combination of staffing shortages within OSHA’s whistleblower protection program and a rise in whistleblower complaints due to the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to severely hinder the agency’s ability to investigate claims in a timely manner. The report found that OSHA needs to improve its handling of whistleblower complaints.