Blowing in the Wind

By

'Call me the dean of federal whistle-blowers," says Joe Carson,
handing me his business card. prevailing whistleblower, it reads,
along with his job as a Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear safety
engineer. Carson, a towering man whose shoulders slope forward as
if he's pushing into a gale wind, hovers above the crowd at the
Warehouse Theater bar in Washington detailing his bona fides: He
first blew the whistle on safety violations at Tennessee's Oak
Ridge lab in 1992; since then, he has blown it seven more times, all
while still employed at DOE. "Anybody want to match that record?"
he barks.Actually, there are plenty of people here at the kickoff reception
for Whistleblower Week in Washington who can blow it away. It's the
first whistle- blowers' convention in 15 years, and everybody who
has ever told on anybody has come to town for it. There are old
movement patriarchs like Jeffrey Wigand, who ratted out big tobacco
in the '90s (the Russell Crowe movie he inspired--The Insider--will
play later in a small theater behind the bar) and younger stars of
the Bush era like FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, who hobnobs with
a clutch of admirers. There is a U.S. air marshal who estimates he
has blown the whistle 20 or 30 times, in the beginning under the
code name "Vegas," and an ob- gyn in plaid who hands everyone
packets detailing his cases against several hospitals and the
California Medical Board from a box he drags around on a little
trolley.

Presiding over them all is a tiny, twinkly-eyed Government
Accountability Project (GAP) lawyer named Tom Devine. "I think of
Jesus as a whistle-blower," he muses, when asked to give a short
history of whistleblowing. "But, at this stage, with Bush's
legitimacy falling apart, there are probably more whistle- blowers
than at any other point in modern times."

This, the end of President Bush's reign, is the whistle-blower's
moment. Squealing is sexy when your bosses are Brownie and Gonzo.
House Democrats, hungry for more oversight, passed a whistle-blower
protection bill in March that extends protections to government
employees--the people who "knew that Iraq did not try to import
uranium from Niger," as Henry Waxman put it. Whistle- blowers
attending the convention were urged to lobby their senators on
behalf of the now-stalled bill, and a "people's tribunal" was
mounted in the Rayburn House Office Building to give
whistle-blowers like Bunnatine Greenhouse (tattled on Halliburton)
and Marsha ColemanAdebayo (spilled the beans on the EPA) a chance
to show legislators whistle-blowing's human face.

But, as the week goes on, it becomes clear that Whistleblower Week
is more than a rally. It's a chance for people who have long been
miserable lone gunmen to come together and rejoice in
whistle-blowing's transformation into a full- fledged personal
identity--a scene with its own specialized lawyers, therapists,
40-odd advocacy groups, a publishing imprint, swag, and even a
timeless philosophy. We "believe in Kant and Mill and Aristotle,"
Wigand tells the whistle-blowers at the reception, "in the
categorical imperative." But, the funny thing is, even all this
solidarity can't make Joe Carson happy.

Two days later, at the Willard Hotel, the conventioneers further
their education with such colloquia as "The ABCs of a Successful
Whistleblower Case" and "Whistleblowers and the Press." Inside the
seminar rooms, sports-coach-like instructors scribble power-balance
diagrams on whiteboards: In one, the whistle- blower is a tiny dot
and the bureaucracy a circle around him; fat arrows of hostility
shoot in from the circle toward the hapless speck. Guest speakers
advise rapt audiences to keep money in mind ("sometimes, you're so
worried about winning the case, you forget about damages!"),
consider going anonymous ("we have Mr. Blue, we have Apples, we
have P.J."), and maintain perspective ("know when it's time to move
on").

This last point can be hard to learn, because whistle-blowing is
addictive. "After it's over, you see people wandering, desiring
that level of involvement, " explains Jim Holzrichter, a
soft-spoken former auditor whose epic struggle with Northrop
Grumman put his family in a homeless shelter for months. Down the
hall from the seminar rooms, in a prim beige-and-cinnamon lounge,
Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers Coalition head Jeffrey Fudin
perches patiently on a couch, waiting for his V.A. colleagues to
come help put the finishing touches on their presentation. Fudin
started blowing the whistle back in 1993, when he suspected that
the Albany V.A. hospital where he worked was illegally
experimenting on cancer patients. Most recently, he blew it in 2004,
when the hospital refused him time off to give a lecture on, natch,
whistle-blowing. "To you, it might not seem a big deal," he allows,
smiling gently. "But, to me, it was just another twist of the
knife."

Since that episode, though, times have been flush for V.A.
Whistleblowers. After the Walter Reed scandal broke, Fudin started
receiving several new membership inquiries every week. A national
security whistle-blowers' group has had to turn away applicants,
and staffers visiting Whistleblower Week's events exhibit special
interest in people from the Department of Justice. This end of
loneliness and newfound sense of community is the convention's grand
theme, and the lower-profile whistle-blowers, along with the stars,
emit the grateful sense of being inducted into a fellowship. "I was
like, 'Oh, my God, they're me, and I'm them,'" gushes a Tennessee
nurse.

But, after the seminars are done, when a handful of whistle-blowers
retire to sip chardonnay at a Marriott hotel restaurant nearby,
some tensions begin to peek through. Talk turns to the omnipresent
plaid-coated doctor. "I'm not sure his whistle-blowing was all that
important," someone whispers.

At the beginning of the week, I was skeptical of the proposition
that whistle-blowing is a personality type you are born with. But
it never seemed more true than at the end of Whistleblower Week,
during a $150-a-head wrap-up retreat to help whistle-blowers
de-stress. Seated with the whistle-blowers in a darkened room,
retreat leader Don Soeken--a psychotherapist who runs a mountain
sanctuary for whistle-blowers in West Virginia-- encouraged them to
contemplate a healing career change. But conversation soon circled
back to the whistle- blowing life, as one Naval whistle-blower
recounted the story of a cryptographer whose valiant work at Pearl
Harbor the Navy had rewarded with bitter demotions. "Oh--oh," an
ex-Army Corps of Engineers manager cried out, as though the
long-dead cryptographer's humiliation was her own. Later, Soeken
showed a relaxation video, because "it's hard for whistle-blowers
not to make noise," he explained. "It's like a group of unruly
children." During the film, one whistle-blower threw spitballs.

Above all, "whistle-blower" is a personality type that thinks in
absolutes. Isolated from professional peers, they long for a cozy
community of like-minded souls, but they also instinctively
distrust such coziness. That might explain what made all that
whistle-blower fellowship less than satisfactory for Joe Carson.
While he showed up to almost every Whistleblower Week event, all
the while he was plotting. His targets were the whistle-blowing
advocates themselves, whom he alleged turn a blind eye to
dysfunctional government oversight because it feeds their business
model. "GAP, Tom Devine--they exploit a lot of these people that
need rescuers," says Carson.

The accusation does not go unanswered. "It makes me a little
resentful," Devine says, adding that he no longer intends to spend
time with Carson or represent him for free.

But Carson knows how to take his complaint to the next level. "We're
on a crusade to embarrass and enlighten GAP," says a whistle-blower
friend, detailing their plan to expose the group to its donors.
After all, if you believe anything of Kant or Mill or Aristotle,
you have a mandate to expose fraud unconditionally. Even if that
means blowing the whistle on the whistle- blowers.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.