Blowing in the Wind; The strange cult of the...

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JUNE 4, 2007

Blowing in the Wind; The strange cult of the Washingtonwhistle-blower.

'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 safetyengineer. Carson, a towering man whose shoulders slope forward asif he's pushing into a gale wind, hovers above the crowd at theWarehouse Theater bar in Washington detailing his bona fides: Hefirst blew the whistle on safety violations at Tennessee's OakRidge lab in 1992; since then, he has blown it seven more times, allwhile still employed at DOE. "Anybody want to match that record?"he barks.

Actually, there are plenty of people here at the kickoff receptionfor Whistleblower Week in Washington who can blow it away. It's thefirst whistle- blowers' convention in 15 years, and everybody whohas ever told on anybody has come to town for it. There are oldmovement patriarchs like Jeffrey Wigand, who ratted out big tobaccoin the '90s (the Russell Crowe movie he inspired--The Insider--willplay later in a small theater behind the bar) and younger stars ofthe Bush era like FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley, who hobnobs witha clutch of admirers. There is a U.S. air marshal who estimates hehas blown the whistle 20 or 30 times, in the beginning under thecode name "Vegas," and an ob- gyn in plaid who hands everyonepackets detailing his cases against several hospitals and theCalifornia Medical Board from a box he drags around on a littletrolley.

Presiding over them all is a tiny, twinkly-eyed GovernmentAccountability Project (GAP) lawyer named Tom Devine. "I think ofJesus as a whistle-blower," he muses, when asked to give a shorthistory of whistleblowing. "But, at this stage, with Bush'slegitimacy falling apart, there are probably more whistle- blowersthan at any other point in modern times."

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

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

Two days later, at the Willard Hotel, the conventioneers furthertheir education with such colloquia as "The ABCs of a SuccessfulWhistleblower Case" and "Whistleblowers and the Press." Inside theseminar rooms, sports-coach-like instructors scribble power-balancediagrams on whiteboards: In one, the whistle- blower is a tiny dotand the bureaucracy a circle around him; fat arrows of hostilityshoot in from the circle toward the hapless speck. Guest speakersadvise rapt audiences to keep money in mind ("sometimes, you're soworried about winning the case, you forget about damages!"),consider going anonymous ("we have Mr. Blue, we have Apples, wehave P.J."), and maintain perspective ("know when it's time to moveon").

This last point can be hard to learn, because whistle-blowing isaddictive. "After it's over, you see people wandering, desiringthat level of involvement, " explains Jim Holzrichter, asoft-spoken former auditor whose epic struggle with NorthropGrumman put his family in a homeless shelter for months. Down thehall from the seminar rooms, in a prim beige-and-cinnamon lounge,Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers Coalition head Jeffrey Fudinperches patiently on a couch, waiting for his V.A. colleagues tocome help put the finishing touches on their presentation. Fudinstarted blowing the whistle back in 1993, when he suspected thatthe Albany V.A. hospital where he worked was illegallyexperimenting 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 theknife."

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

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

At the beginning of the week, I was skeptical of the propositionthat whistle-blowing is a personality type you are born with. Butit never seemed more true than at the end of Whistleblower Week,during a $150-a-head wrap-up retreat to help whistle-blowersde-stress. Seated with the whistle-blowers in a darkened room,retreat leader Don Soeken--a psychotherapist who runs a mountainsanctuary for whistle-blowers in West Virginia-- encouraged them tocontemplate a healing career change. But conversation soon circledback to the whistle- blowing life, as one Naval whistle-blowerrecounted the story of a cryptographer whose valiant work at PearlHarbor the Navy had rewarded with bitter demotions. "Oh--oh," anex-Army Corps of Engineers manager cried out, as though thelong-dead cryptographer's humiliation was her own. Later, Soekenshowed a relaxation video, because "it's hard for whistle-blowersnot to make noise," he explained. "It's like a group of unrulychildren." During the film, one whistle-blower threw spitballs.

Above all, "whistle-blower" is a personality type that thinks inabsolutes. Isolated from professional peers, they long for a cozycommunity of like-minded souls, but they also instinctivelydistrust such coziness. That might explain what made all thatwhistle-blower fellowship less than satisfactory for Joe Carson.While he showed up to almost every Whistleblower Week event, allthe while he was plotting. His targets were the whistle-blowingadvocates themselves, whom he alleged turn a blind eye todysfunctional government oversight because it feeds their businessmodel. "GAP, Tom Devine--they exploit a lot of these people thatneed rescuers," says Carson.

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

But Carson knows how to take his complaint to the next level. "We'reon a crusade to embarrass and enlighten GAP," says a whistle-blowerfriend, 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 thatmeans blowing the whistle on the whistle- blowers.

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