What Is the Whistleblower Act? - Definition, Rights & Protection

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  • 0:07 What Is a Whistleblower?
  • 1:05 Federal Whistleblowers
  • 3:52 Corporate Whistleblowers
  • 5:24 The False Claims Act
  • 6:44 Lesson Review
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

A whistleblower is an employee that reports an employer's misconduct. There are laws that protect whistleblowers from being fired or mistreated for reporting misconduct. One of these laws is the Whistleblower Protection Act. This lesson explains the Whistleblower Protection Act and other laws that protect whistleblowers.

What Is A Whistleblower?

A whistleblower is someone that blows the whistle! No, not the tiny flute instrument. We're talking about someone that calls out, or reports, someone else's wrongdoing. A whistleblower is a person working within an organization who reports that organization's misconduct. The person can be a current or past employee. Also, note that the misconduct can be a past act, can be ongoing, or can be in the planning stages.

There are two types of whistleblowing. The first is internal whistleblowing. This means that the whistleblower reports misconduct to another person within the organization. The second type is external whistleblowing. This means that the whistleblower reports misconduct to a person outside the organization, such as law enforcement or the media.

Federal Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers can also be designated by the type of whistleblowing. Let's first take a look at federal whistleblowers. These are government employees who reveal misconduct committed by their employers or can also be private-sector employees who inform about the misconduct of their employers that is committed in relation to the federal government. For people who work for the federal government, the Whistleblower Protection Act, or WPA, protects disclosures of misconduct. This law protects federal employees who disclose illegal or improper government activities.

The WPA shields federal employees from retaliatory action once the employee voluntarily discloses information regarding dishonest or illegal activities within a government organization. The government can't take action against, or threaten to take action against, the employee. Generally, this means the government can't fire, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or discriminate against a whistleblower.

The WPA was enacted in 1989 and most recently updated through the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012. But, federal whistleblowers were around long before that. In 1966, a 27-year old epidemiologist working for the U.S. Public Health Service discovered the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment while conducting routine interviews on patients.

Peter Buxtun uncovered information revealing that the federal government purposely denied medical treatment to black men, mostly sharecroppers, suffering from syphilis. Despite the invention of penicillin in the 1940s and widespread education on prevention in the 1960s, these men were allowed to suffer, infect their wives and children, and die so that the federal government could conduct autopsies for medical research. Almost 400 men unwittingly participated in the experiments between 1932 and 1972.

Buxtun filed formal ethical complaints with the government two times before finally turning to the media four years later. After the public found out, the medical experiments were ended and medical research saw major overhauls. According to President Bill Clinton years later, 'the United States government did something that was wrong - deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens... clearly racist.'

Corporate Whistleblowers

Public policy encourages the reporting of misconduct by private businesses as well. The Enron scandal came to light in 2001 and almost immediately affected thousands of people. Many more would have been affected, and more loss incurred, if not for the efforts of a corporate whistleblower. These whistleblowers are employees of corporations or other private businesses that disclose statutory or regulatory violations by the employer.

The Enron whistleblower was Sherron Watkins. She was an Enron executive when she discovered accounting irregularities showing that the company had purposely inflated the value of its stock. Enron was the seventh largest company in the nation at the time. As a result of the deceit, thousands of people lost jobs, pensions, retirement funds and other investments. Many of these people, like those holding investment portfolios through the University of California, weren't associated with Enron at all.

Corporate whistleblowers are protected by the Corporate and Criminal Fraud Accountability Act. This act is a subset of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was enacted in 2002 as a direct answer to the issues raised by Enron and other corporate fraud scandals. These laws hope to encourage whistleblowing by protecting employees who disclose certain securities-related violations by making retaliation a federal crime.

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