The writer, who lives in Omaha, is a retired special agent and commander with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He is the principal and owner of Seven Citadels and a trustee of the Business Ethics Alliance.
There has been a great deal said recently about whistleblowers. Unfortunately, much of what has been said is not only inaccurate but also calls for attempts to identify and confront the whistleblower. Both of these set a dangerous precedent. I served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and 20 years in the corporate world. I’ve had firsthand experience with whistleblowers and the process for responding to information they bring forth. In some cases I’ve sat down face-to-face with them to gather relevant facts. In all cases they have been honest, credible, wanting to do the right thing but often fearful of retaliation or retribution.
Merriam-Webster defines a whistleblower as “one who reveals something covert or who informs against another.” In many organizations, especially in the government, there are formal processes to handle whistleblower complaints. Similarly, many private companies have similar processes. In essence, a whistleblower is a source of information.
During my years with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, allegations would come to us from whistleblowers claiming fraud/waste/abuse, many times over a hotline. Other times, a confidential source would contact us about illegal drug activity, theft of government property, or concerns of a counterintelligence nature. The same generally held true while I was in the corporate world as a chief security officer for several Fortune 500 companies.
Regardless of how the information was received, we never took it at face value. Additional information was developed from multiple sources. This would include documents, physical evidence and confidential interviews. Most important was to determine if the information was credible and could be corroborated. This process was done confidentially in order to protect not only the source of the information, but the reputation of those who might be impacted should it not prove accurate.
At times during my career, senior military leaders or corporate executives would question me about the motivation behind a whistleblower. I would caution them that this should not be a driver when looking into the allegation. While I would never discount motivation of a whistleblower or source, it was secondary to me if the information they provided was accurate. Persons may come forward with an allegation for a number of reasons, some noble, others less so. The most important factor is the credibility of the information. I investigated a million dollar fraud for a corporate client. The girlfriend of the fraudster, who was also married, felt jilted by her boyfriend and provided the initial information. Her motive was clearly revenge, but her information was “spot on” and crucial to identifying the long running fraud. The John Walker family spy ring, one of the most damaging espionage cases in the military, was almost left undiscovered. Investigators initially discounted the whistleblower’s allegations as those of a bitter and alcoholic ex-wife. Months later the allegations were reviewed again and found to be credible.
Some political leaders have recently commented that all these allegations are hearsay and should be discounted and that the accused has a right to meet his or her accuser. Hearsay is a legal term defined as “evidence based not on a witness’s personal knowledge but on another’s statement not made under oath.” However, hearsay does not apply during the investigative process, nor do rights of the accused to confront his or her accuser during this process. Attempting to publicly identify whistleblowers or other confidential sources not only may compromise an investigation, it may put their physical safety at risk.
Anonymous reporting is crucial to learning about illegal or unethical activity, whether it is in the government, private sector or nonprofit world. Equally important is allowing the established process to work, ensuring a full and objective investigation.
Questioning the patriotism of whistleblowers that raise legitimate concerns through well-established processes is obscene, and those enabling such statements either do not know, or choose to discount, the legitimacy and need for such processes. Everyone needs to step back, calm down and let the process work as it is intended.