In Wuhan, China, last December, Dr. Li Wenliang blew the whistle about what would become known as COVID-19. He tried to warn people of this new virus, which was like nothing he had seen before. He feared the threats and danger to life caused by the virus. Dr. Li was threatened and intimidated by authorities, effectively told to shut up. Not for the first time, people in power did not like the message coming from the messenger and did not want others to listen to the message either.
Dr. Li became infected with the virus and died on Feb. 6, by which time the world was confronting the dangers of the virus and prospects of a pandemic arising. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I wish someone stood up and blew the bugle. And if no one was going to blow the bugle, I would feel much better if I was a bugle blower last December and January.”
The governor expressed frustration that the international community did not confront and challenge the Chinese narrative at the time, that all was under control. We now know that it was not under control, but we also learned that Cuomo values the importance of messages from whistleblowers. In contrast, President Trump, who was himself the subject of allegations from a whistleblower, has called his accuser a “fake whistleblower” and set a dangerous example for whistleblowers everywhere by putting one in his crosshairs.
Meanwhile, on April 28, the Securities and Exchange Commission under the provisions of the Dodd Frank Act paid a whistleblower a reward of $18 million. Jane Norberg, chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, said, “This whistleblower stepped forward and helped the agency better protect Main Street investors.” This was the fifth reward paid by the SEC in the prior 30 days, with a total in excess of $52 million (and on the day of the publication of this article, the SEC and Commodity Futures Trading Commission each announced separate whistleblower awards of $2 million).
I had the pleasure of meeting with Jane in the U.K. Parliament last year, when we both provided evidence to a select committee reviewing whistleblowing protections in the United Kingdom. Jane praised the impact of whistleblowers in fighting bad actors in the markets, adding that as they were often represented by lawyers, they presented compelling cases that were easier to prosecute. I recollect the phrase she used—“It’s like cake in a box”—meaning all of the ingredients were there and the cooking/the case was made simple.
Notwithstanding the President’s frustration with whistleblowers, their importance is continuing to increase, and as proved by the SEC, so are the incentives for doing so. Within your firm whistleblowers can act as your early warning system and prevent disasters. Had Dr. Li initially been listened to, the world might be a very different place today. It’s time to present the positive side of whistleblowing and the benefits presented to customers, shareholders, colleagues, and communities.
No one has done this better than Tom Mueller in his recent book, “Crisis of Conscience – Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud.” I interviewed Tom about the book earlier this year and found him to be equally as inspiring as his book. Please allow me to tempt you to read the book by describing the first chapter as a hybrid between “Erin Brockovich,” “The Fugitive,” and “Death Wish” (because the hero of the chapter, Allen Jones, is described as being a double for Charles Bronson).
In the event I have not sold this to you, let me offer the words of George Soros in his description of the book: “Tom’s authoritative and timely book reveals what drives a few brave souls to expose and denounce specific cases of corruption.” The “brave souls” reference provides a lot of lessons to be learned by any compliance professional managing and promoting whistleblowing processes within a business.