Archive for the 'Whistleblower Film Series' topic

Whistleblower Film Series Wrap-up

October 29th, 2010

Many thanks to all who joined us for the Whistleblower Film Series earlier this month. We were thrilled with all of the support, interest, and thoughtful discussion surrounding this incredibly important issue.

We’ve put together a quick slide show of some of the highlights from the Series. We hope you’ll join us next time—but meanwhile, we hope you’ll continue to help us push for legislation to create enhanced and credible whistleblower protections.

Part of the 10th annual DC Labor FilmFest, the Whistleblower Film Series showcases films that explore the valuable role of whistleblowers at a critical time in the effort to restore and modernize protections for federal government employees.

Bryan Rahija

Read about last year’s Whistleblower Film Series.

I Have a Dream: the Culmination of the Whistleblower Film Series

November 3rd, 2009

Eleven years ago, a poor little intern raised her hand at a staff meeting to comment that she had no idea who or what a Silkwood was. Danielle was stunned. (And she felt old.) Then Danielle starting asking Hill staffers the same question. She found out that those under 30 had no idea about some of the classics in whistleblower history, including Karen Silkwood, Frank Serpico, Ernie Fitzgerald, and Daniel Ellsberg. (Although we tried to make sure that at least our interns knew Ernie’s story.)

Last night was the culmination of POGO’s response to that lack of knowledge.

Danielle thought there needed to be a whistleblower film festival to use movies as an educational tool. But we had no experience with film festivals, and we were never able to get a grant or raise money for such an event. We explored solutions on the cheap for years. Many interns were determined to make this dream a reality. Several gave it the good ole college try and advanced the ball. But it wasn’t until we connected with Chris Garlock of the DC Labor FilmFest that this concept started to become a reality.  Around the office, we affectionately call him “The Warlock” — both as a play off his name and because of the magic he works. Time and time again during the behind-the-scenes work to put on this Whistleblower Film Series we encountered major hurdles; and every time the Warlock responded, “No problem,” and worked it out.

So after way too many staff hours and complications we couldn’t even make up let alone foresee — for instance, they wouldn’t allow us to show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the Capitol Visitor Center because it’s considered a “commercial” film — we concluded the film series last night.

We averaged about 60 folks in attendance at screenings for The Pentagon Wars, The Whistleblower, Silkwood, and The Insider, with — in true POGO bipartisan fashion — Democrats and Republicans staffers were at each film. We had Representative Van Hollen — who, along with his incredible staff, did yeoman-like work to help advance this dream — and Senator Akaka speak at the screening for The Whistleblower; POGO’s Peter Stockton and POGO Board member David Burnham spoke at the Silkwood screening about their investigations into Karen’s case; and Col. Jim Burton, Jeffrey Wigand, and Daniel Ellsberg each spoke at the film they inspired.

Last night at the Washington premiere of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the filmmakers, former Washington Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie, and Danielle also participated in a post-film panel in addition to Ellsberg himself. (There were also some folks who had been involved with the Pentagon Papers in the audience, including former Senator Mike Gravel, reporter Hedrick Smith, and Morton Halperin.) It was extremely rewarding to have about 500 people in attendance — so many people showed up, we had to show the film in two theaters at the same time! As one long-time follower of POGO said last night, “This might be the best event you guys have ever done.”

So happily it appears that whistleblower awareness was increased. The Warlock thinks this should be an annual event. However, being such a time-suck and with no financial support, we’ll have to see. For now, Danielle’s dream became a successful reality, and we’re happy with that.

— Keith Rutter

Be sure to check out the photos in the slideshow below (may take a few seconds to load). Do you have any thoughts or feedback about the Whistleblower Film Series? Favorite quotes or questions?  Films you would like to see next time?  Leave us a comment!

Dr. Wigand Shares His Experience As a “Person of Conscience”

October 29th, 2009

Last week, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand joined us in a second-story Rayburn hearing room for the fourth installment of the Whistleblower Film Series. The evening’s film, The Insider, told the story of Dr. Wigand’s struggle to unveil the truth about the tobacco industry’s internal knowledge on the addictive nature of cigarettes.

Dr. Wigand had worked as Vice President for Research and Development for Brown & Williamson, one of the tobacco giants that claimed they believed that cigarettes were not addictive. In fact, not only was Dr. Wigand’s employer aware of the addictive properties of nicotine, but they deliberately tried to enhance these properties in order to create a product with a higher “impact” on its customers. This practice contradicted testimony by Brown & Williamson’s own CEO at a congressional hearing.

Like most of the whistleblowers highlighted in the film series, Dr. Wigand faced a difficult road: death threats, the prospect of losing health insurance for a daughter with acute asthma and the rest of his family, a potential stint in jail, and a news magazine program with cold feet — not to mention the emotional stress put on the Wigand household — might have a silenced others in his shoes.

During the question and answer period that followed the screening, Dr. Wigand encouraged any potential “persons of conscience” (preferring that term to “whistleblowers”) to stand up for what they believe in, even if it means going up against a seemingly unbeatable foe (after all, he was eventually eventually able to conquer the odds).

But while Dr. Wigand’s  vigor and courage are truly inspiring, his experience once again underscores the need for increased whistleblower protections. At another point in the discussion, Dr. Wigand mentioned that were it not for help from an outstanding team of attorneys, his chances for success would have been much lower. Unfortunately, not every person of conscience has a “perfect storm” of legal assistance to sling at their Goliath. And until we implement stronger whistleblower protections we can hardly expect every person of conscience to take Dr. Wigand’s advice and go for it.

We’ll learn more tonight, as the Whistleblower Film Series culminates 6:30 P.M. with the Washington, D.C. premiere of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers at the Capitol Visitor Center. Earlier in the week, we asked attendees to RSVP — unfortunately, due to overwhelming interest, we have a full house and there are no longer any empty seats.  We’ll let you know how it goes.

— Bryan Rahija

Overheard At the Whistleblower Film Series

October 21st, 2009

Last week’s Whistleblower Film Series event was our best yet. After a screening of the movie Silkwood, POGO’s Peter Stockton — a congressional investigator of the Silkwood incident — and POGO Board Member David Burnham —  the New York Times investigative reporter referenced in the film — fielded questions from the audience.

POGO Director of Operations Keith Rutter was on the scene as well, keeping an ear to the ground and a finger on the pulse of the crowd.  Here, he lists choice comments overheard throughout the course of the evening.  According to Keith, they are presented “in no particular order, with the names left out to protect the innocent . . . and the guilty.” Take it away, Keith:

On the movie:

  • Having the film here in Rayburn is much more impressive than in the Capitol Visitor Center.
  • This film has way too much plot.
  • If you weren’t anti-nuke before you probably are now.
  • There sure is a lot of character development in this film.
  • I like the Capitol Visitor Center so much better than this hearing room.
  • Karen Silkwood might have been a little flaky, but you have to give it to her — she had guts.
  • Nowadays this film would have been cut down to 90 minutes and you probably wouldn’t have missed anything.
  • That’s why unions are necessary.
  • Wow, how inspiring is Karen Silkwood?!
  • I saw some flaws in the movie that today wouldn’t pass.
  • Oh my God, did you see how young Cher was?!
  • Unions are like democracy, flawed, but better than the alternatives.
  • Could you believe they had Silkwood singing “Amazing Grace” twice in the film?!
  • If you’re not from a working class background, you might have trouble relating to the film.
  • This movie might have had its problems, but it is a must-see film.
On the post-film discussion with Stockton and Burnham:

  • This was by far the best discussion of any of the films so far.
  • There was a lot that they said that should have been in the film.
  • Ever notice that bringing the topic of Israel into a discussion is like bringing in “abortion”? It is just going to polarize whatever you’re talking about.
  • I wish the film would have been shorter so we could have had more time with Burnham and Stockton.

This week we’re showing The Insider on Thursday October 22, at 6:30 P.M. in room 2247 of the Rayburn House Office Building.  After the screening, there will be a discussion with Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the whistleblower who took on the tobacco industry and is the protagonist of the film.  We hope you’ll join us!

— Bryan Rahija

And the Award for Most Bizarre Whistleblower Saga Goes To…

October 14th, 2009

Last Thursday marked the second event in our Whistleblower Film Series.  And although we moved across the hall to a new theater in the Capitol Visitor Center, the song remained the same: the system’s response to whistleblowers is colder than the CVC’s over-active air-conditioner.

The evening’s film, The Whistleblower, told the story of Chuck Hamel (a POGO board member) who sought to expose worker mistreatment and nonexistent emergency response planning in the oil industry. Companies in the industry reacted by hiring private security contractor Wackenhut to conduct an elaborate sting operation to discover Hamel’s sources and portray him as an extortionist.  Wackenhut began by stealing the trash outside Hamel’s house and eventually went so far as fabricating an advocacy group to try and dupe Hamel into selling the evidence he held against the companies, which could have been portrayed as a criminal offense.  Chuck received help from strange sources: Wackenhut emloyees — including a self-described “busty blonde” originally assigned to lure Hamel into trusting Wackenhut’s bogus group — eventually clued him in and offered their support, and Hamel’s loyal poodle Muffin barked at just the right time when a disguised Wackenhut investigator came to his house to gather evidence.

Hey, that's MY trash!

After it came out that Wackenhut considered targeting a Member of Congress in their Mission Impossible-esque mischief, the House Natural Resources Committee decided to hold a hearing to see if the oil companies or Wackenhut had done anything illegal.

But Hamel’s challenges continued: in an effort to portray him as an extortionist, Wackenhut’s counsel (who also represented Alyeska, the oil company called before the hearing) distributed “enhanced transcripts” of Hamel’s interactions with Wackenhut masqueraders to sympathetic Committee Members.  Hamel’s adversaries almost found a magic bullet when they realized they might be able to convince Committee Members to ask Hamel to reveal the names of his sources, who had told Hamel of the oil company’s misconduct.  If Hamel revealed his sources, the companies could retaliate by firing the whistleblowers.  But if he denied Congress’ request to divulge their identities, he could be held in contempt and would potentially face jail time.

Fortunately for Hamel, he did not have to choose between exposing his whistle-blowing colleagues and spending time behind bars.  At the last minute, it appeared that the Committee Members struck a deal — the industry loyalists would not ask Hamel to name names and in return, the Members of the Committee that took an aggressive stance against the industry would not ask Hamel about the industry’s wrongdoing.  In fact, after hearing his opening statement and knowing that he perhaps had a great deal more evidence against the oil companies, no one on the Committee asked him a single question.  The oil companies were spared further embarrassment (or possibly worse), but Hamel’s whistleblowers maintained their anonymity.

Watching the documentary made me wonder — how would this story have been different if Hamel’s whistleblowers were guaranteed adequate protection from retaliation?  Though Aleyska issued a public apology to Alaskans and implemented some improvements in worker and environmental standards, would they have been held more fully to account had whistleblowers not lived in fear of retaliation and felt the need to communicate to a third party like Hamel?  Would they have been held to account sooner?  And would the added protections help prevent the kind of shenanigans Wackenhut was hired to perform, which in a way, distracted the debate from the issues at hand?   Some people in the audience were particularly frustrated that Hamel himself became the story, not the wrongdoing that he was trying to expose.

Hamel’s story is truly remarkable, but as several members of the audience reminded us, is not that far from the norm.  One member of the crowd mentioned her family’s eleven-year struggle to resolve a case involving blowing the whistle on accounting misconduct.  Fortunately, with whistleblower protections now on Congress’ radar, it appears incremental steps in the right direction may be on the horizon.  Tom Devine from the Government Accountability Project said this is the closest we’ve been to meaningful reform in twenty-five years.

Hopefully Representative Chris Van Hollen and Senator Daniel Akaka, both of whom spoke before the film about whistleblower legislation they are working on, will gain support among their colleagues for the much-needed protections.  In the meantime, we hope you’ll join us for future screenings in the Whistleblower Film Series.  Tomorrow at 6:30 P.M. we’ll be showing Silkwood and holding a panel discussion in Room 2247 of the Rayburn House Office Building. Find out more information here.

— Bryan Rahija

Fighting Vehicles, Whistles, and a Whole Lot of Sheep

October 2nd, 2009

Last night we kicked off the DC Labor FilmFest’s Whistleblower Film Series with “The Pentagon Wars“— based on the book of the same title by Colonel James G. Burton — which tells the story about the development of the “Unsinkable Bradley Fighting Vehicle.” Colonel Burton is charged with testing the Bradley and pushing it into production as quickly as possible. The problems that he encounters include a bureaucracy that values weapons, industry, and promotions over the troops they’re supposed to serve. Burton discovers psuedo-tests being performed rather than genuine live-fire testing — and no one with authority in the Pentagon who’s willing to take the career risk to push to do otherwise. There are also sheep.

The film is a dark comedy, because, really, is there any other genre that can depict a defense procurement program? See Acquisition as Deterrent to understand more about what I mean, and, oh, our investigations page.

*SPOILER ALERT* Col. Burton’s whistleblowing led to the performance of a live test that revealed significant design problems, including toxic vapors inside the vehicle that resulted when the armor was penetrated by threat weapons. Significant changes to the vehicle were made as a result, doubtlessly saving many lives when the vehicle was used in the first Gulf War. But the epilogue of his story shows why whistleblower protections are so desperately needed: for his work, Col. Burton was forced to retire, and many of the people who tried to prevent him from performing live-fire tests got exactly what they wanted: they were promoted and/or went through the revolving door to find profitable jobs working for the defense industry. Extending the epilogue beyond this film, Tom Devine from the Government Accountability Project (GAP) reminded the audience that the same kind of retaliation against whistlelbowers is still happening at the Pentagon, citing the ongoing retaliation against whistleblower Franz Gayl, who blew the whistle on problems with the Pentagon’s rapid acquisition system that were causing delays in getting enough Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) into the field.

In the discussion afterward, Col. Burton said he gets many calls from whistleblowers asking for advice. There were several whistleblowers in the audience, including at least one that traveled hundreds of miles to be there because he wanted to meet the man that inspired him. But Col. Burton told the audience that while people must do what they believe in, no matter what whistleblower protection laws are passed, no one should blow the whistle unless they think they can withstand the worst thing the system and the bureaucracy can do to you. “After the press and Congress are long gone, the system will get back at you,” he said. “There will be retribution afterwards. If you can’t handle it, don’t do it.”

Col. Burton’s right. But the only chance whistleblowers have to then get justice from the system is by having real protections — beginning with jury trials to hear about cases of retribution. Check out our website for more information, and hope to see you at future films, which will be showing — for free and open to the public — every Thursday in October.