bryan 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.
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