Big companies cooking the books seems to be a theme in the news this week, with the latest accusations coming from a former Disney employee. Sandra Kuba tells MarketWatch she has filed information with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging the company has been overstating amusement park and resort revenue for years.

The SEC didn’t offer comment to Marketwatch, but Disney did: “The claims presented to us by this former employee — who was terminated for cause in 2017 — have been thoroughly reviewed by the company and found to be utterly without merit.”

Kuba told Marketwatch she has gotten the typical whistleblower treatment. She first alerted the company to accounting problems in 2013. Unhappy with the response after four years, Kuba went to the SEC in August 2017. She was fired a month later. From the story:

In October 2017, Kuba filed a whistleblower-retaliation complaint with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Disney’s response to the department’s whistleblower office investigator’s inquiry said that Kuba’s employment was terminated because “she displayed a pattern of workplace complaints against co-workers without a reasonable basis for doing so, in a manner that was inappropriate, disruptive and in bad faith.”

The information she shared with the SEC charges that employees allegedly boosted earning by falsely recording revenue for free golf rounds. Kuba also told the SEC that the company counted revenue for $500 gift cards which had been discounted to $395. Small money, but she said it could add up to billions. Disneyland had 18.7 visitors last year. More from the story:

The most recent tip alleges some Disney employees reclassified guest revenue from high-sales-tax items such as hotel rooms to lower-taxed items such as food and beverages with the purpose of significantly reducing sales tax liabilities in Florida, California and Hawaii. MarketWatch has reviewed the three filings and supporting documentation that was sent to the SEC.

Disney Parks and Resorts is just one part of the iconic company’s sprawling entertainment empire. Along with DisneyLand and Disney World, the company runs six “resort destinations” including 12 theme parks, 52 resort hotels and a cruise line. Yahoo News reports that attendance at domestic theme parks fell by 3% in the third quarter of 2019. More on that from The New York Times. 

 

 

How bad is it at the Veteran’s Affair’s (VA) Whistleblower Protection Office? Former VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman took a job with the program in 2017. But, instead of helping other whistleblowers, he is now speaking out about the program’s failures. He described the scene there as a “dumpster fire.” After reading Donavan Slack’s ongoing coverage in USA Today of problems for both patients and staff, that sounds like an understatement. He told her:

“We need help,” Coleman said. “How can you treat your employees the exact way we’re trying to protect employees from being treated?”

Complaints about the whistleblower office are piling up and Slack’s reporting has been robust. Her latest story in USA Today offers this:

The onetime addiction counselor and Veterans Affairs whistleblower known for exposing poor care of suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital has been doing outreach to other VA whistleblowers since 2017 on behalf of President Donald Trump’s whistleblower-protection office

Coleman told USA TODAY he has learned from colleagues in recent weeks that he has been excluded from meetings, his program is being eliminated, and he and dozens of other employees at the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection are being asked to submit resumes and worry they could face possible demotion or worse.

Tamara Bonzanto, VA

She reports that Coleman has asked for help from “another federal agency that protects whistleblowers, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.” Slack based her report on interviews with three other employees who say VA Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto, who is in charge of the program,  has “cut herself off” from employees. Continue Reading USA Today: More bad news for VA whistleblowers?

Whistleblowers worldwide pay a high price for exposing fraud and abuse. They are especially vulnerable in with counties with institutionalized corruption no rule of law. But, the demand for whistleblower protection is growing worldwide. Click here or the map for a sample of the stream of news about changing whistleblower laws.

One option for international whistleblowers: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The act prohibits corporations, both U.S. and international, from paying bribes to foreign officials and offers rewards.  Click here to read the FCPA in English and 14 other languages.

From the National Whistleblower Center: 

In a major breakthrough for international whistleblowers, on July 21, 2010n President Obama signed legislation that permits whistleblowers, including foreign nationals, to apply for monetary rewards based on reporting bribery prohibited under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act mandates that the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) pay whistleblowers monetary rewards if they provide the U.S. government with information that leads to the successful enforcement of the FCPA.  The act is applicable even if bribes are paid in a foreign country and the whistleblower is a foreign national.

Continue Reading Mapping developments in whistleblower protection

Over at The Government Accountability Project, they use the upcoming film “Official Secrets” to talk about potential national security whistleblower mis-steps. The film, which opens at the end of August, tells the tale of British intelligence translator Katharine Gun. In 2003, she was charged under the Official Secrets Act for passing an memo to a reporter. She believed the note was from US spies asking for negative information on nations whose votes were needed for UN approval of the Iraq war.

Movies like this one demystify whistleblowing…Nonetheless, the Hollywood version of Gun’s whistleblower story contains a few key examples of risky choices that would have likely imperiled the success of a national security whistleblower, at least in the U.S.

Continue Reading GAP: British case offers lessons for national security whistleblowers, via Hollywood

Those lucky enough to get a summer vacation at the beach or in the mountains should know that whistleblowers play a role in protecting the beautiful places we visit. A cruise ship engineer reported illegal dumping. A federal environmental analyst revealed that he was told to reverse his findings to favor a developer. Environmental activists are enlisting citizen scientists to gather data.

In June, the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC. held a panel on citizen involvement in fighting environmental crimes.

Around the world, significant progress has been made to establish legal frameworks for environmental protection. Many of these laws can help to put a stop to pollution or conserve natural resources in the United States, as well as foreign countries and international waters. However, the success of these laws is greatly hindered by a lack of enforcement.

Oftentimes, everyday citizens have evidence of environmental wrongdoing, or could easily collect it, but lack the know how to report such evidence to the authorities, or otherwise follow up on required procedures.

Here’s what they are up against:

 

Stephen M. Kohn, chair of the National Whistleblower Center argues that whistleblowers can help save the vaquita. He made his comments earlier this year in a story in the Earth Island Journal.

Kohn wonders why the US hadn’t used its powerful whistleblower laws that have helped bring down presidents, Big Tobacco, and the FBI, to this end. “‘There is now a growing consensus that incentivizing whistleblowers is a key to enforcing wildlife trafficking laws,” says Kohn…

The aim of a wildlife whistleblower program, he says, would be to make it more lucrative for potential poachers and traffickers to provide intelligence to law enforcement than to kill endangered animals. The illegal wildlife trade is a multibillion-dollar industry, and demand for everything from elephant ivory to pangolin scales has resulted in the destruction of hundreds of millions of animals around the globe. The US is believed to be the second largest consumer of illegal wildlife products in the world, and China the first.

More on citizen involvement.

Resources

The Washington Post has been running a series of stories on problems with forensic science. Radley Balko, a Post opinion writer focusing on civil liberties and the criminal-justice system, explains.

In covering these issues, I have found that there are lots of people willing to talk about the problems with forensics in the courtroom. But solutions are harder to come by — especially solutions that would be politically feasible, findable, and fit the current framework of our judicial-legal system.

Frederic Whitehurst on Al Jazeera program Fault Lines

He queried people he described as “critics of the way forensics are used in criminal cases.” Fourteen responded to a set of six questions. They include Frederic Whitehurst, an FBI crime lab scientist whistleblower and director of the Forensic Justice Project at the National Whistleblower Center. Whitehurst  flagged the agency for sloppy science more than 25 years ago. (A January story from independent news source ProPublica identified some new crime lab problems.)

On Tuesday, Balko ran the responses to this question:

There seems to be an inescapable tension between the fields of law and science. Law strives for consistency and finality, so courts tend to look to precedents for guidance. Science is always changing with new evidence and new research. But of course science is an important tool in the search for justice. We’ve also entered the era of “alternative facts,” in which the courts pick and choose between expert testimony that’s not only contradictory, but also irreconcilable.

Several media outlets have documented a disturbingly large and growing number of court rulings that have relied on expert testimony and assertions in amicus briefs that are flat-out wrong.How do we ensure that the justice system operates on reliable information?

Here is Whitehurst’s response:

First, we need to recognize that our inability to handle this disharmony has resulted in human rights violations. Individuals are now being freed after decades in prison for crimes they did not commit because their convictions were based on, for instance, forensic hair analysis. These are human rights violations. Once we’ve called the situation what it is, we can begin to find ways to reconcile these two fields.

As a PhD candidate in the 1970s at Duke University, I found myself in a chemistry research building across the street from Duke Law School. Neither future lawyers nor future scientists ever crossed that street. With all the talent at Duke, no one crossed the street to tackle some of the most complex and exciting scientific and legal issues of our day.

Nationally, some have finally have crossed that figurative street. A forensic science commission comprised of scientists and lawyers, commissioned by the White House, was leading us in the right direction. They were then abruptly shut down on the mere whim of the lead attorney in this country, our own attorney general.

Sandra Guerra Thompson, of Houston Forensic Science Center at the University of Houston Law School noted that the Texas Forensic Science Commission decided in 2016 that unreliable bite-mark evidence should be inadmissible in court.

 These new developments create judicial awareness about forensic disciplines that have proven to be unreliable. This awareness, in turn, should make trial judges more willing to revisit past precedents when considering whether to admit forensic evidence in the face of a well-reasoned defense objection. The law, like science, does evolve and change.”

Part 1 of the Washington Post series: We need to fix forensics. But how?

Part 2 of this series: How much should juries rely on expert testimony?

Part 4 of this series: Is an adversarial justice system compatible with good science?

Whistleblowers are playing a key role in revealing Medicare kickback schemes disguised as so-called patient assistance programs. In April, five separate pharmaceutical companies paid a total of $247 million for running such programs. This week, a new qui tam suit was unsealed.

Kaiser Health News offers a round up on the case:

The American Kidney Fund is supposed to help patients pay for health insurance premiums and other costs for treatment based solely on a patient’s financial need, and not favor companies that donate to it. But a new whistleblower lawsuit claims the charity created a so-called blocked list of dialysis clinics whose patients would not get financial assistance while it made sure patients at clinics operated by DaVita and Fresenius would.

The story notes that the Department of Justice declined to join the case. The lawsuit makes many of the same claims outlined in a 2016 New York Times series. Here’s what the Times reports on the new developments:

The lawsuit, filed by David Gonzalez, who worked for 12 years at the kidney fund in its patient assistance program until he left in 2015, accused the charity of creating a so-called blocked list of dialysis clinics whose patients would not get financial assistance while making sure patients at clinics operated by DaVita and Fresenius would… Continue Reading Whistleblowers help expose kickback schemes disguised as patient assistance programs.

The online news site The Intercept offers a thorough piece looking at how the federal government follows digital and paper trails to identify anonymous whistleblowers in their midst.The folks over at the Intercept should know. The source of one of their stories is sitting in jail.

The August 4 story looks at this and three other cases brought under the Espionage Act and notes:

The Intercept does not comment on its anonymous sources, although it has acknowledged falling short of its own editorial standards in one case. 

Last summer, National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Reality Winner accepted 63 months in prison in plea deal. Winner’s case made national headlines after she was identified as the leak of information on the Russian election hack that was reported by the Intercept. Since then, other whistleblowers have been arrested under the Espionage Act, a federal law that was created for spies, not whistleblowers. Continue Reading The Intercept: How the government tracks down anonymous whistleblowers. They should know.

A round up of whistleblower news.

Whistleblower rewarded for exposing security flaws. From The New York Times

The government said the video surveillance software it bought from Cisco was “of no value” because it did not “meet its primary purpose: enhancing the security of the agencies that purchase it.” In many cases, the Cisco software actually reduced the protection provided by other security systems, the complaint said…

Lawyers for whistle blower James Glenn told the Times he was was working as a Cisco subcontractor, but was laid five months after he reported problems. When Glenn realized a year later that he could still hack into the surveillance system, he  contacted the F.B.I. Cisco has agreed to pay $8.6 million. More here from Reuters, which reports that Glenn will receive about $1 million.

Government Accountability Office on how the feds can do better

A recent GAO blog post talks about specific whistleblower issues and cases they’ve looked into.

After NASA’s Inspector General investigates potential reprisal, the NASA Administrator is responsible for determining within 30 days whether it actually happened. Whistleblowers count on a speedy resolution to their complaints.However, we found that NASA hadn’t been meeting the 30-day time frame since 2008. We recommended that NASA take steps to fix it…. Continue Reading News roundup covers whistleblowers in tech, government and on Capitol Hill

Joe Davidson, who writes about the federal government for The Washington Post, points out that there are a lot of so-called appreciation days.

There’s Houseplant Appreciation Day in January, Truck Driver Appreciation Week in September and National Nurses Week in May, not to be confused with Emergency Nurses Week in October or Perioperative Nurses Week in November.

He said he ignores all of them but one — National Whistleblower Appreciation Day. To mark the day, the National Whistleblower Center held its annual event Tuesday. The Capitol Hill celebration featured remarks from whistleblowers and the lawmakers, advocates and family members who support them. The gathering took place during an annual series of panels, workshops and films known as the Whistleblower Summit. Find a video of the event below.

Davidson of the Post notes that:

National Whistleblower Appreciation Day reminds us just how little appreciation the government too often demonstrates for many who suffer retaliation by agency supervisors.

Several speakers told their own stories of doing the right thing and getting punished for it. They were recognized for their courage and promised more protection.

“I was one sister they could not stop,” said Sheila White, whose seven-year battle with railroad shipping company Burlington Northern & Santa Fe (BNSF) was fought all the way to the Supreme Court. White offered both inspiration and practical advice: “Documentation is your best friend.” Continue Reading Appreciating whistleblowers: “I was one sister they could not stop.”