Some might see whistleblowers as lucky lottery winners when their multimillion-dollar rewards come through. But, the title of the piece in the February 4 issue of The New Yorker reflects the other side of the story: “The Personal Toll of Whistleblowing”
“Whistleblowers are usually, but not always, employees or members of the group on which they’re blowing the whistle; after they do so, their lives are never the same,” writes Sheelah Kolhatkar. She joined The New Yorker in 2016 after a writing about Wall Street and financial crime for Bloomberg Businessweek.
“Institutional denial, obfuscation, and retaliation are hallmarks of many whistle-blowing cases,” she writes.
Kolhatkar runs through a list of notable whistleblowers, including New York City police officer Frank Serpico, tobacco company whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand; Sherron Watkins of Enron; and National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. That they were all portrayed in Hollywood films is no surprise. Whistleblower tales are often David versus Goliath dramas.
Kolhatkar explains that the rewards system is an “effort to recognize the financial toll of being a whistle-blower, both in lost employment and in legal fees incurred during the arduous process of building a case. The law effectively turned average citizens into a fleet of amateur federal agents, and it helped to reveal the staggering amount of money wrongfully extracted from government programs.”
The bulk of the story is about two whistleblowers who offered information on possible fraud at Medicare Advantage programs. According to a 2010 study in The New England Journal of Medicine cited in The New Yorker piece, whistle-blowers in major health-care-fraud cases have a rough time. They reported “feeling intense pressure while cooperating with the government, and said that the cases created high workloads. They expressed frustration with how slowly the investigations moved and with how little information prosecutors shared with them. They reported anxiety and uncertainty that lasted for years, and some spoke of being threatened, of losing their jobs, and of being blocked from new employment.”
Not every whistleblower case ends in a reward, but Kolhatkar notes that in 2017 almost $2.6 billion was recovered in health-care-fraud judgments and settlements. Of that, $262,000,000 went to to whistleblowers. And, as the story makes clear, those rewards are never easy money.