In the course of her research into fraud and white-collar crime, Kelly Richmond Pope comes across a lot of whistleblower stories. The DePaul University accountant and business professor said she couldn’t understand why they were treated so poorly. So, she did a TED talk about it. Now she knows even more stories. Pope talked to the Whistleblower Protection Blog in May. A forensic accountant, she has experience in insurance fraud investigations and fraud risk management projects. TR
Q. What cases are you following?
It seems like there is a new story every day. Behind every fraud story, which is my area of research, there is a whistleblower. What you may call a whistleblower case, I may call a fraud case. If we are hearing about it in the news, that means someone somewhere told something.
Q. You talked about how whistleblowers are looked at as tattle-tales, not as heroes. Do you think people still have that attitude?
Absolutely. I think it is still going on. The whistleblower dilemma is about how we as a society treat these brave people. It is very hard to come up against the system. Right now, we are hearing more about the whistleblowers at Boeing. I would say 95 percent of the world is impacted by the airline industry. So, we want those people to come forward with information. We look at that as having a direct impact on our health and safety.
Q. Can you talk about how this varies from industry to industry?
It is industry dependent on how we celebrate — or criminalize and harass — the whistleblower. If you are saving taxpayer dollars or saving lives, it is one thing. But when it comes to money, there is a distance … between the money and the person, where we are not able to see a face or a victim (of financial crime) the same way we do in other industries.
Q. Why don’t people embrace whistleblowers?
We often don’t feel comfortable when a person goes outside of a group and does something, even if they are doing the right thing. I think it challenges us.We sometimes feel more comfortable being part of the group — even if it is wrong — than going outside the group to bring light to something that is wrong. That’s the dilemma the whistleblower faces.
Q. Has there been an improvement in the way people feel about whistleblowers?
I don’t think it’s gotten better. There is the law and there is society and I think the two don’t impact each other, unfortunately. We have these laws but, in my experience interviewing whistleblowers, they say they never felt protected by the law.
Mary Willingham was the whistle blower from the UNC (University of North Carolina basketball team) whistleblower case. Mary was demonized… She had a hard time finding another job because people questioned her loyalty. And that just doesn’t make any sense, when their person who is telling the truth is the one who gets questioned.
One of the reasons I did my TED talk was because I wanted to start a conversation and make people be a little bit more self-reflective about how they feel about whistleblowers. I think the only way we change it is by asking people to realize how they really feel.
Q. How common is it for accountants to become whistleblowers?
I think accountants have a unique relationship with their clients. As an accountant, you are privy to information, but your client is ultimately the person who pays you. For accountants, it’s a very unique relationship. I can’t tell you I see a lot of accountants turning in their clients over something they have seen. I would imagine that most accountants would try to help their client correct behavior before turning their client in.
Q. You said you’ve had a lot of whistleblowers contact you following the talk. What do you hear from them?
I did something wrong and I lost my job. I would do it again, but it was very hard. I think they thought the outcome would be different. I think they thought there would be support for them, but it wasn’t there.
The support I’m talking about it not legal support, it’s an emotional support. A payout is great, but ten years later if you have destroyed all your professional networks, the payout is just money. You still have your life to live.