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The federal government once considered whistle-blowers a nuisance or worse. But over the past few years, that attitude has slowly started to change. More agencies have been reaching out for tips about fraud and abuse in and outside the government, even if digging through the stacks of complaints can present a challenge.
Think back to those movies in the 1970s — movies filled with heroic figures who risked it all to expose unsafe factories and police corruption, like New York cop Frank Serpico exposing his less-than-clean colleagues.
Whistle-blower lawyer Neil Getnick says the people in those tales usually came to a sad end.
"Unfortunately, all the stories had pretty much the same plot line," Getnick says. "Something bad happened with an organization. A person stood up to do something about it. That person changed things for the better. And their life was changed for the worse."
The federal government says it's trying to do something about that. Last November, President Obama signed a whistle-blower protection enhancements law after a 13-year campaign by good government groups. The law makes clear that federal employees can challenge policy decisions without losing their jobs. It also directs agencies to choose a point person, or an ombudsman, to help whistle-blowers understand their rights and to protect them from retaliation.
At the Justice Department, that person is Robert Storch. He says the department got almost 5,000 complaints in 2012. One recent investigation started with a referral from Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. — a complaint that alleged "nepotism and improper hiring practices within the department."
Storch says Justice watchdogs at the inspector general's office dug into the case. They eventually found that eight high-ranking people in the Justice Management Division broke the rules by getting relatives hired.
But with thousands of phone calls and emails coming in, it can be tough to decide which ones deserve attention.
Patrick Burns has some tips. Burns works at the group Taxpayers Against Fraud, where he talks with scores of whistle-blowers every year.
"I ask only two questions," Burns says. "Tell me how you know about the fraud. And tell me about the fraud. Those two questions, if you listen carefully, will tell you a great deal."
Burns says the answers can signal how high up in the chain of command someone is and how deeply they're connected to the wrongdoing.
He says he also gives callers an important piece of advice: "Do not report within a company until you have gotten the documents outside the building."
"Because when you report on a Monday, they'll pat you on the head and say thank you," Burns explains. "On a Tuesday, a Wednesday and a Thursday, they'll be more meetings at the company. And on Friday, they're going to march you out the door."
That's what happened to Cheryl Eckard. She was a quality control manager at the drug company GSK, until she blew the whistle on sloppy practices at a plant in Puerto Rico. Eckard was laid off, but she followed through by calling federal regulators and the Justice Department.
After years of waiting, Eckard collected a share of the legal settlement — estimated at $96 million. It's the biggest financial reward for a whistle-blower under a law called the False Claims Act. But Eckard says it was far from easy. She lost friends. She gained weight. She worried about how to pay her mortgage.
"When you're in it, it feels like it will never end," Eckard says. "But there will be an end. It may take eight years, but there'll be an end to it. So the people who are caught in the middle of that process right now, have hope and faith. It won't last forever."
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in New York, has brought half a dozen mortgage lending fraud cases over the past two years, often using company insiders to help guide the Justice Department to email messages and other evidence. Bharara says changing the culture is what counts.
"We find in too many instances there have been whistle-blowers who have come forward earlier on in the cases that we have brought," he says. "And a lot of pain and suffering would have been avoided, and a lot of expenses would have been avoided, and some people might not have been going to jail if people had taken more seriously the allegations of whistle-blowers years earlier."
It doesn't matter how loud someone blows the whistle, Bharara says, if the referee covers his ears.