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Louis Clark on The Campbell Conversations

Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project

The not-for-profit Government Accountability Project has been at the center of many of the nation’s highest profile whistleblower cases—involving nuclear power plants, the Star Wars anti-missile defense system, the World Bank, and the National Security Agency.  This week on the Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher talks with Louis Clark, the Project’s President.  Clark discusses the importance of individual employees going public, and the challenges to them in doing so.  

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations.  My guest today is Louis Clark.  He’s the President of the Government Accountability Project - a nonprofit organization dedicated to government accountability and protecting whistle blowers.  The project is currently sponsoring the American Whistleblower Tour, which recently made a stop in Syracuse.  Louis is also the project’s Director of Corporate and Financial Accountability.  Louis, Welcome to the program.

Louis Clark: Thank you.

GR: Well let me start with some basics.  Can you give me a very brief history of the Government Accountability Project?

LC: Yes, we began in the late 1970’s as a result of a particularly corrupt President.  During the late 70’s, there was a wave of reform activity throughout the country, around government, and we began during that period of time.

GR: And, did it always have a corporate accountability component or was that added in later?

LC: It was only added, it was added in 1980.  So, at the beginning it focused exclusively on the government, on the federal government. And we added corporate in 1980, so 3 years later.

GR: And, so over the years—you’ve been at this a while—what are some of your “greatest hits” of exposure and whistleblowing in terms of what you’ve uncovered?

LC:  I would say the first, major hit was really in 1982 through 1984, where we represented a number of whistleblowers at the Zimmer Nuclear Power Plant, which was being built outside Cincinnati. It was 98 percent complete, and it was cancelled because of all the whistleblowers coming forward about the lack of quality control, quality assurance throughout the construction.  And after that, whistleblowers from 17 different nuclear power and nuclear weapons facilities came forward to blow the whistle on their places and there was quite a bit of re-work done at various nuclear plants, and in 1987 they actually stopped plutonium production in the United States because of the whistleblowers.  And that was a case that we’re very proud of.  As well as, essentially blowing the whistle on Paul Wolfowitz, who was head of the World Bank—that’s much more recent.  And also as you might know, we currently represent Edward Snowden, and that is not yet an accomplishment because obviously there’s more to come.

GR: Remind our listeners of the problem you exposed with the World Bank.

LC: At the World Bank we exposed corruption basically in the hiring and firing of whistleblowers, and the hiring of the girlfriend of Paul Wolfowitz at an extraordinary wage.  In addition to that, the closing down of a focus on climate change as well as stopping the programs in Africa related to population control, or I should say “family planning.” As well as problems related to corruption, and there was an attempt to get the World Bank involved in the Iraq War. And all of those were exposures that we were responsible for bringing to public attention over a period of about two years.

GR: I was going to ask this question later but I want to ask it now because of the examples that you’ve given me.  Obviously, politics runs through all of this in various ways and the examples that you gave me, could, one might argue, be put into the category of a liberal kind of whistleblowing.  Is it that way? Do you see it that way? How do you deal with the political aspect?

LC: I actually don’t see it that way.  For example right now, in terms of the NSA, the scanner at the NSA or the CIA, there are people all over the political map, all kind of ideologies who actually want to see the transparency—greater transparency, as well as protection of individual privacy and civil liberties. And as a matter of fact, most whistle blowers are pretty non-political.  They become political, perhaps, during that process but certainly that the beginning they tend to be all over the place, politically.  I would say as often conservative as liberal.

GR: That leads directly into something else I wanted to ask about which is about these individual whistleblowers.  Obviously as individuals they are going to vary, but do they tend to share any kind of traits in terms of their temperament or their motivations?

LC: Definitely, for one thing they tend to be the hardest working people.  They tend to be the people who have the highest standards you can imagine.  They also tend to be the people that tend to have either ethical or professional, ethical adherence or bent.  They know what the standards are and they intend to see that they’re carried out.  So they tend to be the people that you would normally want to have in anyone’s workplace. 

They care about the institution that they’re blowing the whistle on.  It’s only later, when there’s conflict, that there might be a separation of ways.  But certainly at the beginning of the process of whistleblowing, they always raise these concerns internally before they go external to the organization.

GR: And it sounds like in a lot of ways then, from a values perspective, their criticism is coming from within the organization.  I mean, it sounds like what you’re saying is, these folks most greatly embody the very values that go into that organization.  That’s where they are coming from when they say something’s gone wrong here.

LC: Absolutely, and they do tend to follow whatever rules exist for raising concerns. So they do go through those channels that are established.  The only people don’t actually are the cynics that really don’t think the institution’s going to change.  Most whistle blowers are not cynical.

GR: Now, they’re obviously doing some extraordinary things, when they do this. And they’re doing in it many cases at extraordinary risk and penalty, but is it fair to say that at the end of the day these are still ordinary people?

LC: I think they are ordinary people with extraordinary courage.  And so, in the first stage of the Whistleblower Tour to college campuses, we used to have them stand up, and we used to call them heroes.  And to a person they hated that.  They don’t want to think of themselves as separate or different, or better.  They just care.  And so that’s what they want, they want to be known as people who cared about the institutions and about the issues that they brought to public attention.

GR: I’m, Grant Reeher and I’m speaking with the Government Accountability Project’s President, Louis Clark.  Have the challenges that confront whistle blowers and whistleblowing changed over the years?

LC: I think they have.  At the beginning, the project focused on trying to change the public attitude about whistleblowing.  Back in the 1970’s, whistleblowers were apt to be thought of, if anyone thought about them at all, as sort of finks and tattletales. So it was a negative connotation.  So when we actually began, we wanted to change the public attitude and try to convince the public that these people are patriots and that they care about their institutions, they care about the issues they raised, they care about the taxpayers and the consumers—whoever the broader public is that might be affected by the decisions made in the workplace.  But then, now, I think that the majority of Americans are with the whistleblowers.  I mean, the few polls that exist all are very positive towards whistleblowing, so I think that we won that sort of public battle.  But the individual, institutional battle—when one whistleblower emerges—the institutions tend to continue to handle this situation often the same way they used to, which is to go after the messenger, try to kill the messenger and then obviously do whatever they can to undermine their credibility.

GR: Yeah I wanted to ask you about that – have there been any changes then in the protections for whistleblowers over time?

LC: Absolutely, there’s been a revolution in the law.  Just over the last 7 years there have been 7 major corporate bills that have passed giving broad protection for whistleblowers in all kind of areas – like banking, healthcare, food, modernization, product liability issues, issues related to retailing the affected products.  And, Sarbanes-Oxley, which is a major piece of legislation, covers every corporate that is traded on any US stock exchange.  In banking:  absolute revolution in the laws affecting whistleblowers within the banking industry.  So now, 80 million corporate workers are covered by whistleblower protections.  All federal employees except for those that work for intelligence agencies have broad protections, and every contractor to the federal government has whistleblower protection.

GR: Now, some actions that an individual might take under the name of whistleblowing can be, in reality, something that’s less helpful and less principled.  How does the project determine whether, in a particular instance, a whistleblowing was appropriate and successful?

LC: For one thing, we investigate every case really thoroughly.  We have always felt in the [Government Accountability] Project that we can never be wrong, because the institutions that we often challenge are very powerful institutions.  We never, ever want to be found out to be wrong on anything, so we basically investigate every case thoroughly.  We look at the issues, we make sure that we can substantiate the concerns that people have raised.  We also treat the people as if they were receiving a classified employment situation.  In other words, we really investigate them as well.  Are they credible? What do other people think about them? We even interview, sometimes, their religious leaders if they happen to be in a church.  As many people as we can talk to about these people, we do that.  In addition to that, earlier whistleblowers become peer review for later whistleblowers.  So we actually go back to all these people we’ve represented in the past and we say “here we have a situation, here we have some documents, can you please verify what this is about?” And so we really rely on that kind of peer review for a lot of our investigation.

GR: Have you ever had an instance of whistleblowing that you got behind, that ultimately you were regretful about? Where it was wrong and it caused damage that could have been avoided?

LC: I don’t think so.  Never to cause damage, but we have dropped cases when we are in the midst of our investigation.  We have found that we can’t substantiate what they have to say, and even more so we didn’t believe them anymore.  And so that has happened from time to time.

GR: And I was curious to know whether there is a nation—maybe it’s the United States—that currently has the healthiest overall system of whistleblowing?  That is, it has a culture, and the protections in place for these folks?

LC: Two years ago, I probably would have thought, or maybe five years ago, I would have thought the United States.  I’m not so sure anymore, with their treatment of the intelligence agency whistleblowers.  But, beyond that, certainly in terms of the corporate sector and certainly in terms of public employees if national security is not involved, there’s no question that the United States has the most advanced laws.

GR: I’m talking with Louis Clark.  He’s the President of the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to government accountability and protecting whistleblowers.  Well, figures like Edward Snowden, and Daniel Ellsberg a generation before him, bring up a thorny question, or questions for whistleblowing – what’s the boundary between being a whistleblower and just being a leaker of classified documents, or at least by some accounts, a traitor?

LC: Well, certainly there’s a huge difference between being a traitor and a whistleblower.  A traitor is a person who works for a government, gets paid for a government and then secretly gives information to that government, and we’re talking about a government that is adverse to the United States.  And, I mean substantially adverse.  When you talk about a traitor you talk about we’re at war with someone, that’s treason, that’s what traitor means. 

And that’s not the situation we’re faced with Edward Snowden, whatsoever.  A whistleblower is a person who raises concerns to the public.  They almost always go internally and raise these concerns.  They eventually often go to the public.  Those people are talking to everyone, and they’re talking to all nations and all people and that’s quite a difference between that and a traitor.

GR: I know in the field of civil disobedience, of which this is a kind, there is this ethos that part of what makes a defensible civil disobedience, is the person taking the responsibility and the punishment for what they’ve done.  Is that something that applies for the whistleblowers?

LC: I would certainly, in terms of civil disobedience, a person might violate the law obviously on purpose because there is a greater good around that breaking of the law, but even people who did civil disobedience back in the era, for example, of civil rights, they did not think it was just for them to go jail for years and years as a result of their action against laws.  They didn’t think the laws themselves were just—the laws surrounding segregation obviously and integration.  And so obviously if the laws aren’t just, those people were not expected to sit in jail for years and years because they violated them.  So I think there’s a misconception about what’s expected if you engaged in civil disobedience.

GR: Now, with Edward Snowden again, he said in The Guardian that what he was trying to do, and I’m quoting him, was to “inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which was done against them.”  But doesn’t national security require, sometimes, not to know the things that are done in our name?

LC: Oh, absolutely.  I don’t think anyone would argue with that.  I would definitely doubt that Edward Snowden would argue with that. I mean, Edward Snowden is not revealing military secrets; he’s not revealing secrets of the atom bomb and how to make them. He’s just not doing that.  The only people who didn’t know what we were doing in terms of the kind of surveillance that he revealed were the American citizens. They didn’t know and they are shocked, every day there’s new revelations and they’re shocked again by what their government’s doing.  It’s no secret to the people who are being spied on that they’re being spied on. They can’t use cell phones and the like. I mean even Bin Laden apparently did not use his cell phone from 1997 onward, according to news accounts.  I don’t know if that’s true, obviously.

GR: In case you’ve just joined us, you’re listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO, and my guest is Government Accountability Project President Louis Clark. I want to ask you to engage in a detective kind of thing here with me for a minute.  Are there any particular areas of activity, either in government or in the corporate sector, where you suspect some kind of especially important improper activity is going on, which hasn’t yet been penetrated by whistleblowing?

LC: I do think that there’s more going on in the banking industry than has come forward -- as to why no bankers have really been prosecuted for what they did to the country, in terms of the financial collapse. And I think there’s a huge amount that needs to be penetrated and it should be penetrated there, and I’m speaking in terms of the investigative offices, and the Inspector General offices of various federal agencies that had oversight responsibility overall, as well as the FBI itself, as well as the Justice Department.  Why were no people prosecuted?

GR: And why would there not have not been whistleblowers coming forward in those cases? What would be the difference? Is it the amount of money involved, or something else?

LC: Well for one thing, that was before Dodd Frank was passed.  So people really didn’t have any real legal protection before the collapse.  But in addition to that, banks are particularly vicious in terms of the retaliation against whistleblowers.  For one thing they cloak many of their documents, probably the majority of their documents into a kind of, they see that as a violation of the law for documents to be revealed.  They do press for prosecution of people who might be taking the bank documents. 

And so, they are a particularly difficult branch of our corporate world that is hard to penetrate.  I do think it’s going to happen and I think it’s going to be shocking when it does.

GR: A more personal question for you:  What brought you to this field of work? And what sustains you in it? I’d imagine that there are many days where it’s pretty challenging.

LC: It’s definitely challenging.  First, I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement back when I was in college. After that I went to seminary and was ordained as a Methodist minister. After that, I went to law school and when I found out about the Government Accountability Project, which had just started, I actually was so excited that I raised my own salary, went to them and said “I have to work here.” I raised my salary and began working at the project at that time.  Because it was exactly what I thought I was called to do, and so that really was my calling.  Because it sort of combined the ethical moral considerations of the ministry with the kind of activism that obviously I was prone to through the Civil Rights movement and in addition to that, it brought my legal talent, what they are, graduating from Law School and having that as a focus as well.

GR: So tell me about the American Whistleblower Tour. What is its purpose? What’s it doing?

LC: Well for three years we’ve been going to various college campuses, the people who would have us here. And talking to the students about what whistleblowing’s all about and introducing them to whistleblowers. At Syracuse we brought 5 incredible people, and from all walks of life.  And they’ve been going to classes and talking to students as well as a major presentation that you might recall. That all has been really very exciting.  Students are incredibly interested.  Maybe it’s just a different kind of lecture than they are used to, but it’s been an incredible experience.  And the whistleblowers are incredibly happy to have participated in the program as well because we get a lot ourselves, just talking to the students and hearing about and appreciating their idealism and matching that with our own.

GR: And so it sounds like part of the purpose is to maybe breed, so to speak, or to encourage whistleblowers down the road, in addition to raising these young folks awareness of whistleblowers and whistleblowing.

LC: Yeah, probably what I’d say is that we really want to encourage ethical behavior in the workplace.  And to us, the way that work places are going to change and the way that society’s going to change are people taking a stand when they need to, within the work environment.  And so yes, we definitely would encourage that.  At the same time we want people to be careful when they do it.  And also aware of what laws might protect them and how to stay within the law when they do it.

GR: Let me get to the three questions.  First, what’s the title of the chapter of life you’re currently living?

LC: I would say, the chapter would have to be something about accountability, maybe “The Minister of Accountability.”

GR: Second, what’s your worst trait?

LC: My worst trait is I’m not organized enough about everything I do, so I tend to keep everything in my head, versus organize it into a proper filing system.  That’s definitely a bad trait.

GR: And finally what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

LC: I think it had to be 1984, when we were able to, through whistleblowing, actually stop a nuclear power plant, which no one thought that anyone could ever do in terms of the public interest.  And at that time when that plant, which was 98 percent complete, but when we realized it would never go into operation I felt my life could end at that moment and I would have a net plus [laughs]. I really liked the idea of being in the net plus at that point.

GR: That was Louis Clark from the Government Accountability Project.  Please note that next week on the Campbell Conversations we’ll have two of the Government whistleblowers who are on the Project’s American Whistleblower Tour.  Louis, thanks so much for talking to me.

LC: Thank you for having me.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.