Women Whistleblowers: What They Say, the Price They Pay

Women Whistleblowers: What They Say, the Price They Pay

by Elaine Clift

hen Suzanne Hadley said “no” to her boss last year, “it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to say.” Karen Pitts and Jackie Brever thought so too when they said “yes” to the FBI. Little did these women suspect that they would be shunned, harassed and treated like pariahs, all for the crime of truth telling on the job. What happened to them could happen to any one of us in the workplace. In fact, it already has for dozens of other women around the country.

Suzanne Hadley, a Ph.D. research psychologist, was Deputy Director of the Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when she told her boss, NIH Director Dr. Bernadine Healy, that she could not in good conscience follow orders to rewrite her report concerning the scientific integrity of AIDS research carried out by Dr. Robert Gallo. Hadley, who was chief investigator in the Gallo case, had reason to believe, like others, that the eminent researcher had taken credit for isolating the HIV virus when in fact such recognition should have gone to French scientists.

In May 1983, a French team reported discovery of the virus they called LAV. In the interest of sharing scientific information, they subsequently sent a strain of the virus to Gallo at NIH. In 1984, Gallo announced that he had also discovered the cause of AIDS, calling the virus HTLV-III. Although sources say it had been agreed at a meeting in Paris that the French should be credited with discovery of the AIDS virus, soon after the Paris meeting Gallo was given the distinction publicly by then Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Margaret Heckler. Aside from the ethical issues, there were enormous financial rewards at stake. AIDS test royalties are worth millions of dollars to the U.S. government, and an estimated $100,000 a year to Gallo, who applied for a patent on a blood test for AIDS on the same day that he claimed to have discovered the virus. The French, who had also filed a patent application, contested Gallo’s application, but in 1987 they capitulated, agreeing to share credit and royalties. In May of this year, however, the French Government visited the White House to demand royalty reparation. At the same time, despite a press release by NIH that Gallo had been cleared of any wrongdoing, as many as six separate inquiries are in progress. In June, C. McClain Haddow, who was a chief of staff at HSS and a key advisor to Heckler, said the Government was misled by Gallo’s claim to have been the sole discoverer of the cause of AIDS, and that now the United States has a “moral duty” to turn over the credit and royalties to the French. Additionally, two independent bodies – a panel of scientific experts from the National Academy of Sciences and the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations – have attacked Gallo and what they said was the Government’s limp investigation.

Following Hadley’s refusal to alter her report in order to make it more favorable to Gallo and the NIH, harassment set in. First, NIH’s legal advisor ordered her to turn over her telephone records from another high-visibility whistleblowing case for which Hadley had also been chief investigator, charging her with a “lack of objectivity.” Then, Hadley was barred from attending an important meeting regarding both that case and Gallo’s, in spite of an invitation from the Assistant Secretary of Health. Soon after, Hadley was ordered to return all documents and records in her possession and was barred from any further involvement in either of the cases. On July 1, 1991, Suzanne Hadley resigned from any further involvement with those cases.

Later that summer, Hadley began cooperating with the Congressional Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. John Dingell, who was irate over what was happening at NIH. In September, she was reassigned into another position at NTH, and given work which was largely clerical.

As her work intensified with the Subcommittee, the Government Accounting Office (GA), and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), so did the pressure. In early 1992, Hadley was subjected to allegations questioning her integrity and her willingness to obey orders. A public statement was issued suggesting that her cooperation with the Subcommittee was improper. Then, on March 11, 1992, an FBI agent entered Hadley’s office indicating that he wished to interview her concerning charges that she had improperly received confidential documents. Inferences were made about leaks, and Hadley was told that if the NIH complaint was substantiated, there would be an indictment against her. (The U.S. Attorney General’s office has since ruled that there are no grounds for prosecution.) The next day, while she was out on sick leave, NIH officials padlocked Hadley’s office preventing her entry and, subsequently, the premises were searched. Since then, Suzanne Hadley has remained out on medical leave. She has filed an official complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.

Amazingly, Hadley is not suing NIH. “I simply want the raise I’m due, a public statement saying that all the allegations about me are hooey, and I want the truth to be told.” Hadley is visibly shaken by what has been happening to her, but she is stoic and determined. “I’ll wash dishes if I have to,” she says. “I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.” Then, with emotion in her eyes, she concedes, “I have never felt so profoundly alone.”

Karen Pitts and Jackie Brever have each other – but almost no one else – to share the pain with, so they can relate to the loneliness of whistleblowing. Not only have they been verbally and sexually harassed, their homes have been vandalized and their lives threatened because of their involvement with safety issues at the Rocky Flats plutonium plant in Colorado. Subjected to name-calling, hazardous work conditions, increased sexual harassment (including having men expose themselves), and being portrayed as “300-pound neanderthal women” by management and co-workers alike, the two women were assumed to be the source of leaks to the FBI because they agreed to cooperate with the agency’s investigation of the plant on charges of illegal incineration and violations of the Clean Air Act. Both women firmly deny the allegation.

The Rocky Flats Plutonium Plant, which is owned by the Department of Energy but operated by a company called EG&G Rocky Flats Incorporated, recently pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges, including five felony counts of violating the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, and five misdemeanor counts of criminal violation of the Clean Water Act. The fine of $18.5 million is “peanuts” says Pitts, who points out that the net profits in 1991 were $600.5 million. “The fine is a little more than three percent of their profits .They could afford to plead guilty to appease the community.” (As with the Exxon Valdez case, it is possible that further fines could be imposed.) According to Pitts, although the plant was shut down in 1989, Rocky Flats has since hired 2,000 people so that a workforce of 8,000 is currently on payroll in what is described as a “pre-transition” period. Most of these, she says, are managers and secretaries, not hourly workers like herself and Jackie.

In April 1991, Pitts and Brever were asked to resign and neither has been able to find work since. “We’re considered high risk,” says Karen. “They see us, they see cancer. But we had to go public when the FBI came in. We had no choice. Then our families and homes were threatened. They were shooting out windows, starting fires. It was just like Karen Silkwood – the union treatment, the reaction of government agencies, the workplace response. We actually made wills because we thought we were going to die.”

For Jackie, the consequences of telling the truth about conditions at Rocky Flats have gone from fear to sadness and then anger. “My friends and family have abandoned me. Only Karen and my mother support me. My 10-year-old daughter is a basket case. I had to move because all my old neighbors were Rocky Flats employees and they actually threw rocks and bricks at us. I’m left with a very bitter taste for our government. You fight for your rights and tell the truth, and now I see that the only way to get anywhere is to lie. That’s not the way I want to be.”

The two women also found their encounters with the legal system to be frustrating. “We filed a lawsuit as a last resort,” says Brever, “only to hear over and over again ‘we can’t help you.’ It’s pathetic.” Eventually they did find a lawyer who supports them. When their case went before the state courts in October 1991, it was referred to federal court where Rocky Flats lawyers attempted to have it dismissed. The case charged conspiracy, wrongful discharge, and harassment. This August, Judge Daniel B. Sparr of United States District Court in Denver dismissed the lawsuit, saying the complaint by Pitts and Brever was not detailed enough to continue with the case. The women’s lawyer said an appeal was planned.

Is whistleblowing on the increase among women, or do they simply experience it differently from men?

Washington, DC attorney Lynne Bernabei specializes in defending whistleblowers. She thinks women whistleblowers are a growing breed, partly a function of their increasing numbers in the workforce. “I think, too, part of the reason we’re seeing more women is because traditionally they’ve been on the margins of the establishment. So when they start raising ethical questions about cost, or policy, or legalities, or safety, they get fired or harassed more quickly than men because they’re already outside of the power structure.

“It is also a different experience for women. Often they don’t have the financial resources that men do, so once they get fired, finding a new job is more stressful. And sometimes they don’t have the kind of support from their families that men might have from their wives and others.”

But perhaps the most punishing aspect of women’s whistleblowing is being labeled crazy or having to endure the psychic stress of being alone or misunderstood. Almost without exception, women who hold out for truth telling in the workplace enter into psychiatric counseling because of the ensuing depression. Carolyn Nelson is a case in point. Nelson, who worked for the Postal Service for 24 years, was removed from her position when she discovered contractor fraud. “It’s 24 years down the drain,” she says now. “I lost my house and my car, my mother had a heart attack, and my daughter and I are both in counseling. But the hardest thing is that people you have worked with for so long suddenly don’t know you. They’re afraid of being contaminated. Something is urgently wrong with the system when that is allowed to happen.”

The contamination issue is a real one. Women whistleblowers are virtually always perceived as troublemakers with an attitude. In 1983, Linda Bruce, a former auditor for Washington State’s Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), blew the whistle on crooked procurement practices. For that, she was put on “monitored performance” notice and, two weeks later, fired on grounds that she was a troublemaker and wouldn’t “let go of issues.” (A subsequent investigation by the federal government used her work to prove vertical price fixing in 12 states.) Bruce, who eventually relocated and found employment with the Treasurer’s office in Spokane, was rejected by nearly 300 other potential employers after her experience with the WPPSS.

Anna Carroll advocated for a smokefree environment at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), her employer of 28 years. A persecution campaign and subsequent dismissal followed. “You try to do the right thing,” she says, “and then management says you have an attitude problem.” Carroll has not worked in three years. She sees the issue as a power struggle between women and men. “Women are the caretakers. They take the risks, and then they’re treated viciously.”

There appears to be another important facet of the female perspective. Sandra Adams, an Arizona police dispatcher, recently awarded $250,000 in a whistleblowing case, makes the moral point clear. “It was nice to be vindicated,” she says, “but either way, you don’t really have a choice as to what you do.” This sentiment was echoed by every woman interviewed for this article. “My behavior is correct,” says Karen Pitts, “and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

That’s impressive when you consider the price these women have paid in the name of moral integrity. So for those considering whistleblowing, here is some advice from those who have been through it.

First, says Lynne Bernebei, you have to look at the particular situation and assess your chances for survival if you blow the whistle. “In 99 percent of cases you’re going to be destroyed, or your family’s going to be destroyed. That’s the reality of the American workplace.” Bernabei says that while whistleblowers serve society as “agents of accountability,” it is very difficult to protect them. She worries that as more of these experiences are shared, there will be fewer people willing to take the risks. “It takes years and years out of your life. Along the way, you may lose your family, your friends, your job, your sense of community . At the very least, you will be viewed as a disgruntled employee, discredited as someone who can’t hold down a job. The harassment is so severe that many people end up with severe psychiatric problems, the most common being PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At that point, they say you are unbalanced.

“If there’s any way to blow the whistle without endangering yourself at work, or putting your family at risk, that route should be pursued. That could mean waiting until after you’ve left a position to act. In some cases it means leaking information without disclosing yourself as a source. We try to advise people that while it may seem like public whistleblowing is the moral thing to do, you may have just as great an effect without going public.”

Linda Bruce counsels others to “know what you’re getting into. Talk to someone knowledgeable. There’s a lot you can do without actually exposing yourself.” To that, Karen Pitts adds, “Have sufficient paper to back you up. Document! The worst thing is being discredited for something you did right. And decide right up front whether you are going to be totally anonymous, or totally public. If you commit, you have to go all the way. Get a good attorney and involve the politicos.” Anna Carroll cautions people not to believe too much in the system. For Carolyn Nelson, the key is to seek out someone else who has been through a similar experience. “Think about the ramifications,” she says. “Understand the consequences. You really could lose everything.”

That’s an awfully big price to pay for truthtelling on the job. But then, as Jackie Brever says, “Maybe some day it will change. In the meantime, at least I won’t be a disgrace to my gender.”

Elayne Clift, a writer in Potomac, MD, is a frequent contributor to On the Issues. Her book of collected essays, Telling It Like It Is: Reflections of a Not So Radical Feminist, was published last year by KIT, Inc