Today is “Whistleblower Wednesday” and we welcome you to Part II of our Whistleblower Series. If you missed last week’s post, where we provided a general overview of Illinois Whistleblower Act, you can find it here. Let us start Part II by briefly going over the history and development of whistleblower protections in the United States.
In 1773, Benjamin Franklin became one of the first whistleblowers in what would become the United States when he exposed confidential letters which showed that the governor of Massachusetts was colluding with the British prime minister. Although Franklin might be considered the pioneer of American whistleblower law, whistleblower activity dates back to 7th century England, where qui tam actions allowed private individuals to file suit on behalf of the government, with a financial incentive. Qui tam is the shortened term, derived from the Latin phrase, “qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur” which means, “he who prosecutes for himself as well as for the King.” Although many states adopted qui tam rulings in the 18th century which laid the foundation of modern whistleblower laws, the laws really became established through Congress’ adoption of the False Claims Act in 1863.
Similar to Congress, Illinois enacted its own False Claims Act, titled the Illinois False Claims Act, which holds wrongdoers liable for false claims, or acts that defraud state and local government taxpayers. The Act states, in part,
A person may bring a civil action for a violation of Section 3 for the person and for the State. The action shall be brought in the name of the State.
The Act defines “State” as follows:
the State of Illinois; any agency of State government; the system of State colleges and universities, any school district, community college district, county, municipality, municipal corporation, unit of local government, and any combination of the above under an intergovernmental agreement that includes provisions for a governing body of the agency created by the agreement.
Congress has come a long way since its adoption of the False Claims Act in 1863. Congress expanded whistleblower protections by enacting laws which defend federal employees through the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. These protections were later revised in the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, providing federal employees specific protections when blowing the whistle on abuse in the federal government. Of course, in more recent years, several other laws providing whistleblower protections in the private sector have been adopted by Congress and state legislation, some of which were briefly mentioned in Part I. There are laws protecting whistleblowers across a number of industries, ranging from those who report safety violations by contractors, dealerships and manufactures under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act (49 U.S.C. § 30172) to those who report illegal wildlife trafficking under the Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. § 3375(d)).
How Are Whistleblowers Perceived in the United States?
Public perception on whistleblowers varies, with some comparing Edward Snowden to the modern day Benjamin Franklin and others expressing a drastically different opinion. A plaintiff’s attorney, acting on behalf of a whistleblower client, would likely argue that whistleblowers are a necessity for ethical conduct, to uphold honest forms of government and encourage businesses to act justly. In contrast, whistleblowers are often pegged as snitches that betray the trust of his or her employer or threaten the American way. Senator Charles Grassley, a strong advocate of whistleblowers, once stated, “whistleblowers are often as welcome in an agency as a skunk at a picnic.” Regardless of your opinion on whistleblowers, perception is something to be considered when confronted with a whistleblower in the workplace.
Stay tuned for Part III in our Whistleblower Series.