These courageous women whistleblowers went up against powerful people and institutions to expose corruption and the abuse of power. We selected them because of the far-reaching and positive impact they had on changing corporate behavior and public policy. They’re the brave ones who tell the truth in the face of adversity and, for that reason, they’re our heroes.
1. Sherron Watkins* – Enron
Watkins was vice president of corporate development at Enron when she wrote an internal memo in 2001 to CEO Kenneth Lay about accounting irregularities. It was months before the company’s illegal activities were exposed. Though later criticized for not reporting the criminality to authorities sooner, it was Watkins’ email that helped prove that Enron executives were aware of what was going on. Congress considered her testimony key to facilitating Enron’s scandalous downfall, chronicled in the documentary, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
2. Coleen Rowley* – FBI Whistleblower
In mid-August of 2001, Rowley’s office was contacted by some flight instructors, concerned because Zacarias Moussaoui had paid for flight lessons with large amounts of cash. Even with the knowledge about Moussaoui’s connections to terrorism, the FBI denied Rowley a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer for information until the day of the attacks. In 2002, Rowley wrote a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, describing how the intelligence was mishandled, and later that year testified before the Senate and the 9/11 Commission. As a result, Mueller and Sen. Chuck Grassley pushed for and got a major reorganization, including the creation of the new Office of Intelligence at the FBI.
3. Cynthia Cooper* – WorldCom
In 2002, as vice president for internal audits at WorldCom, Cooper observed unusual accounting practices at the company. She and her team of auditors worked in secret to uncover the irregularities, even after the chief financial officer scolded her to stop. Eventually she unearthed $3.8 billion in fraud, considered the largest incident of its kind in U.S. history at the time.
4. Erin Brokovich – Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E)
Despite a lack of formal education in the law, Brokovich was instrumental in uncovering a link between a series of mysterious illnesses in Hinckley, California and the presence of hexavalent chromium in wastewater from a nearby PG&E plant. The company always denied the chemical waste toxic, but Brockovich’s findings exposed its connection to many cases of cancer. In 1996, PG&E settled for $333 million, the largest settlement in U.S. history at the time. In 2006, PG&E paid another $295 million to people affected by the toxic chemical.
5. Alayne Fleischmann – JP Morgan Chase
When Fleischmann began working at JPMorgan Chase in 2006, she noticed that the bank was purchasing loans that it knew people couldn’t pay back. At the time, Chase did mortgage-backed securities — investment products made out of home mortgages that were bundled and resold. After trying to warn her boss, he told Fleischmann to stop all email contact with him. The department didn’t like to put anything in writing when it came to its mortgage deals. Fleischmann went to federal prosecutors and gave them evidence of mortgage-securities wrongdoing between 2006-07. JPMorgan Chase wound up paying a $9 billion fine — the largest fine that any bank has had to pay in connection to the financial crisis. The case has been described as one of the most significant white-collar crime cases in U.S. history.
6. Marsha Coleman–Adebayo – Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Former EPA Senior Policy Analyst Coleman–Adebayo was based in South Africa in 1996 when she filed complaints about a U.S. company mining vanadium, a metal that was harming the environment and human health. The EPA did not respond, and when the agency didn’t promote her as she requested, Coleman-Adebayo blew the whistle. She alleged racial and gender discrimination. In 2000, a federal jury found the EPA guilty of violating Coleman-Adebayo’s civil rights on the basis of race, sex, color and a hostile work environment under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Her case eventually led to the passing of the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act), which makes federal agencies more accountable for employee complaints.
7. Linda Almonte – JP Morgan Chase
When Almonte began working at Chase as a mid-level executive, she was asked to evaluate a deal to sell 23,000 credit card accounts from customers behind on their payments. The accounts are bought for pennies by debt collection agencies and they get to keep any money they collect from the customers. After reviewing more than a third of the files, Almonte’s team observed that nearly 60 percent contained major errors and that the actual debt was lower than what Chase proposed. When she alerted her boss about the potential fraud, she was fired immediately, and Chase completed the deal in December 2009. In response to her firing, Almonte filed a whistleblower claim with the SEC in November 2010. The amount of her potential payment will depend upon whether her information is considered crucial to successfully bringing a case against Chase.
8. Bunnatine (Bunny) Greenhouse – Halliburton
In the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2001, Greenhouse was a chief contracting officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A bid from the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) came across her desk, which used the company’s own cost projections for a multi-year no-bid, no competition contract. Greenhouse complained to her superiors but the agency went around her back and awarded the contract to KBR. In 2005, despite being warned not to, she testified before a Congressional panel, alleging specific instances of waste and fraud by Halliburton and its operations in Iraq. After her testimony, she was kicked out of the Senior Executive Service and stripped of her top secret clearance. Greenhouse filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint alleging race and gender discrimination, which has never been investigated. In 2011, The U.S. District Court in Washington, DC awarded Greenhouse $970,000 in full restitution of lost wages, compensatory damages and attorney fees.
9. Cathy Harris – U.S. Customs Service
While working at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Harris exposed rampant racial profiling practices by the U.S. Customs Service. She reported illegal pat-downs, intrusive strip-searches, cavity searches, x-ray examinations, monitored defecation, prolonged detentions and targeted intimidation by drug-sniffing dogs against African American women and international travelers. Harris’ revelations resulted in a damning Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about the agency’s profiling practices. The GAO also introduced federal legislation that gives international travelers additional legal protections if abused by U.S. Customs officials.
10. Carmen Segarra – Goldman Sachs
Segarra was a U.S. New York Federal Reserve appointed regulator to Goldman Sachs when she discovered that the company advised El Paso Corp. to sell itself to a company in which Goldman Sachs owned a $4 billion stake. Segarra observed that Goldman Sachs lacked a firm-wide policy to prevent conflicts of interest. Senior Federal Reserve officials reviewed and overturned her findings and she was pressured by them to alter her report. Fired after she refused, Segarra filed suit against the Federal Reserve over her dismissal. A judge dismissed the case because the facts didn’t comply with the statute under which she had filed. Segarra is appealing. Before she left the Federal Reserve, Segarra secretly recorded her bosses and colleagues. The tapes – released by ProPublica – expose the culture of fear and servility by the government agency charged with overseeing the financial sector.
*Selected as “Persons of the Year 2002” by Time.