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On Whistleblowers and What Really Motivates Them

Published on 2013-01-25

January 03, 2013 by Dan Reeves

I interviewed many offshore whistleblowers and potential whistleblowers during my time with the IRS, some high profile and some known only to the IRS and myself. It’s always surprised me how many people think whistleblowing is only about the money. In fact, I’ve attended conferences, including the OffshoreAlert conference, where regulators, attorneys and subject matter experts talked exclusively about the money … how much can be received, how much has been paid out to date and even how much could be in it for you. While money is certainly a big motivator for all of us, when it comes to whistleblowing I’ve always found that it’s often more about honesty, integrity and conscience.

Certainly there are those who do it only for the money and there is really nothing wrong with that motivation since the law provides for it. In my experience, however, these modern day “tax bounty hunters” only represent a very small percentage of those who come forward … at least insofar as significant cases are concerned. By far, most whistleblowers I encountered saw a social injustice occurring and as a matter of personal integrity and conscience couldn’t stand by idly and watch it continue. In some cases the injustice involved illegal activities, in others it involved financial frauds being perpetrated on others and in still other cases it involved large-scale tax evasion.

I’ve had whistleblowers contact me anonymously to provide information about illegal offshore activity without any request for or expectation of receiving a reward … they just wanted to provide the information and then be left alone. I once even had someone walk up to me at one of the OffshoreAlert conferences, hand me a thick envelope and say, “you might be interested in this” before walking away. When I opened the envelope, it contained copies of documents, emails and other credible evidence of fraudulent activities involving offshore tax evasion. I’ve had whistleblowers come forward, provide detailed and very specific information, consent to be interviewed, agree to cooperate fully and then say they had no interest in profiting from the information. For many, filing a claim for reward came only as an after thought suggested by others rather than being their reason for coming forward.

It’s not easy to be a whistleblower, especially if you’re blowing the whistle on your own employer or business partners. I’ve known whistleblowers that had their lives and livelihoods shattered, their reputations ruined and their family relationships damaged all while former “friends” deserted them. Some have been harassed, threatened and retaliated against and yet still they came forward as a matter of conscience for the greater public good. Why on earth shouldn’t they be compensated for having the courage and integrity to come forward, especially when the law expressly provides for it?

Maybe it’s time to stop talking about whistleblowing as being nothing more than a grab for money. Maybe it’s time to stop looking upon whistleblowers with disdain as greedy informants. Maybe it’s time we changed the rant from “Show Me The Money” to “Show a Little Respect” … I think most of them have earned it … in fact I know it.