How many of us have ever seen something, thought that we should report it, but decided not to? And not that I need to see a show of hands, but I'm sure this has happened to someone in this room before. In fact, when this question was asked to a group of employees, 46 percent of them responded by saying that they had seen something and decided not to report it. So if you raised your hand, or quietly raised your hand, don't feel bad, you're not alone.
This message of if you see something to say something is really all around us. Even when driving down the highway, you see billboards like this, encouraging us to report crime without revealing ourselves. But I still feel like a lot of us are really uncomfortable coming forward in the name of the truth.
I'm an accounting professor, and I do fraud research. And in my class, I encourage my students to come forward with information if they see it. Or in other words, encouraging my students to become whistle-blowers. But if I'm being completely honest with myself, I am really conflicted with this message that I'm sending to my students. And here's why. Whistle-blowers are under attack. Headline after headline shows us this. Many people choose not to become whistle-blowers due to the fear of retaliation. From demotions to death threats, to job loss—perpetual job loss. Choosing to become a whistle-blower is an uphill battle. Their loyalty becomes into question. Their motives, their trustworthiness. So how can I, as a professor who really cares about her students encourage them to become whistle-blowers, when I know how the world truly feels about them? So, one day I was getting ready for my annual whistle-blower lecture with my students.
And I was working on an article for "Forbes, "entitled "Wells Fargo and Millennial Whistle-blowing. What Do We Tell Them?" And as I was working on this piece and reading about the case, I became outraged. And what made me angry was when I came to the fact and realized that the employees that tried to whistle-blow were actually fired. And it really made me think about the message that I was sharing with my students. And it made me think: What if my students had been Wells Fargo employees? On the one hand, if they whistle-blew, they would have gotten fired. But on the other hand, if they didn't report the frauds that they knew, the way current regulation is written, employees are held responsible if they knew something and didn't report it. So criminal prosecution is a real option. What's a person supposed to do with those type of odds?
I of all people know the valuable contributions that whistle-blowers make. In fact, most frauds are discovered by them. Forty two percent of frauds are discovered by a whistle-blower in comparison to other methods, like measurement review and external audit. And when you think about some of the more classic or historical fraud cases, it always is around a whistle-blower. Think Watergate—discovered by a whistle-blower. Think Enron—discovered by a whistle-blower. And who can forget about Bernard Madoff, discovered by a whistle-blower? It takes a tremendous amount of courage to come forward in the name of the truth. But when we think about the term whistle-blower, we often think of some very descriptive words: rat, snake, traitor, tattletale, weasel. And those are the nice words, the ones I can say from the stage.
And so when I'm not in class, I go around the country and I interview white-collar felons, whistle-blowers and victims of fraud. Because really I'm trying to understand what makes them tick and to bring those experiences back into the classroom. But it's my interviews with whistle-blowers that really stick with me. And they stick with me, because they make me question my own courage. When given the opportunity, would I actually speak up? And so, this is a couple stories that I want to share with you. This is Mary.
Mary Willingham is the whistle-blower from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, academic fraud case. And Mary was a learning specialist at the university, and she worked with students, primarily student athletes. And what she noticed, when she was working with students, is they were turning in term papers that seemed well beyond their reading levels. She started to ask a couple of questions and she found out that there was a database where the student athletes could retrieve papers and turn them in. And then she found out that some of her colleagues were funneling students into fake classes, just to keep them eligible to play. Now, when Mary found this out, she was outraged. And so what she tried to do was go to her direct supervisor. But they didn't do anything. And then Mary tried to go to some internal university administrators. And they didn't do anything.
So, what happens when nobody listens? You blog. So Mary decided to develop a blog. Her blog went viral within 24 hours, and she was contacted by a reporter. Now, when she was contacted by this reporter, her identity was known. She was exposed. And when she was exposed, she received a demotion, death threats, over collegiate sports. Mary didn't do anything wrong. She didn't participate in the fraud. She really thought that she was giving voice to students that were voiceless. But her loyalty was questioned. Her trustworthiness and her motives.
Now, whistle-blowing doesn't always have to end in demotions or death threats. Actually, in 2002, this was the cover of "Time" magazine, where we were actually honoring three brave whistle-blowers for their decision to come forward in the name of the truth. And when you look at the research, 22 percent of whistle-blowers actually report retaliation. So there is a huge population of people that report and are not retaliated against and that gives me hope.
So this is Kathe. Kathe Swanson is a retired city clerk from the city of Dixon. And one day, Kathe was doing her job, just like she always did, and she stumbled upon a pretty interesting case. See, Kathe was at the end of the month, and she was doing her treasures report for the city, and typically, her boss, Rita Crundwell, gave her a list of accounts and said, "Kathe, call the bank and get these specific accounts." And Kathe did her job. But this particular day, Rita was out of town, and Kathe was busy. She picks up the phone, she calls the bank and says, "Fax me all of the accounts." And when she gets the fax, she sees that there is an account that has some withdrawals and deposits in it that she did not know about. It was an account controlled only by Rita.
So Kathe looked at the information, she reported it to her direct supervisor, which was then-mayor Burke, and this led into a huge investigation, a six-month investigation. Come to find out, Kathe's boss, Rita Crundwell, was embezzling money. Rita was embezzling 53 million dollars over a 20-year period, and Kathe just happened to stumble upon it. Kathe is a hero. And actually, I had the opportunity of interviewing Kathe for my documentary, "All the Queen's Horses." And Kathe wasn't seeking fame. In fact, she really didn't want to talk to me for a really long time, but through strategic stalking, she ended up doing the interview. But she was seeking fairness, not fame. And if it wasn't for Kathe, who's to say this fraud would have ever been discovered?
So, remember that "Forbes" article I was talking about, that I was working on before my lecture? Well, I posted it and something really fantastic happened. I started receiving emails from whistle-blowers all over the world. And as I was receiving these emails and responding back to them, there was a common theme in the message that I received, and this is what it was: they all said this, "I blew the whistle, people really hate me now. I got fired, but guess what? I would do it all over again if I could." And so as I kept reading this message, all these messages, I wanted to think, what could I share with my students? And so, I pulled it all together and this is what I learned. It's important for us to cultivate hope.
Whistle-blowers are hopeful. Despite popular belief, they're not all disgruntled employees that have a beef with the company. Their hopefulness really is what drives them to come forward. We also have to cultivate commitment. Whistle-blowers are committed. And it's that passion to their organization that makes them want to come forward. Whistle-blowers are humble. Again, they're not seeking fame, but they are seeking fairness. And we need to continue to cultivate bravery. Whistle-blowers are brave. Often, they underestimated the impact whistle-blowing had on their family, but what they continue to comment on is how hard it is to withhold the truth.
With that, I want to leave you with one additional name: Peter Buxtun. Peter Buxtun was a 27-year-old employee for the US Public Health Service. And he was hired to interview people that had sexually transmitted diseases. And through the course of his work, he noticed a clinical study that was going on within the organization. And it was a study that was looking at the progression of untreated syphilis. And so, there were 600 African American males that were in this study. They were enticed into the study through being given free medical exams, burial insurance. And so, what happened through the course of this study, is penicillin was discovered to help treat syphilis. And what Peter noticed was, the participants in this study were not given the penicillin to treat their syphilis. And the participants didn't know.
So similar to Mary, Peter tried to report and talk to his internal supervisors, but no one listened. And so Peter thought this was completely unfair and he tried to report again, and finally talked to a reporter—very similar to Mary. And in 1972, this was the front page of the "New York Times": "Syphilis Victims in US Study Went Untreated for 40 Years." This is known to us today as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And Peter was the whistle-blower. What happened to the 600 men, you may wonder, the 600 original men? Twenty eight men died from syphilis. One hundred died from syphilis complications, forty wives were infected and 10 children were born with congenital syphilis. Who's to say what these numbers would be if it wasn't for the brave, courageous act of Peter?
We're all connected to Peter, actually. If you know anybody that's in a clinical trial, the reason why we have informed consent today is because of Peter's courageous act.
So let me ask you a question. That original question, a variation of the original question. How many of us have ever used the term snitch, rat tattletale, snake, weasel, leak? Anybody?
Before you get the urge to do that again, I want you to think a little bit. It might be the Mary, the Peter, the Kathes of the world. You might be the person that could shape history, or they could be the person that shapes yours. Thank you.