Enron Changes Climate for Whistle-Blowers

Article excerpt

Call her the golden girl of whistle-blowers. After months of challenging the veracity or judgment of top managers of her company, Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins hasn't been fired, demoted, or dubbed a crank. No charges have been filed against her, and her professional reputation is intact.

That's not the experience of most employees who raise concerns about their management on issues ranging from nuclear safety to airport security. Some 90 percent of whistle-blowers face reprisals or threats, according to the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group.

"Ms. Watkins followed the approach we advise all whistle-blowers to adopt - changing the dynamic from finger pointing to constructive problem solving and warning," says Tom Devine, GAP legal director.

Watkins isn't the classic whistle-blower: She went public after being subpoenaed. Nor did her August memo warning that Enron might "implode in a wave of accounting scandals" prevent precisely that outcome.

Still, the Enron affair appears to have encouraged would-be whistle-blowers to step forward in other industries and government agencies. It is also prompting lawmakers to push for new shields against retaliation.

"We've been getting calls from many more people than we can help, especially since Enron," says Stephen Kohn, a Washington-based attorney who works with whistle-blowers.

The National Whistleblower Center in Washington reports that its calls are up tenfold this year. "Since September 11, there has been a tendency toward restricting information and making everything secret. Since Enron, we've seen an opposite effect," says Kris Kolesnik of the center.

Although more than 30 federal laws govern whistle-blowing, recent judicial loopholes mean that most employees have no protection from retaliation.

Congress's renewed focus on bolstering protections fits a familiar pattern. In the past, Congress made such moves in the wake of scandals or disasters, such as the 2000 Alaska Airlines crash that spurred new protections for airline employees. …