Chicken-farm whistleblower Craig Watts joins a small group of men and women who have dared to bite the hands that fed them — and suffered serious consequences for it. No wonder it's such a small group. We've all heard of Erin Brockovich and Edward Snowden but have you heard of these guys?
Images: FUSION DIGITAL ARTS
1. Jeffrey Wigand
Blew the whistle on: Big Tobacco
Price paid: Divorce, anonymous death threats, financial hardship
Required viewing: The Insider
Wigand became nationally known as a whistleblower in February 1996. He’d recently been fired from his position in development and research from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson when he agreed to go on the air for CBS and explain his former company’s cigarettes were made in such a way that users would get addicted to nicotine. The company CEO had stated publicly that the cigarettes were not addictive.
It turns out CBS had a vested interest in not being sued, so they at first refused to air the interview. After extraordinary media pressure from The New York Times and a number of outlets, they backtracked and aired it.
But Wigand says he defied anonymous death threats, his wife divorced him, and became financially destitute as the pressure from the tobacco company bore down on him. Following the controversy, Wigand taught chemistry at a high school in Kentucky and he was eventually named 1996 Teacher of the Year for the state. These days he travels around the world delivering lectures and consulting with governments on tobacco control policies.
2. Carmen Segarra
Blew the whistle on: Financial regulators, big bankers
Price paid: Lost her job
Required listening: This episode of “This American Life”
Carmen Segarra was a New York Federal Reserve regulator who noticed that her colleagues were a little too deferential to the bankers they were supposed to be overseeing. Segarra says she was often encouraged to avoid investigating practices at Goldman Sachs.
So she began recording her team’s meetings with the bank’s executives—a whopping 46 hours worth of meetings. Segarra was fired from the regulatory team just seven months after starting. She says it was a result of her pushback against the “cozy relationship” between regulators and bankers. Just a week prior to her termination, she had refused to change a report showing alleged conflicts of interest at Goldman Sachs. Propublica and This American Life published some of the audio cache, giving an extraordinary glimpse into just how lax regulators were during that period.
3. Courtland Kelley
Blew the whistle on: General Motors
Price paid: Stalled career
Required reading: This Bloomberg BusinessWeek article
Courtland Kelley was the head of the General Motors inspection team of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other vehicles.
In 2003, Kelley sued GM for allegedly not paying attention to design flaws in some of their vehicles. The case was dismissed, and Kelley said he was moved to a different department, and business continued as usual at GM.
In response to questions from Bloomberg Businessweek last year, GM issued a statement: “We are going to reexamine Mr. Kelley’s employment claims as well as the safety concerns that he has, and that’s part of our redoubled effort to ensure customer safety.”
His case was held up as an example of a culture of silence and lack of accountability at the automaker. In 2014, GM recalled 20 million vehicles due to an array of faulty parts that have led to at least 13 deaths.
4. Brandon Bryant
Blew the whistle on: Drones
Price paid: Quit his job
Required reading: This GQ article
Ex-Air Force pilot Brandon Bryant estimates that he killed more than 1,600 people during the time he operated a drone from a base in the Nevada desert. In 2013, he detailed the horror of seeing an individual bleed to death through an infrared camera. He admitted to having killed children as well. Over time, Bryant said, he found his job more and more difficult to carry out. He had a difficult time sleeping, and he began having dreams in infrared.
Bryant said being ordered to kill an American citizen was the final straw—these were the people he had sworn to protect. He quit the job and has since become an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s drone program.
5. Cathy Harris
Blew the whistle on: U.S. Customs
Price paid: Fired
Required reading: Her book: Flying While Black: A Whistleblower's Story
Cathy Harris is a former United States Customs Service employee at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia where, in 1999, she exposed extensive racial profiling against black travellers who were detained for hours, were taken to local hospitals and forced to take laxatives, and subjected to racism in both the public and private. She says she also witnessed female African American travellers being detained and handcuffed to a bed for up to four days after refusing officer’s sexual advances. To add insult to injury, the officers would collect overtime payment during that time.
As a result of Harris’ revelations, the Customs commissioner reformed a number of protocols in the department. Still, Harris was ultimately fired from her job.
6. Justin Hopson
Blew the whistle on: New Jersey cops
Price paid: Hazed, beaten
Required reading: His book: Breaking the Blue Wall: One Man's War Against Police Corruption
In 2007, former New Jersey state trooper Justin Hopson observed his training officer perform an illegal arrest—so he refused to testify against the arrestee.
After that, Hopson said, he was confronted by a group of officers within the department known as the Lords of Discipline. Over the coming months, he claims he was hazed, beaten, and that his car was broken into while on duty. He said the group went to extraordinary lengths to silence him. Women and minority officers within the department had complained of the same treatment for years. The New Jersey attorney general eventually performed an investigation into the police department, and while the state refused to admit the group existed, Hopson did win a $400,000 settlement.
7. James Keen
Blew the whistle on: Animal cruelty
Price paid: No longer works at the center
Required reading: This New York Times investigation.
A scientist and veterinarian, James Keen worked for 25 years at a massive research center outside of Omaha, Nebraska where he witnessed experiments meant to help farm animals such as cows and pigs have more babies, to increase the profitability for farmers.
Keen approached the New York Times last year and provided the paper with an inside look at the center, which was run by a taxpayer-funded institution called U.S. Animal Meat Research Center.
Cows who normally have just one calf were having two or three calves—and the result was often that they were weak and unhealthy. Some young offspring did not make it more than a few weeks. Pigs, instead of having six to eight were birthing up to fifteen piglets. There were so many the mother would often roll onto some of them and kill them.
A federal investigation into the research center is ongoing. Following the New York times article, a bill was introduced in Congress expanding protections for farm animals used in federal research facilities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for research Catherine Wotecki, told the New York Times that the department intended to examine practices at the Nebraska center and elsewhere so the agency could recommend changes in animal-welfare policy. “We take this issue very seriously and are taking action to ensure animals are respected and treated humanely,” Dr. Wotecki said.
In a written statement, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the USDA's agency in charge of the department's research facilities, told Fusion that it is taking actions to "ensure animals are respected and treated humanely."
The ARS said two of the research projects featured in the New York Times report have been terminated.
8. Jim Schrier
Blew the whistle on: Tyson Foods and The U.S. Department of Agriculture
Price paid: Transferred away from home
Required reading: The Meat Racket
As a veteran USDA food inspector, Jim Schrier was in charge of overseeing a slaughter plant for one of America’s biggest meat companies, when he said he observed a number of violations regarding animal cruelty prior to their slaughter.
Under USDA law, pigs must be entirely unconscious prior to being shackled for the killing. Yet, Schrier says, this was not the case with many pigs at the facility: they would struggle violently while shackled and would often need to be stunned during the process. Schrier brought these violations to his supervisor, which resulted in him being moved a week later to a different plant more than 100 miles from his home. After a lengthy battle, in 2013—with the support of a whistlblower support organization called the Food Integrity Campaign and a change.org petition with 200,000 signatures—Schrier was successfully reassigned back to a plant near his home.
Tyson Foods told Fusion they aren't aware of any USDA inspectors at Columbus Junction who have been transferred due to allegations about animal welfare concerns.
They said "If a USDA inspector at one of our plants expresses an animal handling concern, we take it seriously. Each time a concern has been raised by an inspector at Columbus Junction we have investigated and taken appropriate action, which was subsequently accepted by the USDA."
9. Samuel Shaw
Blew the whistle on: U.S. Navy
Price paid: Naval dismissal, libel suit
Required reading: The Whistleblowers of 1777
Samuel Shaw was the whistleblower responsible for bringing about the first whistleblower’s protection law in the United States. In 1777, Shaw and his comrades denounced the torture of British prisoners-of-war of war at the hands of Esek Hopkins, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy.
The U.S. government agreed to defend Shaw against a libel suit by the commander. Standing by their word, Congress provided $1,418 to cover their legal fees and the defendants mounted a powerful case and won.
Once labelled The Velvet Hammer, Alice is a muckraking, grime-chasing, crime-stopping investigative producer. She is passionate about justice and interpretive dance.
Connie Fossi-Garcia is an investigative producer passionate about justice, immigration and stories that spark change.