Famed whistleblower lawyer: More confidentiality, less politics key to exposing wrongdoing

Whistleblowing in America has come a long way since the first legal protections were passed in 1778, attorney Steve Kohn says.

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Stephen Kohn at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2015
Stephen Kohn at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2015
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Updated: July 30, 2020 - 11:22pm

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Amid the American Revolution more than 240 years ago, the U.S. Continental Congress on July 30, 1778 unanimously approved the nation's first whistleblower law. The protections and challenges of whistleblowing have since come a long way at the advent of the 21st century, according to attorney Stephen Kohn, the board chairman of the National Whistleblower Center.

For instance, the U.S. Senate has declared the anniversary National Whistleblower Appreciation Day for the last several years, though Kohn's group would like to make the recognition permanent.  But the perception of wrongdoing has sometimes become highly politicized, as the Russia and Ukraine scandals showed.

"When a whistleblower case becomes political, it often just becomes a disaster," Kohn, who has represented some of the country's mist famous whistleblowers, said during an interview on the John Solomon Reports podcast. But he also noted that many cases do not become politicized.

"So one thing we do in my practice is we religiously try to keep every one of our cases out of the political scheme, work in a bipartisan manner, don't take your whistleblower to a member of Congress who's gonna politicize it for their own ends. Take it to a member of Congress, of either party, who's gonna look at it seriously as an accountability issue," Kohn explained.

Kohn praised Sen. Chuck Grassley for his conduct in handling whistleblower cases, describing the Iowa Republican as "the shining light on non-partisan whistleblower protection." Grassley publicly marked Whistleblower Appreciation Day on social media Thursday.

Kohn noted that confidential whistleblowers are typically, though not always, able to maintain their confidentiality. He emphasized confidentiality for whistleblowers as a positive development, though he said it is not included in most laws.

"I remember back 30 years ago when I did this and all the harm that whistleblowers suffered. And then I look at a case now where I can have someone working in their company, getting access to information, being promoted, and nobody knows they were the whistleblower. So that's really become, in my view, one of the most important advances in the law," Kohn explained. 

Whistleblowers can be targeted for retaliation, and Kohn said that some have even suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. 

He provided examples of whistleblowers who have exposed wrongdoing including Howard Wilkinson who "blew the whistle on the largest money laundering scandal in history" which involved $240 billion, and Bradley Birkenfeld who exposed illegal Swiss bank accounts of U.S. citizens and won an award of $104 million. 

"These two cases alone give you just this idea that a whistleblower well-placed in a major institution involved in criminal activity can really change the world," Kohn said.

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