Be a whistleblower or not?

This is a thoroughly beaten subject, but please bear with me, some things have developed and I’m struggling with them.

I work for a research department of a University. This department shares a building with a private non-private (PNP) research center that is allied with the U. My department’s research is tentatively related to the PNP’s goals. In October 2006, our department head (DH) announced that he was leaving for a better position with another university. Not long after that, the PNP’s head of research, Dr. H (aka Spineless Bastard), declared that my department no longer existed and that the remaining junior researchers could not have space in “his” building.

The junior researchers fought back. This building was built with U. and PNP funds, our department was promised floor space for labs. We were moved to another floor of the building, but given only a fraction of the space we had before. Dr. H complained after our move that we had taken equipment that did not belong to us. All of the items moved were ours, we had the paperwork to prove it and gave him copies.

Before DH’s administrative secretary left, she gave S. and me some important information: Dr. H is known to have taken money from other researchers’ accounts and her computer had all of the department’s financial records – including proof of Dr. H’s theft from DH. We took the computer and set if up in our lab space. After DH left in April, the secretary’s computer was removed from the lab. We discovered that Dr. H ordered its removal and claimed that it was going to be shipped to DH at his new job. S. and I were not comfortable with this excuse, but were powerless to do anything. Today, DH’s right-hand-person was in town (she moved with DH). She told us that they never received the computer!

Also, S. is in trouble. She’s a post-doc. Her salary is paid by a fellowship grant. Before DH left, she sat down with the admin secretary and they took a look at her grant. S. had enough money to pay her through July. Today, Dr. H’s secretary told S. that her grant is overdrawn and she owes money!

I’m not sure how a salary account can go from the black to the red, and it smells fishy to me. There have been many other less-than ethical things happening here. The University has pulled funding it gave our department. Dr. H has run off three senior researchers, he has had two sexual harassment complaints filed against him with no disciplinary action, and he is already showing our lab space to prospective researchers for the PNP.

I’m quite sure that my career in academic research is over. Much of the money that has been bouncing around is from the government and charitable organizations. Very talented, intelligent people are being shat upon and left out in the cold. Should I blow the whistle on all of this? What sort of proof would I need to be credible? (All I can really do is name names and describe the situation.) Would anyone care? (Keep in mind, this is the University that gave us Ward Churchill, and sexual assult and rape charges against members of the football team. What’s a little misconduct in a research lab compared to this?)

Dunno which specific university you’re referring to, or how big it is, but I’ll bet a dollar some bright-eyed young muckraker at the student newspaper would love the chance to bust a story like this. If it turns into a big financial brouhaha, your student reporter will get the credit when it transitions into the regular media.

Drop a dime. What the hell are you waiting for?

I’m afraid that the U. will retailiate against the junior researchers, grad students and post-docs.

I’m a tech. The worst they can do is fire me and I decided to quit a while ago.

So talk to those junio researchers, grad students, and post-docs. Take a vote among them, since it would affect them the most. If they are as sick of the whole thing as you are, and are willing to get dirty, go for it.

Chances are they’re screwed already, even if they’re not there’s all kinds of state and Federal whistleblower protection laws which prohibit the uni from doing anything. They go after people who didn’t blow the whistle and it’s lawsuits aplenty, with the uni being on the recieving end.

I blew the whistle on a former employer who was shipping scrap parts to the military, and even though I’ve had some minor problems because of it, I don’t regret it for a moment. There’s probably Federal agencies you can pass the information along to, as well as the charitable organizations who supplied the money as well.

Wait, if they had proof of theft, why didn’t anyone go after him then?

Because he’s the Head of Research of the Private Non-Profit, the PNP is associated with the U. and brings in a lot of money. Also, our now-former Department Head hates conflict and didn’t want to confront Dr. H.

Retaliate how? By stealing their equipment, leaving them without a lab to conduct their research, and not paying their salaries? Oh, wait…

Go for it. What have you got to lose? Have you talked to anyone else in the lab? I second talking to the student newspaper. Is U. a state school? Then the Board of Regents should be very interested in what you have to say as well.

So should the grant giving organizations. Any of these related to the NIH?

I believe there is a hotline for reporting fraud of government funds. You university probably also has an ethics hotline.

The other sneaky thing to do is that if you thing the good Dr. was actually stealing funds and diverting them for personal use is to sic the IRS after him. The first thing they do is look at all the money going into his bank accounts and make him account for it.

My best guess is that an official complaint/report will go straight into the trash. If you want to salve your conscience, go ahead and submit an anonymous report to some committee at the U. If you want there to be actual consequences, go to the media.

Our high school had an honor council which, if you prefer to look at it from a glass half empty sort of way, basically meant, turn in all your friends if they even look at you funny; it’ll be good for their character and great for yours. I was on the council my junior and senior years. God Damn it, if I wasn’t a whistle blower before, that did it.

So in short, my answer is, yes, you should tell someone. There’s clearly something fishy going on, and I think they might like to know.


No, really, they won’t. The natural and overwhelming response of a bureaucracy to corruption is to ignore it. Or bury it, preferably along with the whistleblower.

Since you have given up on a career in research - do it. You need to get the abuse out in the open; if he is doing that there is no telling what else he is up to, or is planning. Go to the student newspaper and the comptroller of the U if you can. Document what you can.

If there are federal funds involved, all the better; go to the federal funding agency’s Inspector General, who’s the one who conducts investigations of fraud, waste, and abuse. If it’s private organizations doing the funding, go to their legal department. And then, after you’ve told the authorities, go to the media.

Tell the authorities (and by authorities, I mean whoever is theoretically in control on the U side, whoever the grant money originated from (private organizations, government organizations, etc). Document what you’re telling the authorities (i.e., tell the authorities in writing, certified mail, and keep a copy for yourself).

Then hand over copies of what you told the authorities, any backup information you possess (like a copy of the files on that computer if you still have access for example), and a detailed timeline of events to the media.

If you’re feeling generous to your fellow-man, hand a copy off to an enterprising member of the student paper staff a day or two before you hit up the local newspaper (tell the cub reporter-in-training he’s got 24 hours before you tell the big boys).

If you blow the whistle, blow it in a big, splashy, flamboyant way, ma’am. Arrange as much noise as you possibly can. No sense in doing the whistleblowing thing half-assed.

Think of it like this: you’re not actually doing the junior researchers, post-docs, etc. any big favors by not telling. All they have to do if the U gets shirty is look stupid and tell the truth: “I didn’t do anything!”. Frankly, the U won’t be able to afford the exceptionally shitty PR that would happen if they started harassing their staff after a scandal like this breaks. If nothing else, you’ll be bolstering the credibility of any suit staff who are being so harassed may bring against the U - and the U’s legal team will be aware of the legal realities. As long as you’re clear in the information you give the U and everyone else in God’s creation that it’s all you, it probably won’t occur to them to look to anyone else. Even if it does, you think you’re the onle one who knows this is a corrupt situation? You think other people who left before you haven’t been spreading the word in their new situations? How long do you think it’ll be before folks start to view people coming from the U in any capacity as having a taint about them?

I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I’ve been following the story as it unfolds, and the whole situation screams “Scandal Waiting To Break All Over Someone” to me. I’ve been in the situation of having to find work after leaving a job just before Scandals Of Epic Proportions burst, and I can tell you that trying to field questions about the corruption in every subsequent job interview for the next 5 years was definitely not any fun. It very definitely made finding future work in the industry much more difficult. Nobody would talk to me until I’d demonstrated that not only was I not involved, I was one of the whistleblowers. It’s not like the scandal took anyone in the industry by surprise - people talk, and when there’s corruption, anyone who leaves is surely filling in their new workplace about it.

Just had a chat with one of the junior researchers, Dr. G. He’s very involved with this whole mess.

According to G., Dr. H, the head of research at the PNP, doesn’t answer to anyone but the PNP’s board of directors. Dr. H also has access to the U. finance system and the U. financial officers know that he has misused funds. Basically, Dr. H has a lot of power, likes it, and wants to keep it that way. If anyone looks like they are going to threaten his little party, he fucks with them - especially their grants. For some reason, no one has gotten rid of this guy.

I’m going to look up how to contact the PNP’s board, and also the woman the PNP is named after - since she is the founder and a major donor.

sigh There are other things going on that just plain suck. I’ve been complaining about the research end of things. Dr. G is an MD. Recently, the U has moved its hospital to this “new” campus. They have build boards and TV ads about how great this new location is. There is a nasty downside: The U. has gone far into the red to build this campus. They have laid off a lot of hospital staff. Dr. G said that OR nurses are cleaning the OR floors because of cuts!

Is all academics this bad, or is this just this place?

Don’t do it. Well, not until you are firmly employed elsewhere and about to give your two weeks notice, and maybe not even then. This is the sort of thing follows you, like a balloon tied to your back that you can’t see, with the words ‘fire this person!’ printed on it. Once done, you will be silently marked for termination from that company/firm/organisation and in ways so subtle that you’d never be able to prove it in court.

I agree with this completely. Or at least to the extent of “Don’t attach your name to the complaint”.

If you try to ‘whistleblow’ reet now you’ll embarrass yourself, so don’t do that. There is nothing to whistleblow, and trying to rustle up iffy financial shenanigans that you really know very little about is pointless and counter-productive.

You need to take action at the heart of what is actually wrong here, in that the department’s champion has gone, and left a big vacuum behind that is currently been filled by someone who sounds like he has no interest in the welfare of the previous research groups, or even the department for that matter. Its ironic to me that you’re focussing all of your outrage on this Dr H character, when it sounds to me that its DH who should be getting a piece of your mind (Dr H is just your typical garden variety vulture, found in universities the world over, who moves in when a big research group leaves town).

I don’t know any of the facts, so I should refrain from preaching what’s what, but DH has an obligation to the welfare of his researchers. He cannot just hit the road and forget about everybody. He would seem to be the obvious voice to represent your situation. THe bottom line, though, is that if a department is such a one-man band that the whole thing turns to ratshit once the circus leaves town, then there is nothing you can do. Either get involved in the new regime or hit the road yourself.

Why didn’t you move with DH, if you don’t mind me asking?

Department head is moving north to Canada iirc.