Most corporate whistle-blowers will never score a book tour. Yes, Time magazine helped make a few famous by declaring them heroes in a big cover story last year. And one of those people, Enron's Sherron Watkins, has actually gone on to sell a stack of autographed copies of her tell-all,
Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron . But workers who expose corporate misdeeds don't normally end up with a listing on Amazon.com. Instead, many find that straying from the company line ends up derailing their once-promising careers. In an age of rising worries about ethical business practices, some observers call it troubling that dissent is still being suppressed -- and caution that investors could again wind up paying the price. "Retaliation is a serious problem," says Stephen Meagher, a San Francisco attorney who represents whistle-blowers in health care. "People try to do the right thing, and they get squelched. It happens all the time." Meagher should know. For years, his clients have been protected by laws that specifically shield, and even reward, people who report abuses of Medicare and other government programs through the False Claims Act. Spurred on by calamities such as those at Enron and WorldCom, the new Sarbanes-Oxley Act extends similar protection -- though without the financial incentives -- to corporate whistle-blowers outside the health care world. Under the new law, publicly traded companies face harsh penalties for retaliating against employees who expose corporate shenanigans. Some experts believe managers will now respond with sweeping policy changes like those last seen when sexual harassment took center stage a decade ago. But Meagher has watched similar laws fail to protect his clients already. And noted academic C. Fred Alford remains skeptical that any law can weaken powerful corporations bent on keeping secrets. "The goal of any organization is to eliminate the disruptive effect of the ethical individual," says Alford, a University of Maryland political science professor who wrote the book Whistleblower: Broken Lives and Organizational Power . "Organizations are basically amoral."
Less than two months later, though, Stone's career began to fall apart. He weathered a "hostile" five-hour interrogation by company attorneys gathering information for a report to the Carolina utility regulators. They would go on to order their own investigation -- conducted by independent auditing firm Grant Thornton -- which blasted Duke in the alleged use of accounting tricks to downplay utility profits and lock in higher power rates. Duke ultimately settled both utility cases. But federal investigators have picked up where state authorities left off. The company has responded by hiring some of the biggest defense attorneys around to represent executives now swept up in a growing criminal probe. Meanwhile, Stone continues to fight an uphill battle mostly on his own. He lost his first round when the Labor Department recently sided with Duke. But last week he slapped the company with a retaliation lawsuit, filed under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in federal court. Duke expects to prevail again. The company pointed out that the Labor Department found no proof of retaliation, and that Stone's new case relies on the same evidence that failed to support his arguments the first time around. But Stone insists that he has paid an unfair price for his honesty. "As a result of his demotion and harassment by Duke, Stone's career has been shattered," the lawsuit states. Still, Stone is luckier than most whistle-blowers. He has a job -- for now. Alford estimates that the average whistle-blower lasts two years, usually weathering an inappropriate job transfer first, before finally getting fired. Stone sounded the alarm at Duke 22 months ago.
In the end, ADT did ultimately fire the managers for continued misconduct. But Jones lost his career too -- after he continued to report abuses. By the time he left ADT in misery last year, Jones had documented transgressions ranging from forgery to fraud to theft. He finally got fired from his next job, working for an ADT authorized dealer, just days after reporting ADT's troubles to new Tyco CEO Ed Breen. "At this point, my gripe isn't even about the salespeople who committed the theft and fraud," Jones said. "I think the bigger problem is the message the behavior of management sends to the customers and shareholders of this company. "By refusing to take action, management legitimizes and encourages ongoing unethical behavior." Tyco insists that it has responded properly. "We have taken steps to investigate the problem areas that Mr. Jones identified," Tyco spokesman Gary Holmes said Friday. "We take all allegations of wrongdoing seriously." Indeed, Breen has publicly vowed to crack down on Tyco employees who break rules and has, in fact, already fired some big names in the problematic ADT division. But Jones is still watching for clear signs that ADT's old culture -- which fostered troublemakers in the past -- has truly changed. In the meantime, the award-winning sales manager is hunting for a job. But his record as a whistle-blower isn't helping. "I can't even get an interview with a security company despite my record and abilities," Jones said. And even after everything he's been through, Jones misses his old job at ADT. "There was never a day in 10 years that I didn't believe that ADT was providing superior service -- and doing it better than anyone else -- for our customers," Jones said. "I was always proud to spread that word."
"You can't stop them," says Donald Soeken, a clinical social worker who blew the whistle both early and late in his career and now runs a retreat, known as the Whistle Stop, which provides a welcome escape to those who dare to speak the truth. "They will be blowing the whistle from now until the end of time. "And they'll be paying the price for it, too."