Frances Haugen, a former employee of Facebook, made headlines on Oct. 5 when she revealed detailed information about the social media giant’s practices.
For two years, Haugen said she worked at Facebook studying how the social network's algorithm amplified misinformation. She testified before a Senate subcommittee about the harm she believes the social media giant’s platforms have on society.
“I came forward, at great personal risk, because I believe we still have time to act. But we must act now,” Haugen told the subcommittee.
Haugen’s testimony inspired a lot of interest and questions about protections for whistleblowers, which are people who reveal insider information about misconduct.
VERIFY viewer Jake asked: Do those who whistleblow get immunity? And how are they protected?
Are whistleblowers guaranteed immunity?
No, a whistleblower is not guaranteed immunity for revealing information, but they can get protections against retaliation.
WHAT WE FOUND
According to the National Whistleblower Center: “On the simplest level, a whistleblower is someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in the position to rectify the wrongdoing.”
“A whistleblower typically works inside of the organization where the wrongdoing is taking place; however, being an agency or company ‘insider’ is not essential to serving as a whistleblower. What matters is that the individual discloses information about wrongdoing that otherwise would not be known,” the Center’s website says.
Steve Kohn, the co-founder of the National Whistleblower Center and a whistleblower attorney, told VERIFY someone becomes a whistleblower when they decide that they want to communicate concerns to an appropriate authority.
“At that beginning stage, they don't know what an appropriate authority is. So sometimes they go to their supervisor, they may go to the press, they may go to the government, and then eventually, they come to us or a similar law firm and our job is to be Humpty Dumpty, to put the pieces back together and try to protect them,” Kohn told VERIFY.
Kohn told VERIFY there are dozens of laws that protect whistleblowers, but immunity isn’t guaranteed for a whistleblower.
Plus, Kohn added, whistleblowers usually come forward on the condition of anonymity, and “If you come in anonymously, which means the government doesn't know who you are. How can the government prosecute you?”
There are exceptions. Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. soldier, spent seven years of a 35-year sentence in prison for leaking 750,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning’s sentence was commuted in 2017. Manning’s lawyers are fighting for her to be able to enter Canada, where she has been denied entry because of her conviction.
A whistleblower may not be guaranteed immunity, but they are guaranteed certain rights through the Department of Labor or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service also guarantee protection.
“An employer cannot retaliate against you for exercising your rights under the Department of Labor’s whistleblower protection laws. Retaliation includes such actions as firing or laying off, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, or reducing pay or hours,” the Department of Labor website says.
A person can’t file a whistleblower complaint anonymously through OSHA, according to the website. If someone files a complaint as a whistleblower to OSHA, OSHA then notifies the employer and provides them an opportunity to respond.
If retaliatory action is taken by the employer, the employee can file a complaint, if they have enough evidence:
- The employee engaged in activity protected by the whistleblower protection law(s) (such as reporting a violation of law);
- The employer knew about, or suspected, that the employee engaged in the protected activity;
- The employer took an adverse action against the employee;
- The employee's protected activity motivated or contributed to the adverse action.
A whistleblower may also be rewarded for coming forward.
If a whistleblower can provide the federal government with quality evidence about crimes a company committed, the government can take the company to court and make them pay fines. According to the IRS, “the award percentage depends on several factors but generally falls between 15% and 30% of the proceeds collected and attributable to the whistleblower's information.”
Kohn said one of their clients had received $104 million for blowing the whistle.
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