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History of Whistleblowing

The term, whistleblowing is used when an employee divulges a wrongdoing committed by a firm. To be considered within the boundary of whistleblowing, the disclosure should be an act in the interest of public well-being, therefore, personal complaints do not fall under the jurisdiction of whistleblowing. Secondly, the disclosure must have the tendency to show any wrongdoings of unsafe, unethical or illegal nature that occurred over the past, present or if likely, the future (Department for Business Innovation & Skills, 2015). Throughout history, many cases of whistleblowing have come to light. This paper aims to discuss some historical cases of whistleblowing in the U.S. along with the response from the government and companies involved. This paper also explores the changes that were made as a result of these disclosures.

The world’s first whistleblowing law was passed in 1778 by Continental Congress. This was in response to a case of 1977 in Rhode Island, where a group of ten sailors wrote a petition against their commander in chief, Commodore Esek Hopkins and raised concerns of his torturous treatment of the British sailors. In retaliation, Hopkins filed a criminal libel suit and two of the sailors, Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven, were arrested. Over the course of this case, the first protection law for whistleblowers was enacted by Continental Congress. As a result, Hopkins was removed with immediate effect and $1418 was reimbursed for the defense of whistleblowers (Kohn, 2011). Following this resolution, a number of acts and laws such as the False Claims Act of 1863, the “Lloyd-La Follette Act of 1912” and “Civil Service Reform Act of 1978” were passed to encourage and protect the whistleblowers (Yamaguchi, 2017).

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon papers to blow the whistle on the transgressions of the U.S. government in the Vietnam war. The initial charges under the Espionage Act of 1917 resulted in a sentence of 115 years in prison but these charges were dropped in light of the illegal government evidence. His disclosure is considered to be a central factor in bringing an end to the war (National Whistleblower Center, 2021).

A major victory for whistleblowers was in the case of Vera English v. General Electric Company (GE). Disclosing the employees’ nuclear safety violations in 1987 to her supervisor, she was fired after she left a table contaminated to prove a point. She lodged a complaint under the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, stressing the prohibition of retribution against whistleblowers, however, her claims were dismissed due to delayed filing. Proceeding with the cases of wrongful termination and intentional emotional distress, her case was further supported by The National Whistleblower Center (NWC), resulting in her victory and setting a precedent for whistleblowers to obtain relief under state laws (National Whistleblower Center, 2021).

Another famous case of whistleblowing is that of Marsha Coleman-Adebayo from 1996, who staked her career at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to highlight the South African vanadium poisoning issue. The ignorant stance of EPA to her concerns forced her to report it to other organizations. Consequently, her request for promotion at the EPA was denied, upon which she filed a suit, alleging gender and racial discrimination. Under the Civil Rights Law of 1964, the EPA was found guilty. This case ultimately prompted the passage of the No FEAR Act of 2002 (Yamaguchi, 2017).

The 2005 case of Dr. Jonathan Fishbein v. National Institute of Health was another important success for whistleblowers. Since then, the case is used as a precedence to protect government doctors from the retribution of disclosure. Initially, being fired for divulging the invalidity of NIH-funded clinical trials of HIV/AIDS treatment, Fishbein was later supported by NWC and reinstated at his position (National Whistleblower Center, 2021).

The revelation of $3.8 billion accounting fraud at Worldcom, by Cynthia Cooper in 2002 and another one at Health-Sound, by Winston Smith in 2003 resulted in the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to help in keeping investors safe from fraudulent accounting activities (Yamaguchi, 2017). Similarly, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reports an annual tax evasion and fraud of $345 billion each year. With the limitations set upon filing tax fraud cases by the FCA, in 2006 the Tax Relief and Healthcare Act was passed by Congress and the IRS Whistleblower Office was officially inaugurated in 2007 with a reward of 15% to 30% for plaintiffs at successful tips. Additional protections and confidentiality are also provided (Whistleblowers International, 2021).

Over the course of history, an abundance of whistleblower cases can be found. Although the plaintiffs initially faced repercussions, many laws have been enacted to protect them and regular revisions are taken up to provide benefits to those who expose wrongdoers.


Department for Business Innovation & Skills. (2015). Whistleblowing: Guidance for employers and code of practice. Open Government License. London.

Kohn, S. M. (2011). The Whistle-Blowers of 1777. Retrieved from The New York Times:

National Whistleblower Center. (2021). Celebrating whistleblowers. Retrieved from

Whistleblowers International. (2021). Whistleblowing history overview. Retrieved from

Yamaguchi, M. K. (2017). Three essays on culture and whistleblowing: A multimethod comparative study of the United States and Japan.



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