In memoriam: The federal government should never leave whistleblowers to their own fates against much more powerful employers.

“In 1998, an Alaska Airlines mechanic named John Liotine, who worked in the Alaska Airlines maintenance center in Oakland, California, told the Federal Aviation Administration that supervisors were approving records of maintenance that they were not allowed to approve or that indicated work had been completed when, in fact, it had not.” (Wikipedia: Alaska Airlines Flight 261).

In the case of one jet, Liotine had recommended that the jackscrew of its horizontal stabilizer be serviced, but a subsequent supervisor scratched out his note, apparently as part of a general push by the airline to save money on maintenance costs by spacing out servicing. In August 1999, Alaska Airlines put Liotine on paid leave, calling him a disruptive influence for having reported his concerns to the FAA. (His complaints had led to FBI raids against the company.)

On January 31, 2000, a few months before its rescheduled maintenance, the jackscrew of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 stripped from a lack of grease. This led to a horrific death of 88 people, as reenacted in the following video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOQNMj3wA-k

Unfortunately, this whistleblower’s complaints apparently had not been disruptive enough.

The whistleblower then sued Alaska Airlines on his own for defamation. After the events leading to the destruction of a jetliner and the deaths of 88 people, the whistleblower got a settlement of $500,000. But the general reality is well stated by Mary Schiavo, a former Inspector General of the federal Department of Transportation and an attorney for the family of the deceased passengers:

“I get calls almost every week, from somebody saying ‘should I blow the whistle’, and I always tell them ‘you need to know, you need to be prepared to find another line of work because you will not work in the industry, and you will not work in the government’. In most cases it’s almost impossible to be a whistleblower and survive in your career.”

Increase the credibility of whistleblowers from the outset to get compliance rather than resistance and risk

What we now call “whistleblowers” should become completely protected sources of information for the government, especially if and when the government confirms the validity of their concerns. In other words, in the face of evidence of misconduct or danger, government oversight entities should be compelled to act. By removing discretion, the government would be blowing the whistles, not lone individuals.

If there is retaliation attempted against a witness-whistleblower, then there must (not should) be criminal criminal complaints taken against all responsible individuals.

By protecting whistleblowers like the witnesses and information sources they are, their potential impact could become more credible. As it stands now, by often going easy on businesses which have findings of misconduct (as in this case), the government allows whistleblowers to be injured and made into examples against reporting, thereby suppressing others from coming forward.

Turning civil whistleblowers into something more like criminal witnesses and reducing governmental discretion might help prevent career-ending retaliations and blacklisting. But just as importantly, it should motivate businesses to step up their compliance with safety and other regulations, thereby correcting problems early before they become crippling disasters for citizens, and often eventually the company itself.

Robert Bauchwitz

Robert Bauchwitz is a biomedical research scientist and certified fraud examiner. His research expertise is in behavioral neuroscience and molecular genetics. He was the relator (plaintiff acting on behalf of the government) in a U.S. federal False Claims Act qui tam case involving scientific research fraud. He has obtained additional fraud investigation training from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and operational audit training from the Institute of Internal Auditors. He also has certifications in litigation support from the Widener University Law School's Legal Education Institute and in network security from CompTIA.

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