Whistle-blowing is now a fact of life,” Stephen M. Kohn said last week. He was sitting in Langan’s, a News Corp. haunt in midtown where Rupert Murdoch has been known to pop in, when his company is not facing a whistle-blower-induced crisis. “The U.S. has the best whistle-blower laws in the world,” Kohn went on. “But people think that ‘doing the right thing’ will protect them. That’s just not the case.” Certain guidelines must be followed. His, for instance. Kohn, who represented Linda Tripp (and now heads something called the National Whistleblowers Center), has written a timely self-help book, The Whistleblower’s Handbook, and was in town for a talk at the New York Public Library.
The library staff put the head count at 125, better than anticipated; a second room was opened to accommodate the crowd. Kohn had a PowerPoint presentation, so the lights went down save for one on the lectern, which lit his glasses and curly brown hair conspiratorially. His book details 21 rules, which he shared with his audience: Don’t go to the press, unless you know the applicable laws and are sure you will be protected from retaliation. Beware the corporate tip line. (“No company presents an annual ‘whistle-blower award,’ ” Kohn writes.) Instead, take your claims to the appropriate authorities—the Consumer Product Safety Commission for lead-filled toys, the EPA for lead-filled fish—and do so sooner rather than later; the statute of limitations on some offenses is as brief as 30 days. Also, per Rule No. 18 (“Get Every Penny Deserved”), make sure to claim your share; the federal government issued $385 million in rewards to whistle-blowers last year. “My God,” Kohn said. “You can make some very simple mistakes in the beginning, and you’re going to lose.” Rule No. 1: Understand the Maze.
For all his focus on the technical details, Kohn does not ignore the human side of being a rat; he will set his clients up with a therapist if they find insufficient support for their decision from friends and loved ones. After his talk, he retired to a table in the corner to sign books and field individual requests for advice. One man said he was prepared to expose a Big Pharma fraud, while a special-ed teacher said the union had ignored her complaints that money had been handled improperly. “Chances are, there’s a misuse of federal funds there,” Kohn said. Joe Whiting, a former police officer, approached Kohn and explained his case. He’d tried and failed to blow the whistle on a dirty cop. “When you’re a little guy going into court by yourself, they just spit you out,” Whiting said. “I know,” Kohn said. “It’s tough.” Whiting, walking away, asked himself, “If I had to do it again, would I?” His answer: “You know, probably not.”
In some cases, a follow-up conversation was requested, and Kohn offered his card, which listed his e-mail address. It seemed, though, that his words of caution had already hit home. Taking a card, one woman, her secrets apparently yet unspilled, thought to ask a final question. “Is it encrypted?”