When I first met Robert Rester, I was investigating McWane as part of a reporting team at The New York Times
. Rester eventually went on the record and became a key source for our story. His revelations, echoed by scores of McWane employees across the country, internal company documents and government records, figured prominently into a three-part series in The Times
and a corresponding PBS Frontline documentary
. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and environmental regulators, too, took notice and offered Rester immunity from prosecution if he testified against the company and his former cohorts. When it was all over, McWane was fined millions of dollars for safety and environmental violations and several employees were convicted of felonies. Rester's McWane career, however, had come to an abrupt end.
I called him recently at his new job. He now drives a garbage truck. He had to pull over to talk.
"I planned to be miserable from now on," he said, before reminding me of all he's lost: His home and eight acres, the horses out back, his Harley Davidson Road King and his cherished gun collection--all liquidated after he lost his job and went broke. "Now, I don't regret [blowing the whistle], I just wish I'd thought about it more before I done it."
Rester's plunge from comfort and prosperity to financial and emotional ruin is a path not uncommon among whistleblowers. The risks of accusing one's employer of health or safety violations, fraud or other wrongdoing are virtually limitless. The Government Accountability Project, a non-partisan public interest group in Washington, D.C. is one of the nation's premier resources for whistleblowers. GAP has helped protect dozens of public and private employees from retaliation after speaking out. But the group has also witnessed the many perils that can occur if blowing the whistle is not accomplished with careful preparation and strategy regarding how, when, where and with what evidence to come forward. The group wrote a handbook for whistleblowing called Courage Without Martyrdom: The Whistleblower's Survival Guide
. The guide is intended to help potential whistleblowers strategize effective ways to speak out, but it also offers a candid preview of what employees should consider before they do:
- "Are my family and I financially and mentally ready for a protracted fight with my employers to prove my allegations and try to retain my job?"
- "Am I mentally ready to have my fellow workers and perhaps my friends turn against me because of my disclosures?"
- "Am I ready for personal attacks against my character and to have any past indiscretions made public?"
- "Do I have enough evidence to prove my charges without having to go back to my workplace?"
- "Am I sure that my motivations are to expose the wrongdoing on behalf of the public interest, and not just sour grapes, revenge, or a quest for financial gain or public attention?"
Rester did not strategically plan out blowing the whistle, and his case was complicated in that he had taken part in many of the abuses and crimes he sought to expose. Indeed, after he spoke out to The New York Times
and PBS, he became a useful source for the Department of Justice who used his knowledge as a McWane insider to help prosecute McWane officials around the country.