By DANA LIEBELSON
Eileen Foster, a former senior executive for the national's largest mortgage provider, Countrywide Financial, didn't plan on getting labeled a whistleblower. She was hired to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by company employees. But when she did her job and revealed large-scale fraud within the company—the kind that led to the 2008 financial crash—she was fired for telling the truth.
Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis never set out to be a whistleblower either; he simply saw a discrepancy between what senior officers were telling Congress about the war in Afghanistan and the actual conditions on the ground. Refusing to abide by the idea that “the truth was negotiable,” he decided to go to Congress and the media to set the record straight.
Foster and Davis were just some of the truth-tellers honored yesterday at the 9th annual Ridenhour Prizes. The ceremony, hosted this year by POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian, recognizes those who champion the truth and uphold the spirit of Ron Ridenhour, the former U.S. Army helicopter gunner who exposed the My Lai Massacre based on accounts he had heard from fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War. Each prize comes with a $10,000 stipend.
“This is the most threatening environment for whistleblowers in decades—this year’s prizewinners are heroes that demand to be heard” said Randy Fertel, President of the Fertel Foundation, which cosponsors the awards along with the Nation Institute.
One of this year’s prizes went to Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon, the filmmakers behind Semper Fi, Always Faithful, which chronicles Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger’s quest to get to the bottom of the Marine Corps’ cover-up of the deadly water contamination at Camp Lejeune.
“There are factions that call people ‘unpatriotic’ for holding military leaders accountable,” Ensminger said at the event. “But telling the truth is many times harder than going along with the status quo.”
POGO continues to work closely with Ensminger on this issue—check out our most recent podcast with Jerry for more information on these efforts.
The Ridenhour Book Prize was awarded to former FBI Special Agent Ali H. Soufan, who authored "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda." Soufan, who worked as a leading counterterrorism investigator when enhanced interrogation was introduced under the Bush Administration, debunked the practice as ineffective—and torture.
At the awards, Soufan pointed out that his book has redactions by the CIA, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He said: “When the public gets the unredacted version, they’ll know [exactly] what was true…you don’t redact fiction.”
The final prize, which is given for courage, was awarded to Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who has a long history of defending human rights and civil liberties in the U.S. Called one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis has remained dedicated to nonviolence despite undergoing more than 40 arrests and physical attacks.
At the awards, Lewis gave credit to those who have defended what is right—no matter the cost. He also thanked the media for giving truth-tellers and human rights campaigners a voice.
“Without the media, the Civil Rights Movement would have been a bird without wings,” said Lewis.
As the Obama Administration continues to crack down on truth-tellers through the Espionage Act, and legislators like Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) attempt to strip financial whistleblowers of basic protections, there isn’t a better time than the Ridenhour Awards to remember the vital role whistleblowers play in stopping waste, fraud, and abuse in America. These brave men and women deserve our full and resounding support.
Rep. John Lewis
Dana Liebelson is POGO’s Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Photos by POGO's Pam Rutter