On 17 June 2015 Transparency International EU together with the European Parliament’s new Intergroup on Integrity, Transparency, Corruption and Organised Crime (ITCO) hosted an event “SPEAK UP! – Empowering citizens to blow the whistle on corruption”. The event, which brought together EU policy-makers, whistleblowers, the donor community and civil society representatives, aimed to present the work of TI national chapters in supporting citizens who speak up against corruption and to raise public awareness to the lack of protection against retaliation across EU member states and within EU institutions.
John Wilson and his former colleague Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe blew the whistle on systematic cancellation of traffic offences by senior police officers in the Irish police force. They alleged that senior police officers had improperly terminated penalties and fines issued to motorists caught speeding and committing other traffic offences. Instead of being celebrated for trying to see an end to this practice, the two men found themselves ignored, ridiculed and discredited. Ultimately, John Wilson saw no alternative but to resign from his job.
“It’s the job I loved, the only job I ever did. I joined the Garda police when I was 19 years of age”, he said when telling his story to dozens of listeners in the European Parliament. Even though their allegations were eventually confirmed and the case ultimately resulted in the resignation of the Minister of Justice at the time, speaking out came at an immense personal price to the whistleblowers. Few were there to support the men, Wilson emphasized as he extended his gratitude to TI Ireland by quoting his former colleague: “I first contacted Transparency International Ireland in late 2012 when I became so afraid and annoyed. My family and I could not have survived this ordeal without the support of Transparency International Ireland. They stood behind me and my family and helped me properly expose the wrongdoing. I don’t know what I would have done without Transparency International Ireland – my phone call to them changed the whole case” (Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe).
The case of John Wilson and Maurice McCabe helped propel the issue of whistleblowing to the forefront of the national agenda. Now whistleblowers in Ireland are protected under the Protected Disclosures Bill 2014. Hailed as one of the few whistleblower laws in the EU that offers comprehensive protection to employees speaking out against suspected foul play in their work place, the law is yet to prove its effectiveness in practice. Nonetheless, it intrigued EU policy-makers who called for EU action given that only few European countries have enacted effective laws to protect whistleblowers.
Antoine Deltour, who disclosed tax evasion schemes in Luxembourg – now known as LuxLeaks – could have benefitted from such support as well: “At many steps I could have needed advice and support – in legal matters, PR matters, maybe even IT support to learn the techniques to communicate confidentially, and maybe even psychological support.” But, as he said, “I did not know I was a whistleblower”.
A former PWC auditor, Deltour resigned from the company after discovering troublesome tax practices that he felt his employer at the time was promoting. A day before he left, he copied hundreds of tax rulings documenting billions of Euros in tax savings for the big global corporations: “The content of the documents shocked me! In the current context of economic crisis and budget difficulties in most European countries, I can’t understand that some companies don’t pay tax while small businesses and individuals have to bear the cost.”
Deltour is facing criminal charges in Luxembourg, including for theft and breach of professional secrecy. However, his disclosures clearly have won the sympathy of some EU policy-makers. Earlier this month, he was awarded the European Citizen Award by the European Parliament. The award is given to Europeans for their role in promoting European Citizenship and mutual cultural understanding.
Several European parliamentarians, including Dutch Dennis de Jong and Italian Elly Schlein (ITCO co-presidents), Ana Gomes from Portugal and Hungarian Javor Benedek called for serious action to advance whistleblower protection at the EU level. While an EU Directive on whistleblowing might be a lengthy and difficult path to take, there are other measures that can be taken at the EU level to provide much needed support in creating a safer environment for whistleblowers to speak up against corruption, fraud and other types of malpractice. For instance, the EU might seek to prioritize the status of whistleblower protection in its upcoming EU Anti-Corruption Report. If given stronger teeth, the report can build up pressure on national legislators to strengthen the rules. The EU could also play a strong role in establishing regulations which might help address the particular challenges faced by whistleblowers whose revelations have cross-border implications.
Disclosures, such as the ones made by Deltour, highlight the regional, even global nature of the problem: “LuxLeaks show that consequences, even if detrimental to national economic interest, can be in the European public interest”. It is therefore understandable why people like Deltour and some MEPs might call for regional action.
Finally, and as the EU Ombudsman has recently concluded in her investigation, the EU institutions should adhere to their legal obligations and tighten up or adopt their own rules on protecting the employees of its own institutions who are considering speaking up.
Transparency International has been working with whistleblowers, victims and witnesses of corruption for over ten years.
To learn more about whistleblowing and how we advocate for the protection of whistleblowers around the world, visit http://www.transparency.org/topic/detail/whistleblowing
To contact Transparency International in your country, please visit www.transparency.org/getinvolved/report
By Mariya Gorbanova, Programme Coordinator, Europe & Central Asia, Transparency International