Skip to content Skip to footer

Justice Department has Opportunity to Revolutionize its Enforcement Efforts with Whistleblower Program

Over the past few decades, modern whistleblower award programs have radically altered the ability of numerous U.S. agencies to crack down on white-collar crime. This year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) may be joining their ranks, if it incorporates the key elements of successful whistleblower programs into the program it is developing.

On March 7, the Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco announced that the DOJ was launching a “90-day policy sprint” to develop “a DOJ-run whistleblower rewards program.” According to Monaco, the DOJ has taken note of the successes of the U.S.’s whistleblower award programs, such as those run by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS), noting that they “have proven indispensable.”

Monaco understood that the SEC and IRS programs have been so successful because they “encourage individuals to report misconduct” by “rewarding whistleblowers.” But how any award program is administered is the key to whether or not the program will work. There is a nearly 50-year history of what rules need to be implemented to transform these programs into highly effective law enforcement tools. The Justice Department needs to follow these well defined rules.

The key element of all successful whistleblower award programs is very simple: If a whistleblower meets all of the requirements set forth by the government for compensation the awards must be mandatory and based on a percentage of the sanctions collected thanks to the whistleblower. A qualified whistleblower cannot be left out in the cold. Denying qualified whistleblowers compensation will destroy the trust necessary for a whistleblower program to work.

It is not the possibility of money that incentives individuals to report misconduct but the promise of money. Blowing the whistle is an immense risk and individuals are only compelled to take such a risk when there is real guarantee of an award.

This dynamic has been laid clear in recent legislative history. There is a long track record of whistleblower laws and programs failing when awards are discretionary and then becoming immensely successful once awards are made mandatory.

For example, under the 1943 version of the False Claims Act awards to whistleblowers were fully discretionary. After decades of ineffectiveness, in 1986, Congress amended the law to set a mandate that qualified whistleblowers receive awards of 15-30% of the proceeds collected by the government in the action connected with their disclosure.

The 1986 Senate Report explained why Congress was amending the law:

“The new percentages . . . create a guarantee that relators [i.e., whistleblowers] will receive at least some portion of the award if the litigation proves successful. Hearing witnesses who themselves had exposed fraud in Government contracting, expressed concern that current law fails to offer any security, financial or otherwise, to persons considering publicly exposing fraud.

“If a potential plaintiff reads the present statute and understands that in a successful case the court may arbitrarily decide to award only a tiny fraction of the proceeds to the person who brought the action, the potential plaintiff may decide it is too risky to proceed in the face of a totally unpredictable recovery.”

In the nearly four decades since awards were made mandatory, the False Claims Act has established itself as America’s premier anti-fraud law. The government has recovered over $75 billions of taxpayer money from fraudsters, the vast majority from whistleblower initiated cases based directly on the 1986 amendments making awards mandatory.

Similar transformations occurred at both the IRS and SEC where ineffective discretionary award laws were replaced by laws which mandated that qualified whistleblowers receive a set percentage of the funds collected thanks to their whistleblowing. Since these reforms, the whistleblower programs have revolutionized these agencies’ enforcement efforts, leading directly to billions of dollars in sanctions and creating a massive deterrent effect on corporate wrongdoing.

Most recently, Congress reaffirmed the importance of mandatory whistleblower awards when it reformed the anti-money laundering whistleblower law. The original version of the law, which passed in January 2021, had no set minimum amount for awards, meaning that they were fully discretionary. After the AML Whistleblower Program struggled to take off, Congress listened to the feedback from whistleblower advocates and passed the AML Whistleblower Improvement Act to mandate that qualified money laundering whistleblowers are awarded.

Monaco states that the DOJ has long had the discretionary authority to pay whistleblower awards to individuals who report information leading to civil or criminal forfeitures and has “used this authority here and there — but never as part of a targeted program.”

The most important step in turning an underutilized and ineffective whistleblower award law into an “indispensable” whistleblower award program has been made clear over the past decades. Qualified whistleblowers must be guaranteed an award based on a percentage of the sanctions collected in connection with their disclosure.

By administering its whistleblower program in a way that mandates award payments, the DOJ would go a long way towards creating a whistleblower program which revolutionizes its ability to fight crime. The Justice Department has taken the most important first step – recognizing the importance of whistleblowers in reporting frauds. It now must follow through during its “90-day sprint,” making sure reforming the management of the Asset Forfeiture Fund works in practice. Whistleblowers who risk their jobs and careers need real, enforceable justice.

Copyright Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, LLP 2024. All Rights Reserved.
by: Stephen M. Kohn of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto

For more news on DOJ Whistleblower Programs, visit the NLR Criminal Law / Business Crimes section.

The post Justice Department has Opportunity to Revolutionize its Enforcement Efforts with Whistleblower Program appeared first on The National Law Forum.