Whistleblowers share experiences as part of nationwide tour
The "American Whistleblower Tour: Essential Voices for Accountability" kicked off its 2012 circuit at Auburn University in the Lowder Business Building Monday night from 7:30-9 p.m.
The Government Accountability Project, whose primary focus is to promote corporate and government accountability by protecting whistleblowers, advancing occupational free speech and empowering citizen activists is putting on the tour.
The panel featured Sherron Watkins, formerly of Enron, and Kenneth Kendrick, formerly of the Peanut Corporation of America, each of whom discussed their experiences exposing the illegal actions of their employers.
Watkins outlined her rise within Enron that culminated in her discovering major fraud within the company. She alerted the top management of the company who attempted to hide the misconduct, but the Enron empire ultimately crumbled. For her actions, Watkins was named a Person of the Year by TIME magazine and was featured on the cover.
"I discovered the fraud the way frauds typically get discovered," Watkins said. "I switched positions within the company, and I was the new person looking at old transactions. I had questions that weren't being answered appropriately, and I just kept at it."
Watkins credited her small-town upbringing with her desire to take action against Enron, citing an example of her parents alerting a neighbor of trash dumped in a vacant lot.
"The cover of Time Magazine was Colleen Rolley of Iowa, Cynthia Cooper of Mississippi and me," Watkins said. "... I think the most telling thing is that we were all three raised in cities of less than 6,000. And I actually think when you're raised in a small town ... you grow up with this optimistic sense that your actions matter."
Kendrick's life took a downward twist after he went public about the practices of his former employer in Plainview, Texas.
Kendrick appeared on "Good Morning America" to talk about the unhealthy practices at the company's peanut plants after more than 700 people were affected by Salmonella-tainted peanut butter. Kendrick had left the company two years prior, but he didn't believe the company's statements claiming it rigorously tested products for Salmonella.
"As I'm reading through this, I have my two-year old granddaughter with me," Kendrick said. "My granddaughter is sick, and I'm feeding her Austin brand peanut butter crackers thinking this is making her better. Those were part of the recall. I was poisoning my own granddaughter with a product that had been made by a company I used to work for. And I haven't said it quite this blunt publicly, but I am pissed."
After spending hundreds of hours on the Internet trying to get his information out, the result wasn't what Kendrick expected when he was finally able to appear on TV.
"I was working for an orthopedic company at the time I went public," Kendrick said. "The second this went on 'Good Morning America,' another employee warned me the target was on my back."
Kendrick was fired nine months later after a weeklong hospital stay his employer wasn't required to cover.
"I lost my house, and my wife left for a while," Kendrick said. "I lost everything because of this. I'm tens of thousands dollars in debt, and it has dramatically changed my family's life. I'm still, going on three years later, trying to rebuild my life, and it's not going well."
Watkins and Kendrick's accounts are just two of 13 testimonies that will be discussed on the tour, which is set to run through April 4 and travel to various cities across the U.S.