By Arthur J. Giacalone
I was a whistleblower 37 years ago while serving as a lawyer in a state office in Buffalo. No protections existed then for employees who sought to shed light on improper governmental action. I was fired.
That daunting episode perhaps explains my skepticism toward politicians, and my preference for a solo legal career. But, thankfully, I’ve managed to spend scant time the past few decades dwelling on the topic. Recent events have changed that.
The media coverage of the whistleblower complaint, regarding a telephone conversation between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the demeaning and threatening condemnation of the unidentified civil servant that followed, have affected me viscerally. I recoil at the suggestion that a person who reports what he or she believes is improper governmental action must be a partisan or political hack. My party affiliation and progressive leanings were fully in line with those of my bosses.
I also know firsthand that personal animus toward an employer need not be a whistleblower’s motivation. I considered my local boss a mentor and friend. But I couldn’t remain silent once I concluded that his orders to me were potentially unethical and illegal.
There was also a human aspect to my actions. As the sole contact between our office and the powerless individuals who were relying on us, I was personally exposed to the pain caused by the politically motivated acts and omissions of my superiors.
The events that I found myself immersed in as a young attorney led me to place my ethical obligations as a lawyer, and the well-being of a hundred or so unemployed factory workers, above an unquestioned loyalty to the demands of my bosses.
While the head of our statewide department was engaged in a re-election campaign in 1982, a federal agency sent him a stern letter questioning a decision my local boss had made concerning the case I was handling. The response was instantaneous: the public, including the unemployed workers, must not learn about “the letter” until after the November elections.
I respectfully and discreetly asked my local boss for permission to prepare a confidential memorandum expressing my legal and ethical concerns. In response, my mentor and friend prohibited me from putting my research and conclusions in any written form.
The November election came and went, but my local supervisor refused to lift the veil of secrecy or address the interests of the unemployed workers. I again tried to raise the issue privately with my Buffalo boss in December 1982. I was fired shortly thereafter.
About six weeks after my termination, my Buffalo supervisor announced his candidacy for an elected office. I finally understood the reason for his uncharacteristic behavior.
Given my experiences, I deeply admire the woman or man who had the courage and sense of duty to file the federal “whistleblower complaint.” And I know that if he or she possesses values similar to my own, the whistle had to be blown regardless of the consequences.
Arthur J. Giacalone is a Buffalo attorney.