10 Famous Whistleblowers
Whistleblowers play an important role in the federal government’s efforts to protect taxpayer funds and preserve the sanctity of our governmental institutions and financial markets. While many whistleblowers choose to remain anonymous, some come forward publicly. There have been several famous whistleblowers in United States history—including some who changed the course of our history for the better.
If you are thinking about blowing the whistle on a private or public company, health care provider, government contractor, government agency, or government official, it is important that you speak with a whistleblower lawyer about coming forward. If you have information that the federal government could use to uncover fraud, waste, abuse, or any other violation of the law, coming forward is unquestionably the right thing to do. Federal law provides strong whistleblower protections. With an experienced lawyer on your side, you can do your part; and, in doing so, you can protect your identity—or, if you choose, perhaps you can join the pantheon of famous whistleblowers who have helped guide our country forward.
Who Are Some of the Most Famous Whistleblowers in U.S. History?
So, who are the most famous whistleblowers in United States history? Here are 10 notable examples:
1. Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven
Midshipman Samuel Shaw and First Lieutenant Richard Marven were among the first whistleblowers in U.S. history. In 1977, during the Revolutionary War, they were members of a group of 10 Navy officers who informed the Continental Congress that Commodore Esek Hopkins had engaged in multiple abuses, including the torture of British prisoners of war.
The Continental Congress dismissed Hopkins from his position, and he responded by suing Shaw and Marven. Shaw and Marven were eventually jailed. As reported by History.com:
“The pair appealed to the Continental Congress for help, writing that they were ‘arrested for doing what they then believed and still believe was nothing but their duty.’ The Continental Congress responded by passing a law to protect the men—and future whistleblowers.”
Not only were Shaw and Marven among the first whistleblowers, but they were also responsible for the enactment of the United States’ first whistleblower protection law. This makes them important figures in American history, as they set the stage for more whistleblowers to step forward in the centuries to follow.
2. W. Mark Felt
Better known as “Deep Throat,” W. Mark Felt is among the most famous whistleblowers in modern times. As Associate Director of the FBI in 1972, Felt was responsible for disclosing President Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal to The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In today’s parlance, Felt would be considered an informant rather than a true whistleblower since he worked with Woodward and Bernstein rather than going through formal government channels. But, given the nature and implications of the information he had to disclose, it is understandable why he chose not report Nixon’s actions within the federal government, and he certainly deserves a position on this list.
Notably, Felt maintained his anonymity for decades. He was known only as “Deep Throat” until 2005, when he disclosed his identity in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine.
3. Daniel Ellsberg
Similar to W. Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg chose to contact the press rather than going through formal government channels. But, also similar to Felt, Ellsberg likely did so because he felt that he had no other choice
Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971. A military analyst with the RAND Corporation, Ellsberg assisted with the preparation of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that President Johnson’s administration had misled Congress and the American public about the government’s and military’s actions in Vietnam. While Ellsberg was charged with espionage, theft of government property, and other crimes, these charges were dismissed when federal prosecutors investigating the Watergate scandal discovered that the administration had attempted to unlawfully discredit Ellsberg in the famous “plumbers” incident at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
4. A. Ernest Fitzgerald
A few years before Daniel Ellsberg came forward with the Pentagon Papers, A. Ernest Fitzgerald formally blew the whistle on excessive cost overruns in the Lockheed C-5 transport aircraft contract. Fitzgerald, a government employee, reported a $2.3 billion cost overrun to the federal government in 1968, and provided additional information in congressional testimony the following year.
Not only did Fitzgerald’s testimony result in more than $270 million in savings under the government’s contract with Lockheed Corporation (now known as Lockheed Martin), but it also led to the passage of the predecessor to the federal Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA). The WPA remains in effect today, and is the primary law that protects federal employees who choose to blow the whistle.
5. John M. Gravitt
John M. Gravitt was a foreman for GE Aircraft Engines in the 1980s. Through his work, Gravitt discovered that the company was billing the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) under its contract for the B-1 Bomber for services provided to non-government clients. After complaints to his supervisors were ignored, Gravitt wrote a letter to the company’s president; and, according to his lawyer, he was fired the next day.
Gravitt subsequently filed a whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act. At the time, the False Claims Act was still relatively unknown. As reported by The New York Times, “[t]he value of the settlement has never been disclosed but was greater than the $3.5 million reported at the time,” according to Gravitt’s lawyer. Due to his use of the False Claims Act, the Times also called Gravitt “a pioneer in lawsuits by whistle-blowers” in 2001.
6. Mark Whitacre
In 1995, Mark Whitacre blew the whistle on what was, at the time, the largest price-fixing scandal in United States history. As an executive of Archer Daniels Midland Co., Whitacre worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to expose the company’s involvement in a cross-border price-fixing scheme, wearing a wire for nearly three years while working for the company. As a result of Whitacre’s assistance, the federal government secured a $100 million fine from Archer Daniels Midland Co.
Whitacre’s case was made famous when it was chosen as the subject of the 2009 film, The Informant! starring Matt Damon. His case was also notable because he was convicted of embezzling $9 million from Archer Daniels Midland Co. while working undercover with the FBI. A federal judge sentenced Whitacre to nine years in prison—even though the longest prison term imposed as a result of the company’s price-fixing scandal was just 30 months.
7. Vera English
Vera English was working as a lab technician at General Electric in 1984 when she discovered widespread radiation contamination at the facility where she worked. When English’s supervisor ignored her concerns, she contacted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which also did nothing. English was fired a short time later, and she challenged her retaliatory firing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case of English v. General Electric, the Supreme Court ruled that whistleblowers are entitled to pursue claims and obtain relief under state law. Her story was the subject of the 1994 documentary, How to Blow the Whistle and Win.
8. Harry Barko
Harry Barko was a contract administrator for KBR/Halliburton during the Iraq War. Through his employment, Barko discovered that the company was grossly inflating the costs of constructing laundry facilities and providing laundry services to the military in Iraq. He filed a whistleblower complaint under the False Claims Act, and ultimately exposed the company’s efforts to silence others who had knowledge of the fraud. As reported by the National Whistleblower Center, KBR/Halliburton’s $130,000 fine was “the first penalty against any company for attempting to silence a whistleblower in the U.S.”
9. Rebekah Jones
One of the most recent famous whistleblower cases is the case of Rebekah Jones. Jones worked as a scientist at the Florida Department of Health during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was fired after refusing to manipulate data published on the state’s COVID-19 data dashboard and asking her supervisor how to file a whistleblower complaint.
After the Florida Commission on Human Relations found that Jones had properly reported a violation of law that endangered public health, Jones received protection as a whistleblower from the Florida Inspector General in 2021.
10. John or Jane Doe
In May of 2023, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued the government’s largest-ever award to a single whistleblower. The whistleblower, who chose to remain anonymous, received nearly $279 million after providing “sustained assistance including multiple interviews and written submissions.” The SEC’s whistleblower award was notable not only for its size, but also because it more than doubled the previous record award of $114 million issued in 2020. While this whistleblower may be unknown, this is nonetheless one of the most famous whistleblower cases of the century so far.
Speak with a Whistleblower Lawyer at Oberheiden P.C.
Our lawyers, including former U.S. Attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys, represent federal whistleblowers nationwide. If you would like to speak with a lawyer about blowing the whistle, we invite you to call 888-680-1745 or contact us online to arrange a free and confidential consultation.
Dr. Nick Oberheiden, founder of Oberheiden P.C., focuses his litigation practice on white-collar criminal defense, government investigations, SEC & FCPA enforcement, and commercial litigation.