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'Whistleblowers' Discuss Accountability at F&M Common Hour

Rick Piltz made copies when he was asked by a superior at work to remove information about global warming from scientific reports channeled through his office.

"I started documenting what I was seeing," the former senior associate with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program said. He took the matter to other supervisors, but they failed to address his complaints, he said.

Ken Kendrick, a former assistant manager at Peanut Corp. of America's Georgia plant, alerted his supervisors to what he perceived to be contamination risks, but the roof leaks and flooding issues were not fixed. He then anonymously emailed health officials, but he received only automated responses that the problems would be investigated, he said. He later resigned.

Both Piltz and Kendrick became part of high-profile cases when they went to the press with those complaints, prompting investigations by members of Congress. They were on the Franklin & Marshall campus Thursday to discuss their experiences for the College's first Common Hour gathering of the spring semester, also a stop on the Government Accountability Project (GAP)'s "Whistleblower Tour: Essential Voices for Accountability." 

The Whistleblower Tour is a national campaign aimed at educating the public about the phenomenon and practice of whistleblowing. GAP President Louis Clark, who moderated Thursday's discussion, said his organization has represented 5,000 whistleblowers during the past 25 years to bring national attention and initiate reform on issues ranging from potentially dangerous side effects of popular medications to regulations in slaughterhouses. GAP also works to expand whistleblower rights.

In 2005, GAP -- representing Piltz -- released edited reports to The New York Times that, according to the accountability organization, showed that the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality's Chief of Staff Philip Cooney, a lawyer and former climate team leader with the American Petroleum Institute, "played down global warming." Cooney later resigned. A story published in The New York Times prompted U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California to call for an investigation of practices in the White House climate change office.

In the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009, more than 600 people across the United States were sickened by salmonella-tainted peanut butter that was suspected to have originated from Peanut Corp. of America's Georgia peanut plant, contributing to nine deaths, according to GAP and media reports.

Kendrick had left the peanut plant by then and was working for an orthopedic manager, but he said he had to take action when he noticed media reports focusing only on the Georgia plant, with no mention of his former plant in Texas: "I sent anonymous emails to every state department of health that might be affected and news organizations including CNN, CBS and the local news."

But when his own granddaughter and mother reportedly became ill after eating peanut butter crackers produced by a company connected with Peanut Corp., Kendrick went on the record with Good Morning America, a decision he said he would make again today.

"I had no choice. People were dying," Kendrick said. "When you come across a moral, ethical dilemma, you're going to do whatever it is you need to do to sleep at night. You will ask yourself, 'Can I live with myself if I ignore it?'"

Both the Georgia and Texas plants closed after investigations by federal and state department officials. The president of Peanut Corp. of America later testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce in a February 2009 hearing titled, "The Salmonella Outbreak: The Continued Failure to Protect the Food Supply" about the salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the company.

Kendrick said his decision altered his career path and continues to affect his life. Piltz echoed those sentiments, but similar to Kendrick, he doesn't regret his decision. He said becoming a whistleblower "was one of the best things I've done," and he advised others in such situations to "document, have a plan and think carefully about what you are doing."

"It's entirely possible that you will find yourself in a position in the private or public sector where you disagree with decisions but you don't feel fundamentally that principles are being compromised," Piltz said. "But sometimes, it's over the line, and you feel that to continue to participate in the conversation, you are complicit."

Government major Katherine McKiernan '13 said the Common Hour discussion made her wonder about whistleblower rights, but it also highlighted the importance of being "conscientious, assertive and not putting others at risk."

The tour stop at F&M for the College's Common Hour was the third for GAP this academic year. Common Hour is a weekly series held at midday each Thursday during the academic term. It is intended to bring the entire F&M community together to promote dialogue on vital international, national, local and institutional issues. 

Future stops of the Whistleblower tour will include Auburn University, Florida International University, Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis and Indiana University-Bloomington.

  • Common Hour: American Whistleblower Tour (Highlights)
  • Louis Clark, President of the Government Accountability Project; Kenneth Kendrick, former assistant plant manager at Peanut Corporation of America; and Rick Piltz, former senior associate of U.S. Climate Change Science Program, in a panel discussion about the ethical conflicts that whistleblowers face. Recorded Jan. 17, 2013 in Mayser Gymnasium.