Three things I learned as a Government Whistleblower

In February of 2013, after consulting with the Washington State Auditors office, I filed an “anonymous" local government employee whistleblower claim that included evidence of local officials using public resources to launch politically motivated, retaliatory “investigations” into the activities of political rivals.

In one specific instance cited in my claim, elected officials called a press conference to announce a “criminal investigation” into a rival less than one week prior to the November general election. Seven months and tens of thousands of dollars later, the investigation quietly ended, without turning up any evidence of wrongdoing. But the damage to the target’s reputation remained. My whistleblower claim was filed because I felt this practice was wrong.

The whistleblower claim I filed also included evidence that those in power often leaked material to members of the press in order to influence coverage of the politically-motivated investigations.

Whether this evidence amounted to legal wrongdoing was not for me to decide, which is why I filed the claim anonymously. The process is supposed to play out secretly to protect the accused and the author of the claim. But, that’s not what happened.

The same week I filed the confidential whistle bower complaint, my identity as the anonymous whistleblower was leaked to the press, by unnamed sources in county government.

In the ten months since I was publicly linked to the whistleblower claim, I’ve learned a few things about power and retaliation. Here’s three things Iearned from the experience that I’d pass along to prospective whistleblowers.

  • If your claim involves those with investigatory powers, expect to be investigated yourself: The same week I filed the claim, I was placed on leave for unspecified reasons, and the same officials named in the whistleblower complaint launched an unspecified and wide-ranging “investigation” into my personal and professional life.

  • Government Whistleblowers should expect to have their devices seized, personal accounts compromised and their private data used against them: Almost immediately, Snohomish County began harvesting private information from my personal social media, cloud storage and email accounts. I was even called at home by the county forensic investigator and ordered to surrender my personal Facebook, Dropbox and email account login information to County investigators. On each occasion, I strenuously objected to this invasive and illegal practice and registered my complaints, in writing, with my supervisors. Nothing was done. My personal accounts were compromised and personal documents and information predating my employment at the County suddenly began appearing in County reports, as supposed evidence to be used against me. I understand that many of my fellow employees had complained to the county of similar tactics in the past, with regard to illegal and improper collection of private data.

  • Despite the unending torrent of retaliation and invasive activity, I stand by the evidence presented in my original whistleblower report, and I believe that in time, those in power will have to answer for their actions, because the questions raised by my claim were never answered. Instead, the simple, entirely predictable misdirection of “investigate the whistleblower” has succeeded in obfuscating the unanswered questions.

A year has gone by and I was forced to resign my position. I’ve moved to another state with my fiancee. I had my unemployment taken away after the Prosecutor assembled a five person legal team to contest my payout at the state level. But I’m okay, and I still feel like I did the right thing.

With regard to my claim? The questions were never answered. And in case the target of my claim is reading, I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, the chance to come clean and prove me wrong in an honorable manner, if possible.

It’s simple.

  • If members of the Prosecutor’s office never leaked investigatory material or prejudicial material to the local daily newspaper a flat and direct denial should be issued.

  • If the local daily newspaper never granted members of the Prosecutor’s office anonymity in exchange for dirt on the prosecutor’s targets/rivals, the paper and the Prosecutor’s office should both unequivocally say so.

  • If members of the Prosecutor’s office never served as unnamed sources, (or provided unattributed material) in unflattering articles about the targets of prosecutorial-prompted political investigations of 2011 and 2012, a direct denial should be issued by the the relevant daily newspapers. 

I won’t hold my breath.

Kevin Hulten is the former Managing Editor of an award-winning regional paper and a former government employee at the state and local level. He is currently seeking new opportunities somewhere on the West Coast.