The whistle-blower's unending story

The guest lecturer steps to the front of classroom 322 with a lesson plan, but not from any textbook.

Instead, Dave Welch comes with a story to tell, edgy and very personal. The names have been changed, he says, "to protect the guilty."

He directs students to the corporate financial forms projected on to a screen. Years ago, working at a small-town bank in the Virginia mountains, Welch combed through these figures and saw things that made him suspicious.

When he confronted the bank's president with his doubts, it cost him his job.

The story might have ended there. But this time — months after titanic scandals capsized Enron and WorldCom — things would be different.

There ought to be a law, Congress decided, protecting workers who expose what might be the next Enron. Who could've imagined the fight between the little bank and the fired accountant would become the new measure's most unlikely — and most strenuous — test?

More than 1,000 self-professed whistle-blowers have come forward since.

The great majority have seen their cases rejected; about 160 settled before an initial ruling. Only six workers have won before a Labor Department judge — and the review board that hears appeals has not ruled in favor of a single whistle-blower.

Now, Welch is ready to bring his story to a close. It's not easy, though, to conclude something that winds on without an ending.

"This is the message the courts are sending to whistle-blowers," Welch says, the Tennessee in his voice taking on a chill. A new image beams on to the classroom screen — a pack of hunting dogs. In their midst is the prey, a nervous fox, head down low.

"When you're in deep trouble, keep your mouth shut and your eyes straight ahead."

Six years ago, Americans embraced whistle-blowers as a new kind of hero.

If only Sherron Watkins' warning had been heeded, Enron might have survived, some said. Then an auditor, Cynthia Cooper, exposed massive bookkeeping fraud at WorldCom.

The "year of the whistle-blower," one magazine crowed.

In July 2002, President Bush signed a new law, known as Sarbanes-Oxley, requiring top executives to stand behind financial statements and work to prevent fraud and abuse.

But the law also spoke to corporate foot soldiers, offering whistle-blower protection — albeit with loopholes.

From the start, though, that protection came into question. Hours after Bush signed, a spokeswoman said the administration believed it applied only to whistle-blowers who talked to a Congressional committee pursuing an investigation.

"I don't see any room for interpretation here," responded one of the measure's authors, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "Our intent was plain, to protect corporate whistle-blowers, period."

Months later, tensions flared inside Cardinal Bankshares Corp., a holding company for the local bank in one-stoplight Floyd, Va., population 432.

Welch, the chief financial officer, refused to sign financial statements, saying they overstated profits. He told bank president Leon Moore he suspected him of insider trading. Moore was furious when Welch compared his 53-employee bank to Enron. The bank's board fired Welch.

He turned to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces whistle-blower protection. An investigator determined the bank was not at fault.

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