The whistle-blower's unending story

But a federal administrative law judge saw it differently. The new law "was expressly enacted by Congress to foster the disclosure of corporate wrongdoing and to protect" the workers responsible, the judge wrote in early 2004, ruling the bank should reinstate Welch.

The decision made Welch the first worker protected by the new law. Now came the acid test: What was that protection worth?

There's not much call for accountants in the small towns of the Blue Ridge, much less for one battling his former employer.

But Welch, attached to a 22-acre farm bought from his wife's grandparents, was determined to stay. He spent six months sending out resumes and going to job interviews.

Afterward, though, employers seemed to vanish "into a black hole not to be heard from again," he says.

With unemployment checks running out, Welch listened when a friend recommended a finance job at a hospital 3½ hours away. He rented an apartment there, driving home on weekends.

The job was eliminated in cost-cutting a little more than a year later. But shortly before, the Labor Department judge ruled in Welch's favor. The couple, who stumbled on the decision while checking e-mail during a vacation, embraced in the hotel lobby.

But the bank — denying Welch's accusations and accusing him of insubordination and incompetence — would not give in.

"We determined through a thorough and fair investigation that there was no merit to Mr. Welch's complaints," the board wrote in the weekly Floyd Press. "We believe our decision was right then and we believe even more firmly now that our decision was correct."

The bank appealed, investing in a case it saw as setting a crucial precedent.

"We just said, look, we're not going to set back on this," Moore says. "We're going to fight it."

Moore says people came up at the bank's annual meeting and urged the company not to give in. He took his viewpoint on the road, speaking about the case to banking industry groups.

Meanwhile, Welch decided that to find work, the couple would have to move. He became convinced of his status as an exile when he ran into a former co-worker at the counter of the Floyd Pharmacy.

"She looked around to see if anybody was watching her," Welch recalls, "and she said, 'Excuse me, I can't talk to you,' and she walked away."

Congress sent a straightforward message to would-be whistle-blowers.

A worker didn't have to be right. If the worker "reasonably believes" their company has broken securities law or harmed investors, and showed they'd been retaliated against for speaking up, that was enough.

But when the Labor judge ruled for Welch, the promise of resolution dissolved in a protracted tug-of-war.

The bank argued the ruling was not a "final" order. Taking Welch back was impossible. He'd already been replaced and reinstating him would severely disrupt life inside a small company where he was clearly not wanted.

Nearly 2½ years after Welch was fired, the judge again ordered reinstatement and back pay. The company refused. The question of what to do bounced between Labor officials, federal court and the Administrative Review Board that has the Labor Department's final word.

Federal lawyers argued the bank had to take Welch back, even if temporarily.

In spring 2006, the ARB, too, ordered Cardinal to take Welch back on a temporary basis. The bank again refused.

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