The whistle-blower's unending story

In October 2006, four years after Welch's firing, a U.S. District Court judge in Roanoke, Va. declined to enforce reinstatement, while expressing concern.

"The delay in the administrative process has been inordinate," Judge Glen Conrad wrote.

By then, the accountant had long given up finding another job locally. Down to one paycheck, the Welches say they burned through $115,000 in investments. In late 2004, they sold the farm where they'd hoped to retire.

Meanwhile, debate grew over Congress' effort to protect whistle-blowers.

Lawyers for companies say many corporate whistle-blower cases failed because they are frivolous, brought by angry workers looking to settle a score.

In the few cases like Welch's that moved forward, the government has investigated carefully, determining that much of what workers allege is beyond the law's scope, said Michael Delikat, a New York attorney who represents employers in such cases.

Critics disagree. The Labor Department has been "defining more and more whistle-blowers out of protection," said Richard Moberly, a University of Nebraska law professor who analyzed the outcomes of such cases.

Labor Department officials say they are administering the law as it was written.

"We're trying to apply things and understand them," said Nilgun Tolek, director of OSHA's whistle-blower protection office.

The law, she says, applies to workers who report suspected wire fraud, bank fraud and other specific misconduct: "While some people may see that as reading the statute too narrowly, that is what the statute says."

The Labor Department's effectiveness is reflected, at least partly, in its brokering of settlements between workers and employers, officials say.

But critics note how few decisions favor workers. Through February, the government had ruled in 1,091 Sarbanes-Oxley cases, coming down on the side of workers just 17 times in initial rulings.

"The carefully targeted legislation that you've described is legislation that has failed to protect people," Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., said at a House hearing last year .

The promise to protect whistle-blowers is falling well short of expectations, Moberly says.

The prime example, he says, is the odyssey of Dave Welch.

Without work, Welch went back to school. When Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio called about a job early last year, he said a prayer.

At the end of his interview, Welch was shown in to the office of Paul Otte, the school's president at the time.

Otte is a blunt-spoken long-ago Marine who sits on two corporate boards. He'd heard about Welch.

"Let me ask you," Otte said. "Did you refuse to certify (the bank's financial statements) or did you sign them and then blow the whistle?"

"I refused to sign," Welch said, unsure which was the right answer.

It was good enough for Otte, who'd just written an article preaching this message: "The greatest failures resulting from unchallenged authority have occurred when people reporting directly to the CEO lacked the courage to challenge their boss."

Last July — nearly five years after Cardinal fired Welch — the Labor Department's review board ruled in favor of the bank. As a trained accountant, Welch could not have "reasonably believed" that the financial reports he objected to were problematic, the board said.

The ruling came weeks before Welch started his new job, supervising introductory accounting classes.

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