On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a story on a courageous lawyer fighting an important case. Although it’s not a whistleblower case per se, it resonated so fully with the nature of what we do here at the Whistleblower Law Collaborative that I felt compelled to submit a comment.
The story is about an attorney name Rob Bilott who is representing plaintiffs in several environmental lawsuits against chemical giant DuPont, for having dumped toxic chemicals into the groundwater and streams of Parkersburg, West Virginia, suppressed what they knew about the problem, and misled plaintiffs and regulators about the seriousness of the problem with bogus expert analysis blaming the problem on others. Similar to the stories of Erin Brockovich or Jan Schlichtmann in A Civil Action, it is the tale of the underdog taking on powerful corporate interests, over decades, and obtaining some measure of justice in environmental contamination suits, against improbable odds. (Another great environmental true story in film is Semper Fi, the documentary of the U.S. Marine Corps’ contamination of the ground-water at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, the cancer clusters that resulted, the Marine Corps’ refusal for years to acknowledge the problem or support the veterans who got cancer as a result, and the courageous folks who brought the story to light as the Marine Corps stonewalled).
Before I was a whistleblower attorney, I was a white collar fraud prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, Maryland, where I worked on as many environmental cases as I could get my hands on. We brought cases against developers who destroyed wetlands, utility companies who failed to contain flyash runoff, and even one controversial criminal case against high-ranking military officers from a U.S. Army Base in Aberdeen, Maryland for dumping toxic wastes into the local streams for decades. We took a lot of heat for bringing these cases — the Wall Street Journal even called us the “Eco-Gestapo” at one point — but they were vitally important. These cases stood for the notion that people have to be held accountable for these kinds of quiet crimes that affect everyone.
In a way, the heat we took was nothing compared to what plaintiff’s attorneys in small firms face in these private civil cases going up against corporate fraud. We at least in theory had the U.S. Government standing behind us, and agents with badges and guns to help level the playing field. It’s even tougher when you stand out there on your own without a net. Tough, but necessary.
Powerful interests get used to the notion that rules that apply to “ordinary criminals” don’t apply — or shouldn’t apply — to them. They take exception to the notion that some lawyer — some young prosecutor, some whistleblower attorney — is going to put their conduct on display for all to see. They deny; they delay; they try to bury you in paper and motions and appeals. So it takes guts like Rob Bilott’s guts to stand up to these powerful interests and stay committed to the proposition that we won’t stop until there is a measure of real justice at the end of the story. Justice for one’s clients, and justice for the public who needs to know about these silent crimes going on around us and in our bodies.
So we’re proud to be on the side of whistleblowers and plaintiffs, proud to be part of the effort to level the playing field and provide transparency to a public that needs to know. It’s not just fighting the good fight. It’s fighting the necessary fight. Without people of courage, just where exactly would we be?