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section heading icon     European cases

This page highlights some European whistleblowing cases.

It supplements discussion of whistle-blowing.

The following cases are of interest because they suggest some of the social benefits, personal costs and institutional resistance to whistleblowing.

subsection heading icon     Stanley Adams (Adams v Hoffmann-La Roche)

Executive Stanley Adams alerted the European Commission to anti-competitive practices by Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche. The Commission fined Hoffmann for abuse of its dominant position in the bulk vitamin market but during antitrust procedings disclosed information that enabled Hoffmann to identify Adams, who was consequently arrested and convicted for unauthorised disclosure under Swiss law.

Adams successfully sought damages from the Commission, which was held by the European Court to have failed its obligation "not to disclose information of the kind covered by the obligation of professional secrecy, in particular information about undertakings, their business relations or their cost components". The case is discussed in Roche versus Adams (London: Cape 1984) by Adams. In 1999 Roche was fined US$500 million in the US for a repeat of its offence.

subsection heading icon    Anton Piller

Anton Piller KG v Manufacturing Processes Ltd, the 1976 UK case that has given its name to an interlocutory order (the 'Anton Piller Order'), followed an instance of whistleblowing.

In his judgement in that case Lord Denning commented that executives in Manufacturing Processes Ltd, an agent for electronics manufacturer Anton Piller, identified that Manufacturing was planning to illicitly provide commercially sensitive intellectual property to Piller's competitors. The executives were

so upset by what was going on ... that on their own initiative, without any approach by the plaintiffs whatsoever, ... one or both flew to Germany. They told the plaintiffs what they knew about the arrangements ... In making these disclosures, both Mr Firth and Mr Knight were putting themselves in a perilous position, but the plaintiffs assured them that they would safeguard their future employment.

subsection heading icon    Meili and Holocaust Claims

In 1997 Union Bank of Switzerland night watchman Cristoph Meili rescued Holocaust-related documents that were being illegally shredded by the bank (in direct violation of Swiss law for protection of such material).

UBS, Switzerland's largest bank, acknowledged that it had "made a deplorable mistake" but fired Meili and had him arrested for breaching bank secrecy legislation.

The case is discussed in Hitler's Silent Partners: Swiss Banks, Nazi Gold & the Pursuit of Justice (New York: Morrow 1997) by Isabel Vincent and in The Victim's Fortune (New York: Perennial 2002) by John Authers & Richard Wolffe.

subsection heading icon    Hodler and Olympics corruption

Swiss sports administrator and International Olympic Committee member Marc Hodler (1918-2006) revealed corruption in the IOC in 1998. A colleague commented that

He'd reached breaking point. He was very anti-corruption, from an era when sports officials had genuine statesman-like qualities, and he didn't like the direction that the IOC was going. So he just happened to mention a few things to the press one afternoon in Lausanne.

Hodler revealed that voting for Games in Atlanta, Sydney, Nagano and Salt Lake City had been corrupted by vote-buying. Four 'agents', including at least one IOC member, offered to deliver blocks of votes to select cities to stage the Games, with winning cities being charged up to US$5m. Committee members had received lavish gifts, prostitutes, jobs and university courses for their children; one received a prestigious concert tour for his piano-playing daughter.

Hodler's comments were taken seriously: he was an IOC vice-president, served four terms on its rule-making executive, chaired its finance committee and, because of his pre-eminence within skiing, he had chaired the evaluation committees of the candidate venues for four Winter Games.

Hodler was ordered not to talk to the media. When asked if he had been silenced, he made a motion across his lips like a zip and told journalists

Exactly. I have been muzzled. Apparently I said too much.

However, around 10% of the IOC membership resigned or was ejected after being proven to have taken 'excessive' gifts and inducements. Future recipients will presumably be more discreet.

subsection heading icon    Ponting, Gunn, Tisdall, Vanunu and war

Whistleblowing about war remains deeply contentious because of disagreements about ethics and the interaction of free speech with official secrets legislation and media privilege. Examples in the UK include senior civil servant Clive Ponting, Katharine Gun and Sarah Tisdall; the latter received a six-month jail sentence under the UK Official Secrets Act after the Guardian disclosed that she was its source of documents about cruise missile policy.

Translator Katharine Gun gained attention in 2004 when prosecuted by the UK Government under Official Secrets litigation for leaking the US National Security Agency's request for help in bugging 'swing states' on the UN Security Council regarding a resolution authorising invasion of Iraq.

Gun commented

I was shocked. I knew I couldn't stand by and watch the bugging operation happen. If the war went ahead as a result, I knew hundreds of thousands of innocent people were going to die. I thought about it over the weekend and, by the Monday, I had decided that I would leak the e-mail to the press. I didn't really think about what the consequences of my actions might be for me because I didn't want to lose my nerve. I sent the e-mail to a friend who agreed to send it anonymously to a media contact.

Four weeks later, I walked into my local newsagent's to buy my Sunday newspaper and there was the e-mail on the front page. I was absolutely dumbstruck. I'd had no warning. I was physically sick for the whole weekend because I was so worried. GCHQ immediately tried to find the source of the leak. I confessed to my line manager on the Wednesday. Later that day, I was arrested and spent the night in police custody.

It was eight months before I was charged. And so for that time I was in limbo, not knowing what would happen to me. Sometimes I didn't feel like I had any hope. Then, in early November 2003, my solicitor called to say I would be charged. ... We found out the day before I was due to appear at the Old Bailey that the case would be dropped. ... Since then, I haven't done a great deal. I needed time to get my confidence back

Journalist Magnus Linklater, contrasting her treatment with that of former Minister and memoirist Clare Short, commented that Gunn

faced not only the loss of her job, but prosecution and possible imprisonment under the Official Secrets Act. Whether you approve of what she did or not, that was an act of conscience which took some courage to carry out. Ms Short risks nothing more than another round of media interviews.

Mordecai Vanunu provided the London Sunday Times with information in 1986 about alleged nuclear weapon development activity at Israel's Dimona research facility, subsequently being abstracted from Sydney and imprisoned in Israel.

An account is provided by Seymour Hersh's The Samson Option: Israel, America & the Bomb (London: Faber 1997). Vanunu served an 18-year sentence but was indicted in 2005 for overtly violating the terms of his release.

subsection heading icon    
Andreasen and the European Commission

Former European Commission chief accountant Marta Andreasen was sacked in 2004 after claiming that the EU's budget was open to large-scale fraud.

Andreasen was suspended in 2002 when, after refusing to sign off the EU accounts, she went public with allegations that lax accounting left the £62bn-a-year budget "massively open to fraud" because the Commission did not have a global standard double-entry book-keeping system and secure computer accounting programmes, despite complaints from the European Court of Auditors.

The Commission argued that

the gravity of Ms Andreasen's conduct has constituted an irredeemable breach of the trust which the Commission is entitled to expect from its officials, and consequently made it impossible to maintain any employment relationship between her and the institution.

Andreasen stated in 2005 that

When I started my job at the European Commission in January 2002, I found their accounts in a state of chaos. They didn't follow any standard accounting principles. They didn't even register all the transactions, which meant that it was impossible to check whether the right amounts were being paid to the right people. It was really awful.

If money went missing, I, as chief accountant, was responsible. Yet, from my first week in the job, I was being asked to sign off payments and accounts that I knew were vulnerable to fraud. I told my bosses that we needed to take steps immediately to reform the system. But they refused. So I was cornered into signing off payments against my better judgment.

The situation went on for two months. I pushed for changes. They refused. Eventually, I told my bosses that unless there were reforms, I would feel obliged to withhold my signature on certain payments as I felt I was going against the ethics of my profession. It was not a threat. It was a statement of the norms of my profession.

Instead of supporting me, my superiors threatened me with dismissal .... By May, I had been removed from my post. I was moved to a new office, but I had no new responsibilities. I didn't really have a job any more. Unidentified sources started criticising me in the press. I asked for protection from the EC, but I didn't get it. They then launched disciplinary proceedings against me.

I was concerned about my person, my professional future, my security, everything. I thought, 'What else am I waiting for? I need to defend myself.' And so I attended a press conference in August 2002. I hoped that, with the press behind me, I would be more secure. I didn't have the means to fight this powerful institution on my own.

Observers have noted that whistles had been blown by EC accountant Paul van Buitenen and others from 1998 onwards. Hans-Martin Tillack's sobering 'From Brussels to Burma' in Silenced: International Journalists Expose Media Censorship (Amherst: Prometheus 2005) edited by David Dadge offers a sobering view of police in search of whistleblowers.

subsection heading icon    Lingard and UK prisons

A UK employment tribunal awarded former prison officer Carol Lingard £477,600 compensation (and £90,000 legal costs) after she blew the whistle on misbehaviour by staff at Wakefield high-security prison in West Yorkshire. The sum, thought to be a record for a UK public sector whistleblower, covers lost income and pension in addition to hurt to feelings, reflecting her constructive dismissal and victimisation as a 'grass'.

subsection heading icon     Torex

Neil Mitchell, chief executive of UK software developer Torex Retail, was sacked in June 2007 after contacting the Serious Fraud Office earlier in the year with concerns regarding Torex's accounts. He had agreed to stand down temporarily as chief executive in February, indicating that he intended to return to his position and citing legal protection afforded to whistleblowers.

Torex shares had been suspended since January when the company issued a profit warning and warned of higher debt, eight days after it issued an upbeat trading statement. That warning was followed by raids on addresses in Oxfordshire. In an interview Mitchell claimed that he had been chased through London Underground tube stations as a result of his plans to approach the SFO.

subsection heading icon     BT

In August 2007 British Telecom paid a six-figure sum to two whistle-blowers who accused it of an Enron-style financial scandal in which managers are alleged to have covered up a £1.5m fraud regarding questionable payments to consultants.

Rosemary Greaves and John McGlone had worked for BT for a total of 40 years. The payout follows action in a UK employment tribunal, where they alleged that they were bullied and forced out of the company because they raised concerns. They had accused BT executives of exaggerating returns on investments in order to support projects deemed to be of no or very little benefit to the company.


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version of August 2007
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