Whistleblowers: How To Maintain Anonymity While Reporting Wrongdoing
Written By: Aliza Vigderman | Last Updated: August 26, 2020
It’s no secret that whistleblowing, reporting wrongful or unlawful actions, can lead to retaliation, job loss, or worse. Although there are federal and state laws barring this type of retaliation, they can be difficult to prosecute, and some companies and government agencies circumvent these regulations. It may surprise you how much whistleblowing (or potential whistleblowing) is occurring. Our research on virtual private networks (VPNs) has shown that eight percent of users connect to these private networks specifically for whistleblowing, or for other activism, journalism, or sensitive research purposes.
To find out what whistleblowing is like in practice rather than in theory, we interviewed three whistleblowers:
- Al Moreno: Former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer and author of “L.A.’s Last Street Cop: Surviving Hollywood Freaks, The Aryan Brotherhood, and the L.A.P.D.’s Homicidal Vendetta Against Me”1
- Amy Ballon: Real estate agent and author of “Fabulous to Framed: Wrongfully Accused of a Felony, This is the True Story of a Woman Who Fought For Innocence— And the Innocence of Others”2
- Rhodesia Ransom: Councilmember for the City of Tracy, California
Were they retaliated against? Would they whistleblow again, and what advice do they have for whistleblowers? We asked all these questions and more to find out what whistleblowing is really like.
Our guide to protecting whistleblowers explains best practices of whistleblowing such as avoiding your office’s Wi-Fi network. but to find out more about what it’s like to whistleblow, we asked three people who put their identities on the line in the name of justice.
In the 1970s, before VPNs or the Internet were even invented, Al Moreno was an LAPD officer who got into an off-duty fight with white supremacists from the Aryan Brotherhood. But when he reported this incident to the police department, instead of properly protecting him via the standard security protocol, Moreno’s unit commander transferred him from CRASH, the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums group that was supposed to report on gang violence in LA, to another unit. In addition, the LAPD halted their investigation of CRASH. While Moreno was eventually transferred back to CRASH after filing a grievance, he soon learned that the commanding officer was “cooking the books,” underreporting the number of gang-related crimes, which was confirmed by half of CRASH’s four sergeants3.
As opposed to staying anonymous, Moreno “…made no effort to protect [his] identity when [he] reported [his] unit commander’s corruption.” “I truly believed the LAPD would embrace my honesty and integrity,” Moreno said. “Rather than properly investigating his off-duty fight, Moreno says he was “hung out to dry in full public view.”
Moreno’s advice to whistleblowers? “I would think twice about it. Are you ready to possibly give up your career? Even though there are more protections today, someone from the inside must be willing to throw their life into a meat grinder and lose everything!” However, he maintains that he would whistleblow again, as “truth and honor are more important than life itself.”
After being violently abused and framed by her now ex-husband4 Fort Lauderdale real estate agent Amy Ballon went to a government agency called the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence (FCADV) seeking help. However, the government employee she spoke to “prey[ed] on her vulnerabilities,” stalking her online and sending sexual messages through fake email accounts. Unlike Moreno, Ballon hired a lawyer before alerting the organization of their predatory employee. After looking into it, the organization confirmed that the employee had several fraudulent email accounts and had sent messages that were sexual in nature, which, according to Ballon was “especially concerning because the organization’s sole purpose was to provide service to victims of domestic violence.”
Fortunately for her, Ballon’s whistleblowing experience didn’t result in retaliation, despite her lack of anonymity or VPN usage. Instead, the FCADV terminated the employee immediately and the Florida government put the FCADV into a receivership; now dismantled, it is currently under investigation by the federal government. Ballon encourages whistleblowers, like herself, to come forward, saying, “If you are passionate about doing the right thing, listen to your inner voice. I vacillated quite a bit about exposing this person. When I did, we found out that I was not his only victim.” Ballon’s experience led to her philanthropy; she currently advocates for the Florida Innocence Projects, which investigates wrongful imprisonment and helps prisoners transition back into the outside world5.
Working as a Councilmember for Tracy, a city about 63 miles East of California’s Bay Area, Rhodesia Ransom called for an investigation into the actions of the Mayor Pro Tem Veronica Vargas, the Interim City Manager Randall Bradley and a civilian city commissioner. The three had spoken out against former Mayor Michael Maciel, who represented the Tri-Valley-San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority. This authority was created with the goal of connecting the Altamont Corridor Express trains with BART, the public transportation system in the Bay Area. Speaking to the city’s local newspaper the Tracy Press, Ransom criticized the trio for what she called their “public intimidation mission” and filed a formal complaint with the civil grand jury, who agreed with her. Given her status as a public official, Ransom didn’t attempt to hide her identity by using a VPN or any other methods of digital security. However, after city attorney Tom Watson investigated the complaint, he found nothing illegal6.
However, later that year, the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury issued a report investigating abuses of power in City Council. While the members were unable to come to an ethics policy or code of conduct in 20187, by October 2019, they had agreed on a code of conduct to prevent corruption. Today, Rhodesia is running for County Supervisor for San Joaquin, where she hopes to increase government transparency and expose wasteful spending8. “Everyone’s voice and the spirit of what we were trying to accomplish was actually what came through in this document, so we can really get back to doing what we should be doing, which is conducting the public’s business,” she wrote of the new code of conduct.
You never know what’s going to happen after whistleblowing; you could be transferred to another unit like Moreno, which counts as retaliation, or the organization you’re reporting to could handle your claim correctly and ethically, like with Ballon. Whatever the case is, whistleblowers’ best bet of exposing wrongdoings and protecting themselves is to get an attorney beforehand and to use technology like VPNs to hide their identities. While many people reporting wrongdoings don’t think of themselves as whistleblowers, they may not realize the potential consequences of their actions until it’s too late, which is why it’s best to take a defensive approach and protect your identity above all else.