Women Whistleblowers: Celebrating Heroes During Women’s History Month

03/19/2012 // San Francisco, CA, USA // Whistleblower Law Firm (Press Release) // Jeffrey Keller // (press release)

Women’s History Month — which takes place every March — is a time when we recall, and celebrate, the many pioneering achievements of women. While artistic, scientific, educational, and cultural accomplishments have long been a focal point of commemorations, women have also had a huge impact by speaking out about injustice. Many of history’s most important whistleblowers — courageous individuals who have often risked retaliation and even harm to unveil improper acts, fraud, and dangers — were women. By speaking out, they spoke for the benefit of countless others.

“Women’s History Month celebrates heroes and that’s exactly what a whistleblower is,” says Jeffrey F. Keller, a founding partner at Keller Grover, a nationally recognized labor and employment law firm, and a veteran whistleblower lawyer. “It is their voice, and their bravery, that calls attention to illegal practices by powerful corporations and institutions. Every whistleblower knows the potential cost of doing the right thing – anything from retaliation on the job to being fired — yet they speak out precisely because it is the right thing to do.”

Women whistleblowers have been both household names and little known heroes. In celebration of their impact, Bio.com — a Web site affiliated with A+E Television Networks — compiled a list of the most important female whistleblowers. Among them:

— Karen Silkwood, who discovered that her chemical plant employer — Kerr-McGee — wasn’t providing adequate safety measures for workers involved in the production of plutonium pellets, increasing their risk of contamination and serious health problems. She testified before the Atomic Energy Commission and was planning to tell her story to the press before dying under mysterious circumstances in a one-car automobile accident. Silkwood was portrayed by the actress Meryl Streep in the 1983 movie that bore her name.

— Crystal Lee Sutton, who was fired from her job in a North Carolina textile mill after initiating a work stoppage to protest poor working conditions. Due to her efforts, plant workers gained union representation. Sutton was the basis for the character played by Sally Field in the 1979 film, Norma Rae.

— Erin Brockovich, a law clerk who, while conducting research, uncovered a series of mysterious illnesses in a small California town. Those illnesses, she contended, were linked to the presence of hexavalent chromium in waste water expelled from a nearby Pacific Gas & Electric plant. PG&E denied the chemical was toxic, but in 1996 it settled the lawsuit for $333 million — at the time, the largest settlement in U.S. history (PG&E would pay another $295 million in 2006). The little known law clerk would become a widely known figure when she was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the 2000 film Erin Brockovich.

— Sherron Watkins, an Enron executive who wrote CEO Kenneth Lay an internal memo detailing Enron’s now notorious accounting irregularities. That email, along with Watkins’s later testimony before congressional investigative committees, would help prove that Enron was aware of the illegal activities going on in their midst. It would also help set in motion important corporate reforms.

“We are fortunate to have heroes like these, because, unfortunately, improper, often dangerous behavior is all too common,” says Keller. “Legislation like the False Claims Act, which provides financial incentives for whistleblowers to alert authorities to fraud, is a vital tool in our fight against organizations that act illegally. But whistleblowers — as exemplified by the courageous figures we honor during Women’s History Month — will always be vital. Just recently, Sherry Hunt — a Citibank quality control manager named — spurred a lawsuit that culminated in the nation’s third largest bank paying more than $158 million to settle claims that it defrauded the federal government in regards to high-risk mortgages.” Under the False Claims Act, Ms. Hunt stands to collect $31 million of the settlement. She has been quoted as saying she did it for her children and grandchildren.

“Ms. Hunt may be the latest whistleblower hero, but she won’t be the last,” says Keller. “As Women’s History Month reminds us, heroes can be of any background, but they all share one defining characteristic: The courage to speak up, and speak out, for the well being of us all.”

With offices in San Francisco and Los Angles, the whistleblower lawyers of Keller Grover are dedicated, experienced advocates for those dealing with challenging issues in the workplace, including wrongful termination, breach of contract, whistleblower lawsuits, sexual harassment, discrimination, non-compete agreements, bonus and severance disputes, and matters involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). We also represent plaintiffs in California and across the nation in a wide range of important, complex, consumer protection and antitrust class action matters — and have played leading roles in numerous game-changing state and federal cases.

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