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Crisis of Conscience – Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud: a vast and very American tome

Book Review: Mueller mixes long investigatory reports with a folksy, novelistic style

This is a rangy, passionate, erudite and ultimately tragic screed
Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud
Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud
Author: Tom Mueller
ISBN-13: 978-1782397458
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Guideline Price: £25

Whistleblower narratives are often inspirational: individuals who, defying all odds, see no moral choice but to expose egregious ethical or criminal wrongdoing in the public interest.

Yet Edward Snowden remains marooned in Moscow; Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange in jail. And consider the opprobrium endured by Garda whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson. But both men now stand vindicated. McCabe settled with the state, but Wilson has not been so fortunate. After retiring early without full pension, the High Court recently ruled that KBC bank may repossess his family home.

Such raw tales vein Tom Mueller’s vast, compendious, very American tome. Some of the over 200 whistleblowers he interviews are survivors; others exist like “skunks at a picnic”: still facing punishment, firings, threats, financial ruin and even prison. Most remain unemployable in their former professions. Yet in the US, under the False Claims Act, whistleblowers may eventually be awarded a share of any public penalties exacted.

This is a rangy, passionate, erudite and ultimately tragic screed

Mueller mixes long investigatory reports with a folksy, novelistic style as he delves into whistleblowers’ personalities and backgrounds. He weaves each chapter around case histories, starting with Allen Jones, a public auditor in Pennsylvania, who in 2002 uncovered a grotesque healthcare fraud. Concocted between Johnson and Johnson (J&J) and senior state officials, it imposed hugely expensive new “atypical antipsychotics” such as Risperdal to replace older, generic drugs in state prisons, hospitals, reform schools and nursing homes.


In Pennsylvania and Texas, such captive populations were fed drugs with side-effects including tardive dyskenesia, tumours, lactating breasts in males and even death – all at enormous cost to Medicaid but generous profits to the pharmaceutical industry.

Jones’ career was destroyed before he testified in court in 2012. J&J’s lawyers abruptly settled, and sealed all evidence. More Risperdal law suits rolled in, many from greviously harmed patients, which cost J&J almost $3 billion – a mere fraction of what Risperdal still delivers in revenue.

Regarding the military, Mueller toasts Ernest Fitzgerald, the USAF engineer who in 1968 exposed vast cost overruns in the Lockheed C-5A Galaxy transport plane program; and Pentagon staffer Franz Gayl who, through the early occupation of Iraq, sought to reduce vast troop casualties to IEDs exploding under their Humvees. Gayl pursued requests for protective “MRAP” vehicles past an unlistening Defence Department to the media. Mueller credits Gayl with “saving thousands of lives” (with no mention of the vast slaughter of Iraqi civilians).

Mueller sees finance as whistleblowing’s “new frontier”. Richard Bowen, chief underwriter at Citigroup in 2007, alerted his bosses to the vast shoals of junk residential mortgages Citi was buying, combining and re-selling to securitisers on Wall Street who rebundled them into derivatives which they resold, with triple-A ratings, to city and state governments, pension funds, universities, even charities.

Oddly, while Mueller credits whistleblowers as principled idealists, he sees them as "not 'team players'

By October 2008, Citigroup was bankrupt; unwary investors ruined. But the US Treasury deemed Citi too big to fail, and injected $45 billion of taxpayer cash; Federal insurance guaranteed $306 billion of Citi’s toxic debt; and the Fed pumped in $2.5 trillion in cheap loans: the biggest bank bailout in US history.

Mueller lists the multibillion dollar fines Citi has since received for an array of fraud and felony charges, based on Bowen’s evidence. Senior managers had continued the same fraudulent practices; effectively robbing US taxpayers a second time round.

Mueller regularly cites economist Bill Black, a former regulator whose findings saw bankers jailed after the 1980s Savings and Loans scandal (and who, testifying before the Irish Banking Inquiry in 2015, declared our €440 billion bank guarantee “the most destructive own goal in history”).

Mueller details Washington’s continued deregulation of finance. Obama’s largest campaign contributions came from Wall Street, and he chose its bankers and lawyers to re-regulate the industry after 2008. And while Trump campaigned like a whistleblower in 2016, he has surrounded himself with former Goldman Sachs bankers, Gary Cohn, Steve Mnuchin, Milbur Ross, indeed Steve Bannon.

This is a rangy, passionate, erudite and ultimately tragic screed, envisioning a cross-sectoral “ecosystem of lawlessness”; of politics captured by corporate wealth. Although Mueller’s whistleblowers highlight such systemic corruption, they rarely halt the malfeasance in their industries. Allen Jones, one of the most successful whistleblowers, is left with “a bitter sense of justice denied”; feeling that the world is itself broken, corrupt and rigged.

Oddly, while Mueller credits whistleblowers as principled idealists, he sees them as “not ‘team players’, not ‘go along to get along’ personalities. They can be prickly and doctrinaire. They can seem obsessive, even unstable.” It’s an uncomfortable stereotypification, not shared by Transparency International Ireland (TII) or its sister centre which provides free legal advice to whistleblowers, the only such agency in Ireland. Back in 2012, TII welcomed in McCabe and Wilson, when they had nowhere else to turn.