The American Whistleblower Tour: Essential Voices for Accountability, recently kicked off their initial stop at UNL. The event, sponsored by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) was hosted by the UNL College Business Administration’s Business Ethics program. The event, co-hosted by the College of Law and the College of Journalism and Mass Communication, included several nationally prominet whistleblowers, including former Security Exchange Commission (SEC) prosecutor Gary Aguirre, who played the central role in a corruption case involving top level executives at the SEC.
Aguirre was one of three panelists who took part in a discussion in front of an audience of nearly 2,000 UNL students at the Lied Center for Performing Arts. Other panelists included Thomas Drake, former senior official at the U.S. National Security Agency, Mike McGraw, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist at the Kansas City Star newspaper, and moderator Jesselyn Radack, a Department of Justice whistleblower who currently works for GAP.
Additionally, panelists spoke with students earlier in the day. Aguirre met with over 450 business students in finance, marketing, accounting and management classes. He also met with a group of CBA student leaders over lunch.
Dr. Janice Lawrence, Director of the Business Ethics Program, was excited that our students had the opportunity for the high profile whistleblowers to visit classrooms on the day of the event. “Hearing the stories of the real-life ethical dilemmas faced by these whistleblowers increases our students’ understanding of ethical challenges and decision-making in the workplace,” Lawrence said.
Gary Aguirre and Janice Lawrence.
The panel discussion presented a narrative about courage in real world situations and exposed students to individuals who have made an extraordinary difference in the public interest.
Aguirre, who was investigating the relationship between a major hedge fund and several of the largest banks in 2005, began to feel push back from his supervisors regarding his investigation of the case. Eventually, they attempted to stop the investigation completely.
“I was involved in something where I had to make a choice whether I was going to participate in it, walk away from it or speak out,” Aguirre said. “I decided to speak out. I was deeply involved in a major case that could have made a difference in the financial markets.”
The further Aguirre took the case up the ladder at the SEC, the clearer it became to him that pressure to stop the investigation was coming from the highest levels of the organization.
At first, Aguirre thought there were simply some misunderstandings. He was told to go on vacation and that all would be worked out upon his return. The day before he was scheduled to return to work, Aguirre received a call telling him he was fired.
A combination of events, including support from a couple of SEC co-workers, his own personal reputation being at stake and the anger he felt because of the toll the cover-up was taking on himself and his family, led Aguirre to blow the whistle on the corrupt trading practices he had begun to uncover.
“I already felt I had to do something about it and then they came after me. Through a stroke of luck I still had all of my emails so I had all the documentation and I called the office of special counsel and gave them all of the emails. At that point the SEC threatened me with criminal prosecution.”
The threat of prosecution, combined with stress related health issues to Aguirre’s family, ended any possibility of Aguirre walking away from the ordeal.
“The anger that I had at that point was sealed. I was resolved from then on to get to the bottom of the case.”
Aguirre was helped along the way by GAP and by assistance from Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley’s office.
After years of litigation, the SEC agreed to pay Aguirre $755,000 in compensation for being terminated and for attorney’s fees. Although the investigation Aguirre worked on was never completed, the attention that it brought to the public eye now serves to help magnify ongoing problems of private sector financial firms manipulating government enforcement agencies in order to avoid prosecution.