5 Terrible Things I Learned as a Corporate Whistleblower
On November 30, 2009, Linda Almonte was escorted out of her office by security. (We know -- no big deal, it happens to you every time you slip needles into the NERF darts. Stupid nanny state.) The difference here is that Almonte did nothing wrong: She was an executive with JP Morgan Chase, and her only mistake was doing her job and blowing the whistle on her lawbreaking boss. For the last five years, her life has been a morass of lawsuits and private detectives. Here's what we learned:
The following article is based on a Cracked interview with Linda Almonte.
You Can "Accidentally" Become a Whistleblower
I didn't start off in banking. I worked as a Certified Six Sigma Black Belt for GE, which has less to do with my martial arts prowess than the fact that deals I worked on had an error rate of less than 3.4 per million transactions (sorry, bank ninjas are a bit more boring than regular ninjas). In the early 2000s, a lot of major banks started recruiting GE's Six Sigma Certified employees because they liked what we'd done for GE. I was hired by Washington Mutual first, but eventually JP Morgan Chase brought me to manage a multibillion-dollar area of the credit card division.
Now would be a good time to queue up "The Imperial March."
The trouble started when I picked out a problem. This was not a little problem, either: It was a blatantly illegal $250 million deal. I thought I was protecting the bank. A lot of my success over the years had been due to spotting this kind of thing and stopping it. In the past, that's how I'd climbed the ladder, and I didn't see why it would be different this time.
Above: several hundred things that are apparently more important than the law.
When I pointed out that the deal was super illegal, their response was for me to just sign off on it and let it go through so they could post the earnings that year. If it caused a problem the following year, so be it. They had bonuses to earn now, and any potential prison terms were the future's problem -- and the future would probably have a way to deal with them (lasers or something, knowing how the future rolls).
So I did what I was supposed to do and pulled the sale from the market, because "lie about $250 million today" seemed like crime on a comic book-villain scale. They responded by firing my ass at top speed. A lot of what you see on TV right now about the collections industry as a whole being investigated by the FTC, OCC, SEC, CFPB, AGs, and DOJ started with the wrongful termination suit I filed in Texas against JP Morgan Chase.
And the government's elaborate wrist-slapping apparatus whirred into motion.
Even if They're in the Wrong, They'll Still Hold You Accountable for Everything
JP Morgan wanted to sell a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of debt to a debt buyer. I looked into it just a little and realized that most of these people had settled their debts, or their cases were dismissed by courts, or balances were outdated or inflated, and so on. This doesn't mean we'd have been screwing over the collections agencies, though. They didn't care if the debt info we gave them was out of date or incorrect, because the bank is in the clear either way: When they sell your personal information, they put "as is" at the top of the contract like it's the windshield of a crappy used car.
This isn't called "robbery" for reasons that are hard to explain.
They were even happy to buy the accounts of people who had already been sued based on older paid debts or incorrectly inflated balances. Since most of these people were never informed they'd been sued in the first place, they'd keep on paying for months or years before realizing what had happened. So there's another thing for you to think about at night instead of sleeping: You may have lost a secret lawsuit and nobody told you. That, and cancer -- you probably have cancer. Come on, you know that mole isn't normal.
"All right, nobody call the accused. He sounds like a busy guy."
The way it all shook out was that JP Morgan and friends agreed to pay $25 billion back in 2012 for all the bullshit in the mortgage settlement. State courts have sued them for billions more. The spotlight shown on their bad behavior also forced Chase to dismiss billions of dollars in phony debt as quickly as possible. This seems awesome from a "general sense of justice" point of view, but costing giant heartless corporations more money than the GDP of Paraguay means ...
They Will Hunt You to the Ends of the Earth
In the first few weeks after the shitstorm broke, I was on the front page of the New York Times. In October of 2010, my house was transformed into a 60 Minutes set. It was a whirlwind of media that still hasn't stopped. The family really enjoyed our time working with 60 Minutes. We enjoyed the ensuing constant life-ruining surveillance substantially less.
Whistleblowing is all the bad parts of fame, with none of the gold-plated jet skis.
At one point we wound up renting a house in Florida with an abandoned home right across the street (pretty normal in Florida, considering the number of foreclosures, alligator riots, and bath-salt zombies). The day after we moved in, some guy came to rent the empty house. He never moved any furniture, but suddenly a small forest of new antennas sprouted on the roof of the house. Isn't it good to know that, while your bank can't put you on the phone with a human being in under an hour, they can have PIs watching your house in less than a day?
Our house was broken into three times, once with me home. I guess they assumed that since all the cars were gone no one was there. I was in the garage doing laundry, then I walked into the kitchen and the guy from the empty house across the street was there. He looked around for a bit, then bent over and picked up my toy poodle and claimed he found her outside under his car. On the scale of lame improvised excuses for getting caught breaking into somebody's house, that's somewhere between yelling "Surprise! It's your birthday!" and "I'm you from the future."
"It turns out you were the banks all along!"
You get used to that kind of heavy surveillance, but you shouldn't. My elementary school-age daughter was leaving school one day and a teacher overheard her saying to one of her friends, "Oh God, I hope that van doesn't follow me home today." Being a responsible human adult, that teacher flipped out. I was in New York for a meeting and got a call -- but she was no longer concerned about the van. No, my daughter had very matter-of-factly explained that it was just Chase tailing her home and it was no big deal. The teacher found that terrifying: No 11-year-old's reaction to a freaking black van tailing her should be blase acceptance.
My mother had terminal cancer at the time all this started, and she wanted a big family gathering at Disney World. This was right before she entered hospice, so it was sort of our last hurrah together, and we couldn't go from ride to ride without PIs taking pictures of us. That's some seriously excessive, privacy-violating surveillance -- even for a Disney park.
At least Disney's surveillance stops at the park.
It really bothered my mom, so finally I confronted them: "You are going to leave. You will NOT follow me around anymore while I am on vacation with my mother and family. You go back to Baker Botts and Chase and tell them I'm gonna make it REAL freaking easy for them to stalk me. From now on, everywhere I go, whatever I do, I'll post it on Facebook with my GPS location and a photo publicly online." I even snapped them a picture of my visitor badge when I stopped by the SEC to hand over all the information for our case. I kept my promise and still do to this day. Sure, you're probably going to be automatically enrolled in that program with the next Facebook update, whether you like it or not, but I was doing it before it was cool.
You'll Never Work Again
I'm still unemployed now, five years later. I was even barred from receiving unemployment in Texas. I lost my house, my apartment -- right now I live off my dad's Social Security and VA disability. No place in the world is going to hire someone who got her former boss sued by the government and has cost them billions and climbing. That's right up there with "steals lunches from the employee fridge" on the list of deadly office sins. And even if they were willing to hire me, I'm continually testifying in front of that alphabet soup of agencies and attorneys general I mentioned earlier.
Testifying is apparently so stressful that JP Morgan's CEO needs $20 million a year to cope with it.
"Sorry, I may have to miss work half the month, and I can't really tell you why right now" doesn't make a great impression on prospective employers: Their natural first assumptions are "spy" or "serious opium addict." In the space of a few years, I went from living in the nicest part of San Antonio and working as an executive with a good salary to living with my dad on food stamps. All because I told the truth and refused to commit hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud in one day. Whistleblowing means being "forever unemployable," while the people you blew the whistle on get promotions and massive bonuses. Google my name, and you're immediately aware of my legal history. Even the absolute laziest background check is going to find that out. Pretty much the best I can hope for is that Google will ask them if they meant "Del Monte" and maybe I'll be mistaken for a fruit cup magnate.
It ... hasn't happened yet.
The Legal Battles Will Take Decades
I was the first person I know of to file as a whistleblower under the SEC's new Whistleblower Program under Dodd-Frank. So if the government ever does the right thing and prosecutes these people, I'll get 10 to 30 percent of the SEC fines. That sounds awesome, but we've been at this for five years now, and my lawyer says we have a minimum of five to seven years longer just testifying and subpoenaing between AG actions and upcoming class actions. A child was born at the start of this case, and it will live long enough to grow ungrateful and angsty before we ever see a dollar.
"The court will now adjourn until we can think up a new reason to adjourn."
My story isn't necessarily common. Sometimes it works out: The best possible outcome for someone like me is that of Bradley Birkenfeld. He blew the whistle on a massive income tax scam in 2005 and finally received his award in 2012. That was three years after his bank paid their fine. On the plus side, he made $104 million for his trouble. On the downside, it took seven years, and he spent two and half of those in prison for it. Rarely is "go directly to jail" the best case scenario.
The funniest thing is that I never went in search of an attorney to sue Chase, or anyone else. After it all went down, I would have moved on and started working at another bank, doing what I do best: not committing a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of fraud every day. They left me no choice but to file suit by taking pretty much everything else away. You don't think of banks and other corporations as being susceptible to petty human motivations like revenge.
But that's only because you don't know them well enough.
Linda has a GoFundMe page where you can donate to help her keep blowing the heck out of that whistle. Robert Evans runs Cracked's personal experience team and if you'd like to tell him a story send an email here.
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