Assistant Campus Life Editor
Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), moderated a Common Hour presentation in which two whistleblowers shared their experiences. Kenneth Kendrick reported the unsanitary practices of a peanut factory, while Rick Piltz reported the Bush Administration’s censorship of scientific reports on climate change.
This Common Hour was part of the American Whistleblower Tour, a national speaking tour run by GAP. Whistleblowers are employees who “blow the whistle” when witnessing corruption or wrongdoing in their workplaces.
Since its creation in 1977, GAP has represented more than 5,000 whistleblowers. It advocates for legislative protection for these people and brings public awareness to the issues whistleblowers uncover. GAP’s tour aims to educate the public about whistleblowing and its importance in forcing government accountability.
In 2005, Piltz worked for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. He developed and edited reports that were sent to Congress based on climate change studies and scientific documents. Legislators then read the reports to understand the issues and create policies based on the findings. Piltz’s office worked together with research scientists and White House and political aids.
“When the Bush Administration came in 2001, we began to notice a change in how [the government] managed climate change communication,” Piltz said. “They were starting to play down the global warming problem by blocking communication of climate summits that were aimed at informing policy makers and the public. And it became clear that it was illegitimate, deliberate interference.”
Piltz also witnessed the White House censoring the research of federal lab scientists working on environmental issues, taking down websites, and misrepresenting issues in Congressional testimony. He said the Bush Administration was willing to spin and misrepresent the scientific community to conform science to politics rather than making policy based on science.
“One really striking example was draft copies of scientific reports that had been signed off as ready for publication [by scientists],” Piltz said. “They would come back to me with hand markups done by the Chief of Staff at the Environmental Office. The White House was showing all the things they wanted taken out and all the wording they wanted changed, and it was all designed to systematically downplay global warming.”
Piltz started recording the censorship by making copies of documents that had hand-edits. He protested internally to the director of his office and officials at the National Science Foundation, but no one was willing to protest the practices because the topic was politically sensitive.
“In 2005 at the beginning of the second Bush administration it became apparent that the policing was going to become worse rather than better, and I finally said, ‘okay, that’s it, I can’t work on this project under these conditions,’” Piltz said. “I put in my resignation.”
Piltz reported the Bush Administration’s censorship to The New York Times and other news outlets. He believes this set a different framework for how the public thought about the Bush Administration and global warming.
“Over the next year, we saw U.S. media cover climate change more as a straightforward science problem, not a debatable issue,” Piltz said. “I think it also caused people to have a more critical perspective on the Administration, but it did not cause the Administration to change its policy.”
Just one year after Piltz blew the whistle on the White House’s censorship, Kendrick was working as the assistant manager at Peanut Corporation of America when he also witnessed unethical practices. No one at the plant worked in a quality assurance role, and there was minimal lab testing done to assess the cleanliness of the peanuts. The company was built on risking the health of its customers to protect the business’s profits.
“The plant looked like something out of the 1950s,” Kendrick said. “There were roof leaks and floods in the basement. You had birds on the roofs — birds crapping on the roof — and the roof water runs in, which is a potential source of salmonella, not to mention something you probably don’t want to be eating.”
Kendrick tried to set up an environmental testing program that would be in compliance with state health standards and develop a quality assurance program to regularly test the peanuts, but he met with resistance from his boss and found it nearly impossible.
Kendrick then began sending emails to the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Food and Drug Administration, neither of which responded. He later discovered Peanut Corp. had never registered with the Texas Department of Health, so they had never been inspected.
Kendrick was originally reporting the problems anonymously because he did not want to lose his job. He eventually quit his job after feeling continual frustration with the management’s lack of concern about the quality of the food and regulatory agencies’ inaction in forcing Peanut Corp. to comply with their standards.
In 2009, Kendrick was working for an orthopedic company and heard there was a salmonella outbreak in peanuts. He thought it might be from Peanut Corp., which as far as he knew was still operating under the same unsanitary and illegal conditions. He once again sent multiple emails to every state department of health that had salmonella cases, approximately 25, and the FDA.
Yet, even then, no one responded to his complaints despite the wide-spread media coverage of the incidents.
“While I was writing these emails, I had my two-year-old granddaughter sitting in front of me eating peanut butter crackers made by Kellogg’s, and she started puking her guts out,” Kendrick said. “I never in a million years would have guessed that Kellogg would have bought peanut butter from Peanut Corp. Well guess what? It showed up on the recall list. I was feeding my granddaughter and mother-in-law recalled crackers that contained salmonella from a plant that I had worked at three years earlier.”
Kendrick’s granddaughter recovered fully, but his anger at her severe illness prompted him to go to the press and tell them about Peanut Corp.’s practices.
“At this point I was pissed,” he said. “I decided to stop being anonymous. I went to The New York Times and within 48 hours I was on Good Morning America.”
Kendrick’s decision to go to the press finally forced officials to inspect Peanut Corp., which was shut down by the FDA. From late 2008 to early 2009, salmonella in peanut butter from peanuts distributed by Peanut Corp. sickened 714 people in 46 states.
Once it was shut down, the FDA recalled every product ever produced by the plant since its creation. This was the largest recall in U.S. history.
Unfortunately, Kendrick’s decision to step forward, while in the public interest, had a devastating effect on his life and career.
“Soon after I went on Good Morning America I was fired from my job at the orthopedic company,” Kendrick said. “I’m not working now. I’ve been blacklisted. I lost my house. Recently, in three separate job interviews I have been told that I was not being hired because I am a whistleblower.”
The backlash Kendrick and other whistleblowers often face after telling the public about a company’s unethical practices can help explain why so few people report bad practices.
“There’s fear for your career, a sense that it would not do any good and just get you in trouble,” Piltz said.
Questions raised by audience members ranged from the amount of legal protection that whistleblowers receive, the level of responsibility scientists have to ensure their findings on climate change are brought to the attention of the public, and if the Obama Administration has been more forthcoming with findings about climate change than the Bush Administration was.
Kendrick said the moral objections he had with the practices at Peanut Corp. left him little choice but to try to get health officials to inspect the plant and shut it down.
“I had no choice [but to whistleblow],” Kendrick said. “I don’t recall myself thinking this was a big moral dilemma; when people are dying you don’t have a choice. I have hugged the mother of a dead child because of this.”
Kendrick and Piltz both lost jobs, faced financial troubles, and Piltz was prosecuted because of his decision to whistleblow. Yet in retrospect, both said they would do it again.
“Taking action on this was one of the best things that I’ve done,” Piltz said. “I reclaimed my public voice and my freedom of speech. I think there ought to be a great deal more whistleblowing than you see going on. I have come to appreciate it as an underutilized and sometimes underappreciated form of public service.”
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