On the Side of Whistleblowers
Alum David Colapinto’s defense of whistleblowers becomes more urgent in the Trump era
Alum David Colapinto’s defense of whistleblowers becomes more urgent in the Trump era
By Michael S. Goldberg
When cable TV producers at C-Span needed an expert to appear in their Washington D.C. studio to explain the ramifications of a whistleblower complaint against the president of the United States, they called David K. Colapinto.
Colapinto, 61, was an apt choice for that September 2019 morning. After earning his B.S. in history at BU (1984), he studied law and then co-founded a firm in 1988 dedicated to whistleblower cases. Over three decades, he has represented people who spoke up about allegations of wrongdoing in both government and business settings while urging stronger protections for whistleblowers.
One of his clients, Bradley Birkenfeld, was the subject of a “60 Minutes” segment when he won a $104 million award from the IRS after he divulged the existence of undeclared offshore bank accounts Americans kept in Swiss banks to avoid paying taxes. Another case he litigated led to Bristol-Myers Squibb paying more than $500 million to the federal government in 2007 to settle allegations of illegal drug marketing and pricing practices. He represented Linda Tripp, who successfully sued the government for leaking her security clearance file after she testified to the independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton.
Colapinto is also active as a champion for whistleblowers in the public policy arena. With his law firm partners, Stephen M. Kohn (SED’79) and Michael D. Kohn, Colapinto co-founded the National Whistleblower Center, a non-profit group where Colapinto volunteers as general counsel. He testifies before Congress to advocate for stronger whistleblower protections. With his colleagues, he contributes op-eds on newsworthy cases.
That kind of advocacy work is tied to his legal practice by design, Colapinto says. “A case can be very helpful in persuading society to make changes, but in order to carry out the reforms, it has to be done through an organization that will be respected. And that’s what we do through the National Whistleblower Center, trying to move the law in a direction that creates more reform and more change.”
By 8 a.m. on September 24, 2019, when Colapinto appeared on C-Span’s “Washington Journal” to field questions from the show’s host and viewers, momentum was building for impeaching hearings into President Trump’s conduct. The Washington Post and New York Times reported Trump had ordered military aid to Ukraine frozen before he asked for that country to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Seven House Democrats, all first-year moderate members, called for impeachment hearings. Later that day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would open an impeachment inquiry in the House. And all of this activity stemmed from a whistleblower complaint sent to the intelligence community’s inspector general.
In the C-Span studio, Colapinto plays patient teacher. He describes how complaints from intelligence community whistleblowers can sound an alarm. “An urgent concern isn’t just an ordinary violation of law or an ordinary abuse of authority. It is a flagrant violation of law and a flagrant abuse of authority, and as soon as possible must be presented to Congress, at least the intelligence communities.”
He praises questions from citizens asking if a whistleblower in this case may remain anonymous (yes, the law has protections for intelligence community members). He recounts historical precedent, that the Continental Congress in 1778, passed a resolution making it the duty of all U.S. public service members to report misconduct and fraud after 10 sailors on a Navy ship reported their commander had tortured British prisoners of war.
And he forecasts the withering, shoot-the-messenger pressure the whistleblower in the Trump-Ukraine case will face, based on his experience as a lawyer for Linda Tripp.
“The level of scorn that was levied at Linda Tripp was a lesson that probably this whistleblower does not want to repeat, does not want to be out there facing that type of scorn because it will be politically based. It will be emotional. That is something I think it would be wise to avoid if possible,” he says.
One could draw a straight line from Colapinto’s days at BU to his work today on behalf of whistleblowers.
A native of Springfield, Mass., Colapinto majored in history, but he says his real education took place outside the classroom. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he watched the labor strife that disrupted campus life as different groups of workers, including librarians and clerks, buildings and grounds, and eventually academic faculty, protested against President John Silber’s administration for better working conditions. He helped chronicle the events as a student journalist for the independent newspaper b.u. exposure, founded by his friend (and future law partner) Stephen Kohn.
Looking back, Colapinto sees that experience as difficult but invaluable. He recalls his own activism in support of professors who refused to cross a union picket line, and subsequently had their jobs threatened. He says he came out of BU determined to pursue a legal career that emphasizes social justice.
“Those additional experiences were very helpful, even though you could describe it as adversity, and at the time, there may have been a lot of negativity in the air, and disruptions certainly. It taught me a lot of lessons that were very useful later on, on how to approach complex problems and deal with the type of work I do now,” he says.
In college, Colapinto witnessed workers speaking truth to power. In his work, he helps his clients raise their voices. And he says there are lessons here that apply to today’s CAS students.
Many organizations, including private corporations and government agencies, are required to provide some training to workers about reporting activities that appear unlawful. No matter what courses arts and sciences student take, their career path is likely to encounter some workplace training in these rules, Colapinto says.
“People will not give it a second thought, perhaps, after that training. And then maybe six months or a year down the road, they encounter an ethical dilemma or an illegal problem that needs to be reported. And they have to struggle with what to do,” he says.
Most people who enter the workforce are going to be faced with ethical questions in the course of a career.
“Whistleblowers are a last resort, but they’re also the eyes and ears for the regulator,” Colapinto says. “There aren’t enough auditors, there aren’t enough investigators or law enforcement to detect the massive amount of fraud that goes on, on a daily basis. And they depend upon employees who have the ethical courage to report it. And as a society, we owe those employees protection.”
He sees the Covid-19 pandemic as a crisis in which whistleblowers are likely to have important voices. “Think of the healthcare workers today that are on the front lines, who have to choose between their own personal safety and doing what they’re trained to do, because of lack of protective gear, or being asked to do things that are unsafe, or illegal.”
The Occupational Safety Health Administration lists 23 laws and regulations covering whistleblower protections, a set of policies Colapinto describes as a “patchwork quilt of laws” needing more protective muscle for whistleblowers. Which means the National Whistleblower Center has more work to do. Most recently, Colapinto testified in January before the House, urging Congress to provide stronger protections for employees who come forward.
During a conversation that took place about 10 days after President Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, Colapinto says there are urgent concerns facing would-be government whistleblowers. It was Atkinson who informed Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.
“It is a very dark period in the field of whistle blowing and government oversight, when there is a lack of respect for rule of law,” Colapinto says.
He says the people who handled the Trump whistleblower’s complaint did all the right things. Now, the person who followed the law is out because the president didn’t like the substance Atkinson’s report and the way the whistleblower was protected.
“I said in that C-Span interview that this was going to be a test. And we have flunked the test. And that was almost predictable. We didn’t flunk the test because the intelligence community professionals who are tasked with this job failed. It failed for political reasons. And that is extremely disturbing.”
Colapinto says he was a teenager during the Watergate scandal. “There used to be a saying that no one is above the law, including the President of the United States. If no one is above the law, what are we going to do about it when these things happen?
“I don’t have the answer. But I do know, I think that it’s our responsibility as citizens, every citizen to call attention to these problems and express outrage when they can, if you truly believe in those democratic principles.”