Warning to whistleblowers

A case study of whistleblowing reveals the social strategy practiced by those whose misdeeds are exposed.

Whistleblowers (such as Snowden, Manning, and Assange) are in the news these days, because of the evils they have revealed, the laws they have broken in doing so, and the persecution they suffer as a consequence.

But there are many obscure whistleblowers who break no laws and still reap revenge. I’m one of them.

In 2010 I began to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within a small corporation that owns a Berkeley, California, apartment building, commonly known as “BTH”. Almost immediately I began to feel the heat of defamation from the corporation’s miscreant officials and their allies. By attributing my claims to an alleged personality disorder, they tried to deflect attention from the damage they had inflicted on the corporation and its 60 shareholders.

What damage had they done? In short, about a quarter-million dollars of illegal expenditures that turned out to be wasted, equivalent to an entire year’s operating budget. Also, failure to respond to expert warnings that the corporation’s apartment building (less than a mile from the Hayward Fault) had apparent seismic vulnerabilities putting its occupants’ lives at risk. And, in addition, pervasive financial mismanagement, illegal secrecy, and violations of civil liberties and participatory rights.

My repeated attempts to get internal review and correction of these conditions were met with a mixture of vague denial and personal name-calling. The shareholders who sympathized with my efforts were almost completely intimidated into silence. I finally initiated a lawsuit over these abuses in March 2012, seeking to stop the violations and to collect damages for the corporation from the officials who were responsible. The verbal attacks on me continued.

Shareholder Andrey Feuerverger, for example, circulated a two-page letter in March 2012 calling me  “intransigent” and “self-centered” and stating that I had “single-handedly usurped the entire agenda”. According to Feuerverger, I had “endlessly been agitating” with an intent “to bludgeon the Board and the … membership into [my] servitude”. I was trying, he said, to impose my “frequently absurd preferences” on all the shareholders.

17 months after the suit was filed, an anonymous person reprinted and redistributed Feuerverger’s letter.

Meanwhile, two of the officials whom the lawsuit seeks to hold accountable have joined the fray. In a rambling message to shareholders on 6 August 2013, former corporation president Charles Tuggle wrote:

Mr. Pool is suing BTH. That  means( one party-Mr. Pool) versus (one party-all of us). Mr.Pool thrives on meetings,debates, conversations,etc, these are his drugs of choice. The choice for the restof us is to sit through another long meeting orchestrated by Mr. Pool or to get on with our lives without more personal involvementin this nightmare frustration created by him in the first place. Remembering this is a lawsuit not 60 minutes …

And on 3 October 2013 one of the current director defendants, Judith Wehlau, circulated a memo to BTH members saying “We can defeat this creep ….”

The recriminations by Feurverger, Tuggle, and others have always avoided even mentioning the abuses revealed by the legal complaint, including these:

  • Tuggle and the other defendants signed $224,000 in checks to an unlicensed and uninsured contractor for illegal (and incompetent) construction. It was done without the required city building permit. The corporation got no warranty on the work. Tuggle et al. paid $207,000 of this money without getting the required prior approval of the board of directors, and more than half the money was paid with invalid signatures on the checks. Nobody ever signed a contract for the work. Moreover, Tuggle et al. wrote the checks to the contractor under five different business names (five out of the ten names under which he did business!). This last fact isn’t illegal but would make any reasonable person suspicious. Just redoing the job right is estimated to cost $400,000.
  • Tuggle and his successor Almalee Henderson have routinely spent (and misspent) corporate money without asking the board to OK the expenditures.
  • Tuggle rejected spending even a penny investigating expert warnings of earthquake risks in the corporation’s building, and he admitted that he wanted to remain ignorant of the risks so he wouldn’t need to disclose them to a buyer of his stake in the corporation. In other words, he put his personal profit above the lives and property of dozens of his fellow shareholder residents.
  • Tuggle conspired with the corporation’s manager to keep secrets from shareholders that they were legally entitled to know. He gave excuses such as “the manager is too busy” while really planning to postpone disclosures indefinitely. And Tuggle presided over illegal secret meetings of the board. These practices continue until today, making it impossible for the shareholders to hold their officials accountable.
  • Tuggle and his fellow directors practiced illegal censorship over the conversations of the shareholders and other residents in the building. Decreeing that conversations in the shared common area could be prohibited for any reason at all, or for no reason, Tuggle et al. banned discussions about public issues that made them feel uncomfortable.

Tuggle, Feuerverger, and their allies do more than circulate vituperation. Some of their allies also accost shareholders who have been caught conversing with me. These shareholders are scolded for this breach of solidarity and are called members of my “gang”. And, of course, they accost me, too. Directors Lydia Gans and Judith Wehlau (cited above) are the worst offenders: When they see me sitting in the library or lounge quietly doing my work, Gans tells me that it’s “creepy” to see me there, and Wehlau calls me a “spy” or a “troll”. Gans on 4 October 2013 said “I wish you would’t sit in our community room so we wouldn’t have to look at you”, and “We detest you”. She returned shortly thereafter to photograph me in the act (the act of sitting in the lounge):

Lydia Gans photographing Jonathan Pool
Lydia Gans photographing me

The pattern at BTH is clear: If you blow the whistle, expect to be attacked as a deviant monster and traitor. Your assailants will make baseless accusations about your motives, will intimidate others into ostracizing you, and will demean you face-to-face. As predicted by Waytz, Dungan, and Young, they will appeal to loyalty as a supreme value, ignoring the concern for fairness (or truth) that motivated your act. The one thing they will never do is answer the claims of misconduct that you have made. Until, that is, you force them to in court. But they seem to be betting that they can cow you into submission before a trial date, thereby escaping judicial scrutiny and achieving impunity.

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