"Follow the money," America's most famous whistleblower said, as depicted in the 1976 film version of "All the President's Men." The real-life Deep Throat, W. Mark Felt (pictured just to the left), said he never uttered those words to Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
But new regulations adopted by the Securities and Exchange Commission on May 25 have embraced the Watergate ethos, saying that whistleblowers will now be eligible for unprecedented financial rewards once they come forward.
In a 3-2 vote, the SEC approved a system in which informants will be awarded anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of any enforced penalty, provided that the figure exceeds $1 million. Previously, whistleblowers could only expect a financial return from the SEC in cases related to insider-trading.
The incentive for whistleblowing has proven to be among the most challenging provisions to implement in the 2010 Dodds-Frank overhaul of Wall Street. Opposition from corporations, including Google and AT&T, as well as from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has centered on the reporting structure. Under the new rules, tipsters will not be forced to internally report malfeasance, but rather any intelligence will be welcomed directly by the SEC. In an attempt to broker a compromise, the SEC agreed to increase the size of the bounty if the whistleblowers also approach corporate compliance divisions. The reform will take effect in two months.
Whether the new rules will help tipsters remains to be seen, but any future whistleblower will be following a rich legacy of truth-telling in America. Below are 10 of the most notable informants, whose stands have forced institutions including pharmaceutical and tobacco giants, and the White House, to account for their actions.
1. Thomas Drake
NSA - 2006
As an executive in the National Security Agency, Thomas Drake grew disillusioned over the agency's post-9/11 warrantless surveillance programs. He felt that they violated the citizen's right to privacy and were also a source of tremendous waste.
After repeatedly trying to address his concerns internally, Drake turned to a reporter, who was later determined to be Siobhan Gorman, then of the Baltimore Sun. Her series on management shortcomings at the NSA earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. The revelations also led to an indictment of Drake on charges of espionage and obstructing justice.
His trial begins on June 13th in a federal courthouse in Baltimore.
2. Jeffrey Wigand
Brown & Williamson - 1996
On April 14, 1994, the seven CEOs of the major American tobacco companies testified before Congress and said that nicotine was not addictive. Two years later, Jeffrey Wigand, a vice president for research and development at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, turned to "60 Minutes" to tell a different story.
In an interview with Mike Wallace, Wigand asserted that his employer knowingly doctored the nicotine content in its cigarettes so as to enhance its addictive qualities.
Wigand also said that he became the target of death threats, and his story, along with CBS's internal debate over airing the interview, was the subject of the 1999 movie, "The Insider."
3. W. Mark Felt ('Deep Throat')
The Nixon White House - 1972
He helped bring down the president. W. Mark Felt was in line to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as the director of the FBI in 1972, but instead was passed over by President Richard Nixon for a political ally.
At around that time, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward knocked on Felt's home inquiring about a break-in at the Watergate Hotel office of the 1972 Democratic Convention chairman. Felt soon began providing clues, and during secret meetings in a Washington parking garage he confirmed theories linking the Nixon White House to the cover-up.
Felt was famously referred to as "Deep Throat" by the reporting team of Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein. As the stories on White House involvement mounted, the momentum became too much, and Nixon became the first American president to resign from office on Aug. 9, 1974.
4. Sherron Watkins
Enron - 2001
In August 2001, Enron Vice President for Corporate Development Sherron Watkins wrote an email to company CEO Kenneth Lay about the company's "elaborate accounting hoax." She soon found her hard drive confiscated, and her desk relocated to the nether regions of the energy giant's Houston headquarters.
Four months later, Enron could no longer sustain its fraud of backing assets with inflated company stock, and it filed for bankruptcy.
Named by TIME magazine as its co-Person of the Year in 2002, she said that by confronting her boss she thought she "would be handing Ken Lay his leadership moment."
5. Harry Markopolos
Madoff Securities - 2000
Unprecedented and mathematically impossible returns may have kept Bernard Madoff's investors more than happy, but Harry Markopolos knew something was amiss. As early as May 2000, the independent financial fraud analyst began raising red flags to the Securities and Exchange Commission, calling attention to the Ponzi scheme.
At around the time of Markopolos's first report to the SEC, the size of the Madoff fraud was roughly $5 billion. By the time the financial crisis peaked in 2008 and investors began asking for their money, the figure had grown to $65 billion.
When Madoff couldn't meet the redemption requests, he turned himself in on Dec. 11 of that year. In the prior eight years, Markopolos had filed four further submissions to the SEC, highlighting the fraud.
Markopolos says that when he first looked at the rates of return, which consistently ranged between 12 to 20 percent, he knew within five minutes the operation was a fraud.
6. Daniel Ellsberg
Department of Defense - 1971
Victory was just around the corner, the architects of the Vietnam War maintained in their public statements. Privately, however, they were developing an encyclopedic study of US-Vietnam relations that told a very different story.
Beginning in 1969, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg began photocopying the Department of Defense documents that demonstrated willful deception on the part of four White Houses. Among the highlights of the Pentagon Papers was information on the secret bombing campaign of Cambodia.
Ellsberg handed the files over to The New York Times in 1971, and charges brought against him under the Espionage Act of 1917 were soon dismissed.
7. Mordechai Vanunu
Israeli Nuclear Program - 1986
As the lone Jewish democracy in the Middle East, Israel has always faced a challenging security environment. Its strategic refusal to acknowledge its nuclear program was complicated when technician Mordechai Vanunu spoke to The Sunday Times of London in 1986.
Acting on a moral opposition to weapons of mass destruction, Vanunu provided information that demonstrated Israel to have between 100 to 200 nuclear weapons.
8. Mark Whitacre
Archer Daniels - 1992
The executives at Archer Daniels Midland probably didn't count on one of their own to wear a wiretap for the FBI. But that's what one its division heads, Mark Whitacre did for three years starting in 1992, to show his company was fixing the price of the food additive lysine.
The tale of the Good Samaritan executive turned sour when the FBI found out that its informant of three years had also stolen roughly $9 million from ADM.
Whitacre went to jail for nearly a decade, and his story was made into a book and movie, starring Matt Damon, called, "The Informant."
9. Cynthia Cooper
WorldCom - 2002
As the head of internal auditing for WorldCom, Cynthia Cooper questioned company CFO Scott Sullivan in 2002 about the telecommunication firm's accounting practices. He brushed her off. But her concern over an irregular rerouting of internal reserve funds led her and her team to begin staying through the night at the company's Clinton, Miss., headquarters to conduct an investigation.
They uncovered a scheme in which WorldCom had been manipulating its operational costs and reporting them as capital expenditures. This allowed the firm to artificially boost income.
Confronted with her work, the WorldCom executives came forward, but only after profits had been inflated by $3.8 billion.
U.S. Public Health Service - 1972
The Tuskegee experiment was 30 years old before U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) investigator Peter Buxton brought it to the public's attention. The USPHS decided in 1932 to follow some 400 African-Americans afflicted with syphilis, but did nothing to help them with the ailment.
While the mostly poor members in the program thought they were receiving help, Buxtun soon deduced that wasn't the case. He turned to Associated Press reporter Jean Heller who broke the story in 1972.