Witness for the Whistleblowers
Soeken '64 Heals Those Who Fight for RightBy Tom Nugent

Ask Donald R. Soeken '64, Ph.D. why he has spent the past 25 years counseling "whistleblowers," and this highly controversial defender of "those who dare to speak out against wrongdoing in the workplace" won't miss a beat.

"Blowing the whistle is part of the 'prophetic tradition,' and these people are true American heroes," booms the 61-year-old Soeken, whose counseling work with whistleblowers has been praised in such influential publications as The New York Times, Parade Magazine and Psychology Today in recent years. (He also has been interviewed frequently on network television-including a recent appearance with Sam Donaldson on Prime Time Live.) "When I give talks around the country, I always tell my audiences that Martin Luther was one of our first whistleblowers.

"Like many of the courageous people I counsel day in and day out, Luther wasn't afraid to speak up. He nailed his report on fraud, waste and abuse in the Church to the Cathedral door!"

Photo of Dr. Soeken in his home office

Soeken in his Maryland office.

 

As a theology major (and also as a hard-charging tackle on the Crusader football team) back in the early 1960s, Soeken learned a lesson he says he will never forget: the importance of teamwork in accomplishing any task.

"I was a high school All-America from small-town Kansas," he says with a nostalgic chuckle, "but when I hit the football field at Valpo, I quickly learned some humility. I played second-string, which meant that I sat on the bench a lot. And that was just fine, because it gave me a chance to learn some important lessons about life.

"For starters, I discovered that you need a second team; you can't win games without some reliable backup. Sitting on the bench also allowed me to learn by observing my coach, Walt Reiner, who was a terrific human being as well as a genius of the gridiron.

"It was Reiner who taught me public service," Soeken continues. "During the summers, he operated several family shelters in inner-city neighborhoods in Detroit and Chicago. Over the years, Walt recruited many of his football players as volunteers at the centers, and I soon discovered that when he asked for your help, it was impossible to say no!"

Armed with his theology degree and the "lessons taught by Walt," Soeken would go on to earn a master's degree in social work (1966) at Wayne State University and then a Ph.D. in Human Development (1979) at the University of Maryland. After that he would spend more than 27 years as a clinical social worker at the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in Washington, D.C., before retiring at the rank of captain in 1994.

It was while working as a mental health counselor at a USPHS outpatient clinic in Washington in the late 1970s that Soeken began to learn about the terrific psychological stresses endured by those brave souls who dared to speak out against fraud, waste and abuse in the American workplace.

"As chief social worker at the clinic, I was required to administer what were called 'Forced Psychiatric Fitness For Duty Examinations' to federal employees," recalls the founder of Integrity International, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports whistleblowers internationally.

"As I interviewed these patients, however, I began to realize that most of them didn't have psychiatric problems. In case after case, I discovered they were people who had taken the risk of speaking out against abuses in their [federal] agencies, and that their bosses were trying to get them fired by using the exams as a pretext."

During one particularly harrowing 1978 exam involving a secretary in the U.S. Department of Transportation, Soeken realized that his conscience would not allow him to remain silent about the plight of the employee he was evaluating. "Her name was Sally," he says, "and she had somehow found the courage to report 'overtime padding' [payroll inflation] in her section.

"Because she'd gone public with her whistleblowing, her bosses were furious. They wanted me to certify her as 'psychologically unfit for duty.' For me, that's where the rubber hit the road. I spent several weeks thinking about Martin Luther and the Old Testament prophets-all the stuff I'd learned at Valpo-and I realized that I couldn't certify her as unfit.

"Instead, I sent her to several newspaper reporters in the Washington area. When her story turned up on the front page, a Maryland congresswoman [the late Gladys Spelman] reacted by describing the tactic of using the exams to punish whistleblowers as 'unconscionable.'"

A few weeks later, Rep. Spelman launched congressional hearings into the practice, which was soon outlawed. Don Soeken's 25-year career as the nation's foremost "whistleblower shrink" was fully under way.

During the next two-and-a-half decades, the burly counselor would become an expert witness on the psychological trauma involved in whistleblowing, while helping hundreds of stressed U.S. whistleblowers to survive the rigors of going public with reports of wrongdoing in government, business and industry. Along the way-and while caring for dozens of struggling truth-tellers at his "Whistlestop Farm" in rural West Virginia-the indefatigable Soeken would help his clients win more than $100 million in "wrongful discharge" and "harassment" court decisions and settlements from companies and government agencies that engaged in "reprisals" against whistleblowing employees.

"Don Soeken was extremely helpful to me in my struggle, when Emory University fired me during a [2000] whistleblowing incident," says James Murtagh M.D., a former Emory Medical School professor who lost his job after reporting alleged fiscal abuses to federal investigators. "Don was always available, and he was always eager to listen. Like most whistleblowers, I went through a great deal of psychological turmoil after I was fired, and I needed every bit of counseling he could provide."

Linda Lewis, Ph.D., a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who rocked the boat several years ago by going public with reports that the U.S. meat supply was vulnerable to contamination by Mad Cow Disease and other pathogens, described Soeken as "an absolute life-saver. He listened to me for hours on end, and he gave me the key mental strategies I needed to preserve my psyche intact.

"Don also was able to get a lot of media attention for my case, and that played a crucial role in saving my job. I wouldn't have survived, emotionally or financially, without his help."

Ask Soeken-who courted his wife and the mother of his two now-grown children, Karen (Gienapp '65), between classes at Valpo-why he continues to fight for the rights of the American whistleblower in 2003, and the former Crusader lineman will tell you: "My life's work really got started during my years at Valparaiso.

"Like most of the other students around me, I took the lessons I learned on campus quite seriously. I'm convinced that our whistleblowers are modern-day prophets. And they pay a huge price for speaking out against the abuses they observe. All too often their careers are destroyed. They lose their homes, and their families are often torn apart.

"They need our help, because the laws that were meant to protect them simply aren't enforced in this country today."

How important are the nation's whistleblowers in 2003? According to Soeken, Time Magazine's recent decision to name three high-profile, female whistleblowers (WorldCom's Cynthia Cooper; Enron's Sherron Watkins and the FBI's Coleen Rowley) as "Persons of the Year" for 2002 makes the answer to that question compellingly obvious. "That Time spread made it clear that if we fail to protect our whistleblowers, that failure will cost us dearly," he says. "Too often, the response to their brave truth-telling is to 'kill the messenger.' But we must not allow that to happen.

"Make no mistake: We need our whistleblowers to help us see where we're going. If we allow them to be silenced, we'll sooner or later pay a tragic price for it."

For more information about Don Soeken's work, visit www.whistleblowing.us.