A miniseries I recently watched entitled FatherMotherSon reminded me of a truth I had learned long ago: knowledge is power. In this miniseries, a newspaper mogul maintains his position of influence, even to the point of controlling elections, by using the dirt he collects (sometimes illegally) on others. Sadly, history is full of examples of persons, governments, or businesses that rose to power because they knew the corrupt or evil acts of others while keeping their own outrageous actions hidden. These people or organizations held others accountable for their actions but took little responsibility for their own. As karma would have it, often, those that rose to power in this manner subsequently fell from their lofty perches because someone finally revealed their secrets. We call these revealers of secrets whistleblowers.
There has been a lot in the news lately about whistleblowing, which is fitting since at least two recently released movies are about whistleblowers. In Dark Waters,[i] a corporate defense attorney named Robert Bilott takes on industry giant DuPont and exposes a history of pollution and the ill effects of Teflon products. Due to his efforts, the EPA assessed DuPont a fine of $16.5 million, which was peanuts compared to the annual profits of the company. But Bilott did not rest there. He has spent the last twenty years pursuing litigation against companies for their harmful dumping of chemicals. DuPont ultimately settled a class action for $671 million.
In this clip from the film, Billot points out that we (you and I) must protect ourselves from the potential abuses of corporations because no one else will:
That protection often comes in the form of exposing the secrets the corporation wants no one to know about. In this case, DuPont’s internal documents acknowledged that its products were harmful. And now, Rob Billot’s story joins those of many whistleblowers who have protected the public against the destructive actions of corporations taken in the name of profit. Here are a few of my favorites that became films:
- Spotlight – The story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a massive scandal of child abuse within the Catholic Church.
- The Insider – The story of how Jeffrey Wigand, a cigarette company insider, agrees to appear on 60 Minutes and expose closely-held secrets about the tobacco industry.
- Erin Brockovich – The story of how a legal assistant almost singlehandedly brings down a major power company for polluting the city’s water supply.
Governments can be as destructive as unethical corporations if left unchecked. In the recent film, The Report,[ii] Senate staffer Daniel Jones investigated the CIA’s hostage interrogation program following 9/11. That investigation led to shocking secrets about the mistreatment of those hostages, which the CIA’s internal documents admitted were utterly ineffective.
Here is a trailer for The Report:
Daniel Jones was not alone in exposing the ugly secrets of our government. Here are a few of my favorite whistleblower films involving our government:
- All the President’s Men – The story of how information leaked to the Washington Post by a government insider led to the downfall of a U.S. president.
- Snowden – The story of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified documents of how the government was spying on all of us.
- The Most Dangerous Man in America – The story of how Daniel Ellsberg leaked classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers that helped end the Vietnam War.
As these films illustrate, whistleblowing is almost as American as baseball or apple pie. Even before we had a union, we enacted protections for public employees who divulge abuses of power by government officials. In 1778, the Continental Congress passed a resolution “to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.” Such laws would not be needed if corporations, government, and others in power would hold themselves accountable for their actions.
Back in September of this year, an intelligence analyst blew the whistle on President Trump, claiming the President had solicited foreign interference with the upcoming 2020 election. But this analyst was not alone in complaining about the President. More than a dozen federal officials have come forward, from various departments, reporting concerns to their superiors about Trump’s dealings with the president of Ukraine. These superiors either ignored or blocked each complaint. But based on the initial whistleblower’s complaint, Congress launched an investigation that ended in issuing two articles of impeachment against the President.
I am not a constitutional law expert, so I don’t know if President Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son reaches the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as required for impeachment by the Constitution. I am confident, though, that he did what all the analysts claim he did. I am more concerned about the second article of impeachment—that the President obstructed justice by prohibiting others in his administration from testifying, relying on executive privilege. Mr. President, if you did nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. The situation echoes the early 1970s when then-President Richard Nixon tried to use executive privilege to conceal the wrongdoings associated with Watergate. And we all know how that worked out for him.
Not surprisingly, Trump has characterized his whistleblowers as unAmerican, attacking them as “traitors” and “human scum.” He has equated them to “spies” who are guilty of “treason,” which, if convicted, would result in the death penalty. But instead, these long-time government officials turned whistleblowers, most of whom had worked tirelessly for decades for both Republican and Democratic administrations, saw their actions as essential to preserve the checks and balances on the abuse of power within our government. As a recent Time article says it:
“For each, the decision to step forward came at a cost. None expected to become household names or to find their faces on televisions across the country night after night. And though each followed the rules and used the proper channels, some have found themselves vilified online, their decades of government service impugned and their background questioned.”[iii]
I find it sad that we have to rely on whistleblowers. If persons in power acted responsibly and in the best interest of their constituencies or customers, we would not need whistleblowers. But that is not the nature of people in power.
I believe the statement of Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Church”) when he said, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”[iv]
Somewhat ironically, the Church has had its own whistleblower in the news lately. A Church member who had worked for an investment arm of the Church named Ensign Peak Advisors recently filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS, claiming Ensign Peak Advisors should lose its tax-exempt status because it stockpiled earnings from charitable donations instead of using those funds for charitable purposes. The complaint also alleges the only two disbursements from the Ensign Peak fund went to for-profit ventures, not charitable ones.
This situation hits close to home for me. I am a member of the Church and have paid to the Church tens of thousands of dollars over my lifetime in tithing and other charitable contributions. I do not know whether the Church violated any tax law, as that is beyond my expertise. Several tax experts have said the Church probably has not done anything wrong, although the rules in this area are somewhat ambiguous and have not been the subject of court cases. Nor am I trying to say the Church exercised unrighteous dominion in connection with these funds. Many (including me) would argue the opposite—that the Church invested the money wisely for hopefully the ultimate benefit of the Church and its members. What has surprised me, though, is the size of the fund that it is being stockpiled rather than used for charitable purposes, and how little transparency there has been by the Church in connection with these funds.
According to the whistleblower’s complaint, the fund managed by Ensign Peak Advisors amounts to approximately $100 billion—that’s billion with a “b.” The whistleblower alleges the Church brings in about $7 billion each year in charitable donations from its members and others but has annual expenditures of $5 to $6 billion. The Church takes the excess $1 billion and gives it to Ensign Peak Advisors to invest. And although the Ensign Peak fund has grown to $100 billion since its creation 22 years ago, Ensign has never used any of its funds for charitable purposes. The Church disputes that it has done anything wrong, but has not refuted these numbers.
How much is $100 billion? According to documents filed with the IRS, Ensign Peak made a seven percent return on its investments last year. That’s a profit of $7 billion, meaning the Church could meet all of its current annual financial obligations ($6 billion) using that profit alone from this fund and still have $1 billion left over to reinvest. In short, the Church could suspend the responsibility of its members to pay any tithing or offerings. I don’t expect the Church to do that, as the Church considers the payment of tithing to be a commandment of God. However, a former prophet of the Church, Joseph F. Smith, once said the day would come when the payment of tithing would no longer be required.
But I won’t hold my breath. Perhaps the Church could lighten the financial burden on its members in other ways. The Church currently has approximately 65,000 full-time missionaries, whose families pay $500 per month to support them. (In an instance of bad timing, the Church announced it is raising the cost per missionary from $400 to $500 per month effective January 1, 2020.) The Church states that it subsidizes the cost of keeping its full-time missionaries in the mission field, and I do not dispute that. But using the current $100 billion to pay the full cost of its missionaries (and relieving the $500 per month burden on their families), the Church could support 65,000 missionaries for more than the next 250 years. Couldn’t the Church use some of its surpluses to ease at least part of that burden? Could the monthly missionary expense be made optional so those who can ill-afford it do not have to pay it?
At the Church’s last general conference, the current prophet of the Church discussed its Humanitarian Fund, which helps the poor throughout the world and those who have been devastated by natural disasters. According to the prophet, since the creation of the Humanitarian Fund, the Church’s expenditures from that fund have totaled $2 billion. That sounds like a lot, but considering the fund has been in existence for 35 years, that is less than $58 million per year, and we don’t know how much of that amount came from individual members in contributions other than tithing rather than the Church itself. But, even giving the Church credit for the entire amount (which the Church admits is not the case, as the prophet tells us Church members donated $6.5 million to the fund in a single day), that $58 billion per year is less than six percent of the Church’s excess tithing funds received in a year. As I reread the prophet’s conference address, I realized most of the Church’s help to those in need came not from the Church itself, but its members in the form of donations of money and clothing in addition to tithing, and volunteer service. Another Church leader stated the Church’s expenditures from its Humanitarian Fund amount to $40 million per year or only four percent of its excess tithing annually. So, no matter how you look at the numbers, it is less than the ten percent it requires of its members. In short, I wish the Church would be as generous as its members.
Again, please do not misunderstand me. Over my lifetime, I have trusted the Church to use my contributions wisely in the help and support of others. I have no problem with the Church maintaining a “rainy day” fund. But with so much need in the world, is not more than 16 times your annual expenditures in such a fund more than necessary for a rainy day considering the Church acknowledges the U.N. report that more than 820 million people in the world go hungry every day? The Church asks me to give it ten percent of my increase as tithing. Could not the Church also pay at least as much of its excess to charitable causes?
Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” For the Church to be great, it has a responsibility to not only invest its excess funds wisely but to use them for the purposes we contributors had intended. And just as important, I believe the Church has a responsibility to be more accountable to its members for those funds by being much more transparent about them. Through the years, I have given my donations to the Church willingly and trustingly. But trust needs to be earned.
I hope the Church will respond to these new whistleblower revelations not as lawyers, hellbent on defending their position at all costs, but as Good Samaritans, helping “the least of these my brethren.”[v]
[i] Dark Waters:
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[ii] The Report:
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[iii] “Guardians of the Year—The Public Servants: Serving Country Over Self,” Time Magazine, December 23/December 30, 2019; page 77.
[iv] See Doctrine & Covenants 121: 39.
[v] See Matthew 25:40.