Kusserow on Compliance: Addressing the risk of whistleblowers

The DOJ recently reported the fact that 93 percent of its successful civil false claims court actions arose by qui tam relators (whistleblowers) bringing the case to the DOJ’s attention. As such, it is important to understand better how to address the risk of having that happen to your organization. Key factors to be considered are the motivation of most whistleblowers and how to channel them to report internally, rather than going to outside authorities.

Tom Herrmann, JD, while at the OIG, was responsible for coordinating whistleblower cases with the DOJ.  He noted that the common practice for the DOJ, upon receiving a complaint from a qui tam relator, is to have the OIG conduct the preliminary investigation on their behalf. Inasmuch as these False Claims Act (FCA) cases were civil in nature, it was not the usual course to involve the FBI.  As such, he had the opportunity to review the initial complaints and often times meet or discuss with the relator about what caused them to report the problem. He found that there were many reasons given by individuals for becoming qui tam relators. e HhOnly a few qui tam relators indicated their motivation was for the potential reward coming from the case. The most common statement was that because they were unable to obtain a credible, internal reporting channel, they decided to report externally. Credence was given to this as a major motivating factor by the fact that in many cases they did find evidence of many Whistleblowers having reported the problem internally first, and moved to report externally when inadequate attention was give to their complaints. There were also whistleblowers who stated they were motivated by ethical considerations and felt they could not justify allowing a bad situation to continue without taking some sort of action.

Steve Forman, CPA, has over 30 years experience with the OIG, as a compliance officer, health care consultant. He found many situations where an employee’s reporting a potential violation of law, regulation, or organization Code or policy was the subject of adverse action or reprisal.  In some cases, the whistleblower moved to a legal course of action to protect themselves.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find members of management engaging in retaliatory actions against employees trying to expose wrongdoing. In some cases, these same people turned to attorneys who led them to become qui tam relators. A key factor in managing the risk of having a whistleblower is to understand what motivates them to go externally with and report a problem; and try to channel them to resolve the issue internally.  It is also important to remember that making the decision to report a problem to the compliance officer is viewed as taking considerable risk with regards to their job, reputation with their fellow employees, and their future financial security.  Reassurance of protection against retaliation is critical. However, for some, that may be not enough.  This means the option to report anonymously is also important.

Carrie Kusserow has overseen many IRO and Compliance Expert engagements with clients who signed Corporate Integrity Agreements with the OIG. She noted that in several cases, while carrying out the duties of the engagement, her consultants identified the original whistleblower and found in several cases they had tried to raise the issues internally, before deciding to go outside the organization and become a qui tam relator. In other cases, the whistleblower reported not trusting the hotline or compliance office to protect them against retaliation. The lesson to be learned about avoiding external whistleblowing is to ensure that internal compliance channels operate credibly and properly. This also means taking prompt action to follow on any complaints or allegations of wrongdoing. It also means that strong policies and procedures to protect individuals reporting potential wrongdoing must be implemented and followed. This includes permitting employees to be able to report anonymously or if they do identify themselves that they will be detected in their confidentiality law.

Tips for Compliance Officers

  1. Ensure reporting suspected wrongdoing is stressed in the code, policies and training
  2. Review and update hotline-related polices/procedures (confidentiality, anonymity, non-retaliation, duty to report, etc.)
  3. Ensure a 24/7 hotline operated externally, as internal ones are less trusted and unavailable at all times
  4. Look to expand and increase compliance communication channels beyond just the hotline
  5. Promote the reporting of wrongdoing (newsletter, intranet, training programs, etc.)
  6. Find ways to provide feedback so that employees know reporting is taken seriously
  7. Consider engaging experts to evaluate compliance communication channels effectiveness
  8. Allegations of potential violations of law or regulations must be promptly investigated
  9. Ensure that individuals are trained and competent to conduct prompt investigations
  10. Disclose promptly all cases where investigation indicates potential violations
  11. Review and update investigation and resolution of allegations polices/procedures
  12. Take appropriate disciplinary action against identified wrongdoers
  13. Consider having on call experts in conducting investigations to assist if needed
  14. Understand CMS and OIG self disclosure protocols that may avoid FCA investigation
  15. Ensue investigations finding of potential violations of law are promptly disclosed to the DOJ

 

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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Copyright © 2017 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.