Stephen Kohn: The Untold Stories of the Whistleblowers of 1777 (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of whistleblower attorney Stephen Kohn’s TEDx Talk: The Untold Stories of the Whistleblowers of 1777 at TEDxWilmingtonSalon conference. This event took place on July 30, 2016 at Wilmington, Delaware.

Listen to the MP3 Audio:  The Untold Stories of the Whistleblowers of 1777 by Stephen Kohn at TEDxWilmingtonSalon


1999, in the fall, I’m sitting in my office, literally, minding my own business. And a flash! The US Supreme Court is going to hear whether America’s most important whistleblower law is constitutional. It’s a law designed to empower whistleblowers, everyday, ordinary citizens, to expose fraud, hold corporations accountable and obtain rewards and protection. Truly the best law, designed to root out fraud and government contract. So someone get a procurement or a contract And they are ripping it off, that’s the law.

And big business hated this law. And the Chamber of Commerce and all of their allies filed briefs, and convinced the US Supreme Court, known as a very pro-business court at the time, to hear whether it was constitutional for citizens, to stand in the shoes of the government and challenge fraud as whistleblowers. I was like, wow!

This is big. This is a turning point, because if this law is struck down, whistleblowers will be doomed. But if this law is upheld, and these powers are reflected in our constitution, this is a big deal.

So I call up my interns, I say, look we have to fight back. And we have to look at places in history where our founding fathers or our leaders would’ve looked to the people like whistleblowers to defend our constitutional government. I said, check it out, see what you can find. And I sent them off to the library. Specifically, look at the US revolution, because our founding fathers, for all of their flaws, they understood the power of people, and the importance of the role of the citizen in government. Check it out.

Well, about a day or two later someone comes back with a big smile on their face, and they found it. A whistleblower law, passed unanimously by the founding fathers on July 30, 1778. Wow! I put it in the brief, we filed it up.

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Ten years later, I’m working on a book called “The Whistleblower’s Handbook“. And I remembered this resolution and I’m saying: Why would this have been passed. What was going on in 1778 to rally up whistleblowers? So, once again I sent my law clerks out. Rhode Island Historical Society where the incident arose. Library of Congress, National Archives, the records of the Constitutional excuse me, of the Continental Congress — What happened?

And there the story of America’s first whistleblowers just unfolded. And it’s why we celebrate whistleblower day on July 30. These were America’s first whistleblowers — common, everyday, working people volunteers, into the continental navy, they were marines and sailors, patriots who were now enlisted to fight the British. And you can see them here.

They served on a frigate known as the Warren. And it was stationed in Providence Harbour, in February of 1777. About six months after the declaration of independence was signed. And these 10 sailors met secretly and signed a petition, not against the British, but against the head of the Navy, against the Commodore of the entire Unites States Navy who have been appointed by the Continental Congress, whose brother had served as a Governor of Rhode Island and a signer of the declaration of Independence. A very powerful person within the United States, in the United States Government.

And they signed a petition, secretly and sent one of their members to jump ship to present this petition to the Continental Congress. And here you can see this is from the actual petition it’s all laid out. The wrongdoing they were exposing was war profiteering, was mistreatment of British prisoners in time of war.

Now we can think about today, and how that might be reacted to. So let’s just think. I’ve asked this question time and time again. What happened to these 10 sailors, February 1777. What happened to Captain [John] Grannis when he jumped ship, without permission and went to Philadelphia and presented the petitions.

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I’ve asked it many times, and it’s something to think about. And I polled audiences. Were they hung? Were they court marshalled? Or was there a parade down main street Philadelphia, maybe starting right here in Wilmington, where everyone said Ye, the Whistleblowers! How were they treated? Something to think about.

Well, the Continental Congress read the petitions, all the affidavits of the whistleblowers, and they suspended the Commander of the Navy. They acted on that information. And then they fired him.

Well, the Commander was not a happy fellow. And the boat was sitting there in Rhode Island where he has a lot of friends and connections. And he issues out papers and sues the whistleblowers for criminal liable, which, back in the day, you could sue someone and they get arrested and thrown in jail. And they caught two of the whistleblowers and threw them in jail in Rhode Island. This was the former Commander but he still had his friends.

Then as the story unfolds, I find a letter written from the prison to the Continental Congress, pleading for help. And I want to tell you I’ve represented whistleblowers for over 30 years. And I’m reading this letter, and it’s like, I’ve read this before, the same sentiments, the same issues that whistleblowers today have raised time and again.

This is their letter. And they talk about that they’re not affluent people, they’re young men who are sacrificing for their country. And they’re held to bail, they have no connections, against a powerful enemy. And that’s how it always is with whistleblowers With whistleblowers, it’s a working person, an employee, and the person they’re blowing the whistle on has the connections, has the wealth. That’s what you see, that’s what’s unfolding right here, in 1778, as these guys were held in jail.

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