An Ellicott City man is retelling his personal story of twice “speaking the truth to power” to a new audience these days.
A window opened for Don Soeken to shed light on whistleblowing — the act of reporting illegal, unethical or immoral acts to authorities — following events in Washington, D.C., that are threatening to derail the presidency of Donald Trump.
Soeken worked for the federal government for 26 years, logging 16 of them after first exposing wrongdoing in 1978 — a rare feat of staying power in the whistleblower universe.
After blowing the whistle a second time, though, he felt compelled to retire in 1994.
Ever since an anonymous whistleblower reported comments Trump made on a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — spurring an impeachment inquiry that ultimately led to a House report last week charging Trump with abusing his office — Soeken has seen a bump in interest in his Whistleblower Support Fund.
A social worker with a doctorate in human development and a theology degree, the Kansas native founded his nonprofit in 1989, more than a decade after he first risked his career to right a wrong.
An opinion piece Soeken wrote on whistleblowing that was published Nov. 19 in The Baltimore Sun drew responses from five whistleblowers, some writing just to thank him for what he does.
“The Ukraine controversy serves as a painful, but also very hopeful, reminder that ‘speaking the truth to power’ is often a crucial step in defending our liberties and protecting the rule of law,” he wrote in his commentary.
Soeken, 77, said he was first compelled more than 40 years ago to speak out about forced psychiatric fitness-for-duty exams being administered to federal personnel.
He alleges they were “an easy way for managers to get rid of employees [with whom they had a conflict], something that is very difficult to do in the government.”
The issue came to his attention through clients who sought him out for counseling in private practice outside of his government job.
Many of them turned out to be whistleblowers who were “overcome by anxiety or depression” after being forced to take the frequently career-crushing psychiatric exam, he said.
“This was not fair,” Soeken said. “Once employees were found not fit for duty on the basis of one interview, they had to retire on forced disability.”
Soeken has testified before Congress and as an expert witness in employment and whistleblower court cases.
His efforts were finally rewarded in 1984, he said, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill eliminating the exams, six years after he initially blew the whistle.
Soeken considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Most whistleblowers are demoted or fired, and some are forced to change careers and take a salary cut, he said.
He was able to continue working for the U.S. Public Health Service for 16 more years after he complained about forced exams. After whistleblowing a second time as a case manager at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Washington, his government career ended.
“Whistleblowers can get angry and speak out to the press” and end up facing financial ruin over mounting legal fees as they attempt to defend themselves from retaliation, he said. Some lose their homes and families.
Soeken originally founded his nonprofit in 1989 as the Association of Mental Health Specialties. He changed the name to Whistleblower Support Fund in 2012 after deciding to set his nonprofit apart from other organizations by specifically aiding whistleblowers in the aftermath of coming forward.
He estimates he’s assisted about 1,000 whistleblowers in getting $100 million in court awards and settlements since he started working with them 41 years ago, 11 years before he founded his nonprofit.
“Whistleblowers follow a code of ethics and most say they would blow the whistle all over again given the chance,” despite the fact that very few are vindicated or rewarded for stepping forward, Soeken said.
Most of them share a similar worldview, upbringing or set of values that prevents them from ignoring behavior that goes against their consciences, he said.
“For whistleblowers, there’s only black and white, right and wrong. When I blew the whistle, I didn’t think about getting in trouble,” he said.
Syndicated newspaper columnist Jack Anderson first wrote about Soeken’s efforts in 1985.
But after a 2003 article by Anderson in Parade magazine reached an even greater audience, Soeken estimated he got 4,000 phone calls.
“I had to get someone to answer my phone and, when that person couldn’t keep up with all the calls, I bought an answering machine,” he recalled.
He has kept 50 boxes of whistleblowing records that he hopes a university or institution may be willing to acquire one day.
Soeken self-published a book about whistleblowing in 2014 titled, “Don’t Kill the Messenger!” The book, which recounts the experiences of nine whistleblowers, is subtitled, “How America’s Valiant Whistleblowers Risk Everything in Order to Speak Out Against Waste, Fraud and Abuse in Business and Government.”
These days, he often initiates contact with whistleblowers he’s read about to see how their cases are progressing and to offer support.
Soeken does more than dispense information and provide expert help, though, according to one whistleblower who now works with him.
Linda Lewis contacted him in 1998 after finding his website. She retired from the federal government in 2005 and began assisting him in 2008.
“Don has helped people who were subjected to the most devastating form of retaliation by people wanting to destroy their ability to get hired for any job,” said Lewis, who in 2018 moved from the Washington area to Texas.
“Most whistleblower organizations focus on whistleblower disclosures, but WSF’s focus is the whistleblower’s welfare — before, during and after whistleblowing. Don provides emotional support to people trying to get through this and has demonstrated a commitment to helping them.”
Though he’s well past retirement age, Soeken intends to keep the Whistleblower Support Fund going, especially since the ramifications of the Ukraine controversy are still developing.
“I know what to do and how to do it, and I can’t seem to stop,” he said.
If he could offer one piece of advice to anyone considering blowing the whistle in the intelligence community, it would be to hire an attorney to make the case while you remain anonymous, thus avoiding the intense scrutiny, job loss and possible death threats that often accompany such acts of courage.
“Whistleblowers have changed the course of history,” Soeken said. “To keep our democracy going, we must be truthful.”
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To contact Soeken or to donate to his nonprofit, go to whistleblowing.us.