$11.7 million for blowing the whistle

Even before the Dodds-Frank Act comes into play, whistleblowing can be lucrative in the United State

On Tuesday, Martha Gill revealed the new rewards enabled by the Dodds-Frank act for American whistleblowers.

As she wrote:

A change in whistle blower regulation now has employees rushing about making secret recordings and photocopying internal documents... The new law potentially offers multimillion dollar payouts for those who uncover cases of fraud...

That said, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is not exactly rushing to reward its informants.

The Dodds-Frank act has yet to pay out, but the major change it introduced was the ease with which whistleblowers could get paid, rather than the concept of paying whistleblowers per se. America has a longstanding tradition of financial rewards to those prepared to go through the arduous process of revealing an employer's illegal actions, and on Wednesday, two Georgia mortgage brokers, Victor Bibby and Brian Donnelly, received $11.7m for doing just that.

Reuters reports:

The pair, who worked for U.S. Financial Services Inc, a mortgage brokerage firm in Alpharetta, Georgia, said they became suspicious when lenders told them not to show an amount charged for attorneys fees on loan documents, but instead add the sum to the charge shown for "title examination fee."

After lenders ignored their concerns, Bibby and Donnelly hired an attorney and filed a whistleblower suit.

In the end, the information they supplied was instrumental in forcing JP Morgan to pay a $45m settlement to the government, of which the pair - and their attorneys - received 26 per cent. The case was one of five settlements instituted by whistleblowers which came to light this week, for a combined payout of $227m.

They had to work hard for their money, however, and it is this disincentive which the SEC will be hoping to remove:

The suit remained under seal to give the government time to investigate. Bibby and Donnelly had to keep mum for more than five years and try to find ways to avoid charging the hidden fees.

"For both our families being hushed for such a long time and holding this inside was unbearable," Donnelly said in an interview. "It puts a lot of stress on you."

Being able to get the payout without the five years of living a lie could indeed markedly increase the number of tips. The next concern will be weeding the cranks from the pile.

Referee Mark Clattenburg blows his whistle, ending some football. Credit:Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.