Another season of the CBS Whistleblower TV show, Whistleblower. Thank you to all the viewers who made season one such a success. And obviously, no whistleblower TV show exists without the brave whistleblowers who made our community a better and safer place.
Whistleblower TV Show Season Two – Episode List
Season 2, Episode 1: Chicago Police Department
Season 2, Episode 2: Religious Cult – The Order
Season 2, Episode 3: SeaWorld – Animal cruelty or Conservation?
Episode 1: Whistleblower TV Show Highlights Chicago Police Corruption
“Whistleblower” is back for a second season on CBS, and it starts off with one of the biggest scandals in police history. This episode profiles Shannon Spalding, who filed a massive whistleblower lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department in 2012.
Chicago Police Officer Was Planting Drugs, Making Wrongful Arrests
When Shannon Spalding joined the Chicago Police Department in 1996, she was thrown into the thick of it. She was given one of the PD’s most dangerous assignments: patrolling the South Side projects, a housing complex with seemingly rampant gang and drug activity. Despite the danger, Spalding loved her job, and she looked up to her supervisor, Sergeant Ronald Watts.
Spalding was later assigned to the narcotics division as an undercover cop. She would purchase drugs, and her partner Danny Echeverria would come in and make an arrest. But Spalding and Echeverria began to notice something interesting. Arrestees were saying, “Why are you arresting me when one of your own is running the narcotics trade?” It happened often enough that Spalding became curious about what was really going on.
As it turned out, what the arrestees were saying was true. Sergeant Watts, Spalding’s mentor, was lining his pockets with drugs, guns and cash from dealers in exchange for their freedom and protection. He was also extorting residents of the Ida B. Wells housing projects by planting drugs on them and falsely arresting them. Depending on how uncooperative residents were, Watts would plant one or two bags of drugs, or enough to put them behind bars for decades.
For years, Watts and his cronies had been terrorizing residents of the Ida B. Wells projects, including Ben Baker and his wife Clarissa. In March 2005, Watts planted 110 bags of heroin and 68 bags of crack cocaine on Ben and arrested him when he refused to pay $1,000. While Ben was out on bail, Watts planted drugs on him again, this time arresting Ben and Clarissa in front of their small children. Clarissa took a plea deal, but Ben was convicted of a serious felony and sentenced to 14 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
FBI Launches Investigation into Chicago PD and Ronald Watts
Watt’s misconduct became too big to ignore. Spalding convinced Echeverria to go to their supervisors in 2007, but nothing was done. A few months later, they decided to go to the FBI. Around the same time, Clarissa Baker went to the FBI, too. The Bureau initiated a top-secret investigation called “Operation Brass Tacks.”
With the FBI’s help, Spalding and Echeverria went undercover and investigated Watts for two years. They couldn’t tell anyone what they were doing, and the pressure to gather intel was intense. Eventually, the FBI investigation began to cut into their work time, so they were forced to tell Police Internal Affairs (IAD) what they were doing. Spalding found out that Watts had been on the chief’s radar for years, yet no action had been taken.
Spalding and Echeverria were promised protection by the force, but in 2010, their identities were compromised. Their supervisor cornered them in a parking lot and told them the commanding officer said they were “IAD rats” and had ordered officers not to help them in an emergency. Spalding said the retaliation at work was “swift and brutal.”
As retaliation began to ramp up, Spalding was comforted with a small victory. Watts and one of his officers, Kallatt Mohammad, were arrested in February 2012. They were caught stealing $5,000 from a dealer, who was actually an undercover FBI informant wearing a wire. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison.
Chicago PD Pays Out $2 Million for Whistleblower Lawsuit
10 months later Spalding and Echeverria filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the City of Chicago and 12 police officers for conspiracy and first amendment rights violations. IAD sergeants interrogated Spalding and demanded that she drop the lawsuit, but she refused. As the lawsuit dragged on, Spalding dealt with near-daily retaliation. Finally, in June 2014, she retired from the police force for good.
Meanwhile, attorneys at the Exoneration Project legal clinic were doing their own investigation of Watts. In 2015, they connected with Clarissa Baker, whose husband Ben was still in prison on false charges. The Exoneration Project petitioned the court on Ben’s behalf. A month later, Ben was released after a decade in prison. A year later, Clarissa’s own conviction was thrown out.
With Spalding’s help, the Exoneration Project continued to investigate the arrests Watts made and advocate on behalf of his victims. More than 60 men and women have been exonerated. Even more people may be exonerated in the future.
After four long years, Spalding and Echeverria’s whistleblower lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in May 2016. However, the morning of the trial, the City of Chicago agreed to pay $2 million to settle the claims. As for Watts, he never returned to the police force after his arrest. 15 officers associated with him remain on the force but have supposedly been placed on desk duty.
As a former street cop, I’ve seen my share of corruption and dirty dealings. Some cops will take a free meal or the like but few things come close to this. Watts is the definition of a bad cop, and the Chicago Police Department’s “code of silence” protected him for far too long. The world would be a better place if more people like Spalding were willing to take on fraud in their own workplaces.
One reason why Spalding was able to achieve such a large settlement is probably because the Chicago PD was facing challenges from multiple angles. Clarissa Baker went to the FBI independently at the same time as Spalding and Echeverria. When the case was scheduled to go to trial, dozens of Watts’ arrestees had just been exonerated, and more were on the way. Plus, Watts had already been arrested for stealing from a “dealer.” Police departments are notoriously difficult to crack, and without this much evidence and this many people speaking out, CPD may have felt less pressure to settle the case.
The typical whistleblower cases we investigate involve losses to the government. But as this whistleblower TV show episode points out, whistleblower retaliation claim are important too. If lawyers won’t help protect whistleblowers, fewer whistleblowers will step forward.
If you’re aware of fraud and are considering filing a whistleblower lawsuit, don’t go it alone. Try to find other people and organizations who can offer their own evidence. Since FBI investigations require total silence, it may be easier to find this support before they get involved. However, the FBI can also help identify other witnesses that may be able to help once an investigation has started. Either way, the more ammunition you have against the wrongdoers, the harder it is for them to hide.
Although it’s frustrating that Watts only served time for one incident, 60 people who were wrongfully convicted regained their freedom. That never would have happened if Spalding hadn’t initiated an FBI investigation and whistleblower lawsuit. Even when the ideal outcome isn’t achieved, it’s always worthwhile to do the right thing. Start by reporting fraud online. If you have a viable case, you may be entitled to a significant reward.
We can help you evaluate your case before you file and can help protect you from retaliation as well.
Don’t forget, you can read all the reviews of the first season of Whistleblower by noted whistleblower TV lawyer Brian Mahany.
Episode 2: Whistleblower TV Series Highlights Dangerous Religious Cult
The second episode of “Whistleblower” on CBS brings us the shocking story of the Order and the massive fraud they were committing in plain sight. Brave whistleblowers Mary and Brian Nelson are highlighted in this week’s episode.
Inside the Secretive Word of “The Order”
When Brian Nelson saw Mary Kingston in the library of Salt Lake Community College, he thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. He asked her out, and the two dated happily for six months. But that happiness evaporated when Mary’s family found out she was secretly dating someone they didn’t approve of. Her father confiscated her phone, locked her away at home for three days with no food or water, and told her she had to be engaged to her cousin within two weeks. That’s when Brian found out Mary was in a polygamist cult.
Mary was part of the Kingston Family, also known as the Order. There are more than 7,500 members of the family in Salt Lake City alone. Although members of the Order do a good job of blending in with the outside world, in private their practices are much more disturbing. Women are encouraged to have as many children as possible, and young girls are often forced to marry relatives. Mary’s own father David Kingston, who holds a leadership role in the cult, has 18 wives and more than 200 children.
According to Mary, the Order was also obsessed with money, and members were required to turn over all their wages to the church. Leaders encouraged members to start working at a young age and open as many businesses as possible. Altogether, the Order controlled more than 100 companies, including pawn shops, hardware stores, motels, a casino and gun manufacturer Desert Tech. The family even had its own central bank, where Mary had worked since she was eight years old.
The Order Was Committing Fraud at All Levels
While she was locked up at home, Mary was able to secretly email Brian for help. In the early morning of June 15, 2013, Brian helped her escape to a boarding house in Las Vegas.
As Brian began researching the Order and talking to Mary about what she had seen, he began to realize that fraud was happening on a massive scale. At the central bank, Mary was frequently asked to hide money and falsify records. Members were committing every type of fraud imaginable: financial aid fraud, false dependent fraud, Medicaid fraud, food stamp fraud, false tax return fraud. The Kingston Family believed in taking as much as they could from the government, also known as “bleeding the beast.”
Fraud was happening at all levels, but not everyone benefitted from it. The profits were put into the central bank and funneled up to leadership. Jacob Kingston, Mary’s uncle, lived in a $4 million mansion and owned Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Bugattis. Meanwhile, other members of the Order lived in squalor.
Fraud wasn’t just happening at central bank, either. It was also happening in the Kingston Family’s businesses. By far the largest and most profitable business was Washakie Renewable Energy (WRE). The biofuel company brought in $164 million a year under brothers Jacob and Isaiah Kingston’s lead.
According to former employee Amanda Brown, the company was created solely to take advantage of federal green energy subsidies. WRE said it produced biofuel, but it was really purchasing fuel from other companies and reselling it (much like the Caravan biofuel scam featured on the first season of the Whistleblower TV show). By falsifying records, WRE made $20,000 to $30,000 a month in government subsidies alone.
Trial of Kingston Family Leaders Will Begin This Summer
Free from her family’s control, Mary and Brian got married in November 2013, on Mary’s 18th birthday. Three months later they contacted the FBI with a detailed list of the Order’s systematic fraud. By 2014, an investigation was in full swing. The IRS later took over the investigation, since the fraud involved tax credits. Once the federal investigation was underway, Brian began pursuing a civil whistleblower lawsuit as well.
On February 10, 2016, the IRS, EPA, Homeland Security and Salt Lake City Police raided the offices of dozens of Kingston Family businesses, including WRE. Unfortunately, someone had tipped off the Kingston Family two weeks before the raid happened, and key documents were missing. Mary believes the Order has connections with high-ranking officials in Utah government and law enforcement, which is why it took so long for the Kingston Family to be prosecuted in the first place.
Still, investigators gathered enough evidence of WRE’s fraud to indict and arrest Isaiah and Jacob Kingston on 18 criminal charges, including filing a false tax return and money laundering. The feds also discovered that Isaiah and Jacob had funneled $100 million to Turkey in a huge, international money laundering scheme. Lev Durman, a Turkish national who was also named in the indictment, had helped them transfer the money, which investigators believe Jacob and Isaiah were planning to use to escape the country.
The trial, which has now been expanded to include Jacob’s first wife Sally Kingston and his mother Rachel Kingston, is set to begin this summer. Mary will be a major witness.
Mary and Brian’s lawyer is interviewed in the episode, and he says that they set themselves up for a “fabulous” IRS whistleblower case. There are a few things Mary and Brian did that made their case much stronger.
First, they had lots of evidence that was carefully organized. Mary has a photographic memory, and she was able to remember exact figures and details from her time working at the Kingston Family bank. She and Brian spent months collecting the information they had and compiling it into spreadsheets. This was a smart move, since it’s easier to convince the federal government to take on a case when much of the legwork is already done for it.
Second, they had other witnesses who could back up their story. Mary and Brian got information from other people who had escaped from the Order and connected IRS investigators with employees at WRE. Amanda Brown, the former WRE employee who was interviewed in the episode, had also filed independent complaints with the Utah Attorney General. The more people there are to verify the fraud, the more likely it is that you’ll have a successful case.
Finally, Mary and Brian had information about a scam that the federal government was already aware of, but didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute. Obviously, you can’t choose where fraud is happening. However, if you have information about fraud that’s particularly difficult for investigators to pin down, they will be much more likely to take your case.
One thing the episode doesn’t make clear is whether Brian and Mary first went to the federal government on their own or with the help of a lawyer. Although they have a lawyer now, it seems like they initially contacted the FBI independently. In my opinion, that’s the only thing Mary and Brian might have done wrong. If you don’t report fraud correctly, there is a chance you can lose out on your whistleblower reward. Plus, a lawyer can help set up your case so the government is more likely to take it on.
Everything seems to have worked out for Brian and Mary, but we’ll have to wait to see what kind of reward they get. Even assuming the trial is successful, it could take awhile for any appeals and for the IRS to get paid.
If you know of fraud happening in your community, you have a responsibility to report it like Mary and Brian did. It’s easy to report fraud online, and you may be entitled to a significant whistleblower award. [We have a former IRS special agent and former tax prosecutor within our firm. We know how to properly package IRS whistleblower cases.]
Episode 3: Whistleblower TV Show Highlights SeaWorld – Conservation or Animal Cruelty?
The third episode of CBS’ “Whistleblower” delves into the story of SeaWorld, the once-beloved marine park that fell from grace thanks to a whistleblower who spoke up.
SeaWorld Said it Promoted “Conservation Through Education”
When John Hargrove visited SeaWorld for the first time when he was six years old, he instantly became obsessed with becoming a whale trainer. He escaped from his difficult childhood by imagining what it would be like to swim with whales someday. His free time was dedicated to practicing diving 40 feet deep and swimming back up to the surface in less than a minute. It was no surprise that, when he tested as an apprentice trainer at SeaWorld in 1993, he got the job.
Founded in 1964 in San Diego, SeaWorld was a multibillion-dollar company that preached “conservation through education.” Its leaders said it was a place where animals and people existed in harmony, and visitors to its parks in California, Florida and Texas were captivated by the stunts whales did alongside their trainers. The company was responsible for changing the public perception of killer whales from dangerous predator to smart, lovable animal. It’s no wonder why John wanted to work there.
Behind the Scenes, SeaWorld Trainers and Whales Were Being Treated Poorly
Although the public was led to believe that whales and trainers lived in peaceful harmony, John quickly found out that the work was much more dangerous than it seemed. A common stunt included a trainer being pushed out of the water on a whale’s nose at 30 miles per hour. The timing had to be perfect, or the trainer would be thrown onto a concrete slab in front of a live audience. John suffered routine injuries, including broken ribs that a doctor said were the equivalent of being mowed down by an Escalade.
Research was also coming out about the high intelligence of whales and the dangers of captivity. Killer whales normally swim more than 100 miles day, but at SeaWorld they could only swim three strokes before having to turn around. Trying to control the damage, SeaWorld told trainers to say “pool” instead of “tank” and “controlled environment” instead of “captivity.” If they didn’t follow these rules, they would be written up.
John and his fellow trainers knew that the whales were suffering. They developed cataracts from being in the sun too much and had chronic health issues from swimming in chemically treated water. Many whales were regularly given Valium and other medication. Bored and stressed, they would swim in circles for hours, grind their teeth on ledges, eat paint off the walls and thrash until they made themselves bleed.
Captivity also triggered aggressive behavior. Over his career, John experienced 10 aggressions where whales violently pulled him under the water. Yet even though its leaders knew about these dangerous incidents, SeaWorld didn’t reconsider the effect of captivity on its whales.
Whale Breeding Program Led to Tragedy
To get around laws that made it illegal to capture killer whales in Washington’s Puget Sound and off the coast of Iceland, SeaWorld started a breeding program to increase its supply of whales. Female whales were artificially inseminated as young as eight years old, and babies were separated from their mothers and moved from park to park. This was especially distressing to the whales. The bond between a mother whale and her babies is very strong, and in the wild babies stay with their mother until she dies. Whales separated from their families would often become depressed and aggressive.
In 2006, SeaWorld leased four baby whales to Loro Parque, a marine park on the Canary Islands in Spain. SeaWorld also supervised some of the trainers at Loro Parque, including Alex Martinez. Three years after Martinez began working with the baby whales, one of them pulled him underwater and rammed him in the chest, killing him instantly. The incident was not reported in the U.S., and SeaWorld trainers were told to lie about the killing if asked.
Just two months later a similar incident happened, this time on U.S. soil. Dawn Brancheau was one of the only SeaWorld trainers allowed to work with Tilikum, a 12,000-pound whale who had been captured when he was two years old. He was involved in the death of a trainer at a Canadian marine park in 1991, but SeaWorld still used him in its shows. In 2010, during a routine “Dine with Shamu” show, Tilikum pulled Dawn from the edge of the pool and attacked her for 45 minutes. By the time trainers were able to calm Tilikum down, Dawn was long gone.
SeaWorld couldn’t avoid bad press this time, because Dawn was killed in front of an audience. But the company did everything it could to avoid admitting that Tilikum had acted aggressively. SeaWorld placed the blame on Dawn, saying that Tilikum was triggered by her ponytail and that he was trying to play with her.
OSHA Investigation Puts an End to Whale Shows
Dawn’s death finally triggered an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). During its six-month investigation, OSHA found that SeaWorld had documented more than 100 hazardous incidents dating back to 1988. The agency ruled that SeaWorld had allowed trainers to work without adequate protection, and trainers were no longer allowed in the pool with whales.
While this was a start, it wasn’t enough for John. He began speaking up even more about the cruel breeding program and whale separations. SeaWorld retaliated by demoting John, eventually causing him to quit altogether.
One week after his last day, John was interviewed for Blackfish, the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary that investigated Dawn Brancheau’s death. Between Blackfish and John’s bestselling book, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, SeaWorld began to fall out of public favor. In 2015, its net income was down 85% from the previous year.
After the release of his book, John was asked to co-sponsor a California bill that would ban whale shows and breeding. Sensing that the end was near, SeaWorld voluntarily stopped its breeding program and famous whale shows. The bill passed and was put into effect in 2017.
Although this episode doesn’t feature a False Claims Act lawsuit, John Hargrove is still a true whistleblower. SeaWorld was harming its whales and trainers, and visitors and investors had no idea. Without people like John, SeaWorld might still be lying to the public, violating labor regulations and mistreating animals without consequence.
Without a whistleblower lawsuit available to him, John used other means to draw attention to SeaWorld’s misconduct. His book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish became a New York Times best seller. SeaWorld was clearly threatened by the book, and John believes the company hired people to scare him and derail the book’s success. The same hecklers would come to John’s book signings, and people followed and took photos of him every time he left his house. None of his mail came for two weeks, and when he finally received it, all the legal documents had been opened. This didn’t stop John, though, and Beneath the Surface was named one of the best books of the year by Amazon and Goodreads.
John also took a risk by being interviewed for Blackfish, which drew significant attention. SeaWorld lost $15.9 million in revenue and attendance declined by 5% in the months after the documentary came out. Numerous musicians scheduled to perform at the parks cancelled their appearances, and brands like Southwest Airlines ended their partnerships with SeaWorld. John’s willingness to speak out had a devastating impact on SeaWorld, and perhaps had even more of an impact than a lawsuit would have.
If you want to blow the whistle on fraud, there are many ways you can alert the public. Even if a False Claims Act lawsuit isn’t available, a lawyer can still help you decide how to move forward and protect yourself. John’s lawyer, Shane Stevenson, helped him deal with retaliation and save his reputation when SeaWorld began a smear campaign against him. It would have been very satisfying to see a massive lawsuit shut SeaWorld down. But John’s efforts were just as admirable and impactful.
Although John couldn’t take advantage of the cash rewards available to whistleblowers under other federal and state laws, there are many laws that protect people like John from retaliation. Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 specifically “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.” That law created OSHA, the agency that today enforces these laws.
If you know of a company treating employees or animals badly we urge you to step forward and report that conduct. We suggest speaking with an employment lawyer first to better understand how you may be protected by anti-retaliation protections.