LAW 6951: Whistleblowers and Business Integrity, a new class in the Cornell Law School, aims to change society’s typically negative perception of whistleblowers and mold future generations of lawyers, according to Dean of the Law School Stewart Schwab.
“There’s a lot of negative synonyms for ‘whistleblower’ and very few positive ones –– ‘snitch,’ ‘weasel,’ words like that ... The easiest thing is to do nothing and turn a blind eye. To step up and say ‘This is wrong’ is very difficult, and there are very frequently personal consequences,” Schwab said. “There’s no doubt that this is a major issue in this country, and I hope that our law students will be aware of that as they go out and start their careers.”
Schwab said he hopes to introduce students to the emerging field of fraud law and encourage students to uphold a high level of corporate and legal integrity.
“[Fraud law] is a growing and important area of the law and legal practice –– the amount of fraud against the United States government is estimated to be around hundreds of billions of dollars,” Schwab said. “The IRS has an estimated $400 billion in unpaid taxes each year. So one of the main focuses of the class is involving public citizens in public law enforcement.”
Schwab said that “technical details” are a focus of the class; students analyze and compare different instances of whistleblowers who claimed government fraud and listen to panels made up of attorneys and whistleblowers. Schwab also emphasized that “the underlying issue [of the course] is promoting corporate integrity — ensuring that businesses do follow the law and don’t engage in fraudulent schemes against the government.”
The class has been in the works for the past few years, according to Schwab. He said he and Neil Getnick ’78 both thought “that [the Law School] should teach a class like this.”
“Things kept getting in the way, but we finally decided to do it,” Schwab said.
Schwab said the class has tried to include a variety of different perspectives, including “the lawyers who represent the whistleblowers, the lawyers who defend the companies accused of fraud and government lawyers who get nvolved in the case.”
Past guest speakers have included Eric Schneiderman, the New York State attorney general; John Phillips, a lawyer who helped draft the revised 1986 Federal Claims Act; and Cheryl Eckhardt, a whistleblower who was awarded $96 million after exposing pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline’s fraudulent behavior.
Monday’s panel included attorneys Shelley Slade, David Chizewer and Brian Kenney, who gave a combined presentation on healthcare fraud and employees complaints of illegal behavior in the pharmaceutical industry. Members of the panel emphasized the the relevance of whistleblowing in the modern era.
Schawb said whistleblower law has changed a lot throughout its history. He said that the False Claims Act was passed during the Civil War era to introduce liability for individuals and companies trying to defraud the government, and was later revamped in the mid-1980s under President Ronald Reagan. More recently, he said, whistleblower cases have primarily focused on the medical industry, including Medicare fraud and claims against major pharmaceutical companies.
In the class Monday, Slade also addressed the evolution of the False Claims Act.
“In the last decade or so, the False Claims Act has become much bigger –– in general, it’s much more of a factor now than it was 30 years ago. The law was amended in 1986 to give whistleblowers more protection and more incentive [to speak out],” Slade said.
Slade credited former Attorney General Janet Reno with the increased prosecution of companies –– in particular, publicly traded pharmaceutical corporations and hospital chains –– that have been accused of defrauding the federal government.
Chizewer added that there has been a culture shift in the healthcare industry in the years since the False Claims Act was revised.
“I think the ‘sales culture’ has invaded the healthcare profession,” Chizewer said. “Pharmaceutical companies and hospital chains have become more business-focused. The government’s health care spending is skyrocketing, so with that spending, there’s increased fraud and an increased need for whistleblowers.”
Both Schwab and Chizewer emphasized the need for increased education about the Federal Claims Act, especially among top students who are pulled toward defense work or going to a large law firm.
Lisa Zhang law said she appreciated the class’ focus on real-world applications of whistleblowing laws.
“I really liked how we went into detail with comparing the two complaints, what the differences are and how that would matter in terms of litigation. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about this area –– it might be something I want to go into later in my career,” Zhang said. “This area is still relatively new. There’s still so much potential for growth.”