It’s clear that people inside a company could commit fraud and get away with it, despite a company’s best efforts. But I don’t think it can happen in a widespread way when a company has basic compliance systems in place. The best way to connect the dots from the sleazy practices on the ground to people at high levels was to say, “Okay, they had these compliance people in place. Did they do their jobs? And if they did, what happened to them?”
In late 2010, at the Center for Public Integrity, I got a tip about a whistleblower case involving someone who worked at a high level at Countrywide. This is Eileen Foster, who had been an executive vice president, the top fraud investigator. She was claiming before OSHA that she was fired for reporting widespread fraud, but also for trying to protect other whistleblowers within the company who were reporting fraud at the branch and regional levels. The interesting thing is that no one in the government had ever contacted her! In September 2011, this became, “Countrywide Protected Fraudsters by Silencing Whistleblowers, say Former Employees,” one of CPJ’s best-read stories of the year; 60 Minutes followed with its own interview of Foster, in a segment called, “Prosecuting Wall Street.” It was very exciting.
There needs to be more investigative reporting of problems that are going on now, rather than post-mortems about financial disasters or crashes or bankruptcies that have already happened. And that’s hard to do. It takes a real commitment from a news organization, because you’re working on these stories for a long time, and market players you’re writing about do some real pushback. But there needs to be more of this early-warning journalism.