In 1992, Joanna Gualtieri joined the Foreign Affairs department of the government as a realty strategist and was quickly sent to Tokyo. While there, she learned that Canada's main diplomatic compound was valued at more than $2 billion. She also discovered that taxpayers were paying $350,000 a year to rent accommodations for a trade official in Tokyo while a government-owned mansion worth $18 million sat empty for more than three years.
Gualtieri reported the waste and extravagance, but her superiors ignored her concerns for six years. “Whistleblowers face a formidable task to report,” said Gualtieri during the lunch session at the 2018 ACFE Fraud Conference Canada. “With much at stake, an organization instinctively, like a cornered rat, fights for survival — extinguishing the whistleblower to protect their institution.”
According to Gualtieri, some criticized her for staying in the organization for too long. “A whistleblower almost always starts internally, working up the ladder,” she said. “It’s the intuitive place to begin. … They aren’t looking for fame or the spotlight, or to sabotage their bosses or the workplace. They are looking to tell the truth and to make their organizations better. This is what I did.”
But Gualtieri eventually decided that rather than stay silent, she’d take her story public. She took unpaid leave in 1998, filed a $6-million harassment lawsuit against the government and founded the whistleblower organization FAIR (the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform). She never returned to her job.
For 12 years Gualtieri was locked in a legal battle with the government. At one point, she said, the courts ordered her to pay $360,000 in costs — on top of what she already owed in legal fees. Just as the case was ready to go to court, she was offered the chance to sign a confidentiality agreement and settle. “Eight years later I realize gagging myself was a heavy price to pay,” said Gualtieri. “The government used all its might to neuter my advocacy.”
Gualtieri’s path to whistleblower and beyond was difficult. “I increasingly lost the ability to enjoy anything in my life,” she said. “But I am not unique. For every Joanna there are thousands screaming to be heard.”
So, what, then, are the solutions?
“The narrative told about whistleblowing is rather bleak,” said Gualtieri. “But the future, in my view, is not.” She encouraged governments to institute strong whistleblower protection laws with no loopholes. Leadership is the essential cornerstone of any change movement, said Gualtieri, so the way forward requires principle and unwavering commitment.
“Your organization has shown leadership and courage by fostering this dialogue,” said Gualtieri. “Others need to do the same. We need to empower people’s right to tell the truth.
“It is a pleasure to be part of your conference,” she finished. “I’m honored to speak amongst such distinguished guests and I’m grateful to your organization for putting whistleblowing at the forefront of the conversation.”