Personal finance reporter
Crime doesn’t pay — unless you’re a whistleblower.
An unidentified person who told regulators about illegal activity at a financial institution will walk away with approximately $30 million, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission announced Thursday. It’s the biggest award the watchdog agency has handed out since launching its whistleblower program in 2010.
The CFTC did not disclose which company or companies were implicated by the whistleblower’s revelations, but news reports identified the informant as a Florida financial investigator who alerted authorities about a conflict of interest at JPMorgan Chase JPM, +3.97% . Both the CFTC and JPMorgan Chase declined to comment on the whistleblower’s identity.
The CFTC awarded the payout because the informant provided “specific, timely and credible” information that prompted CFTC staff to launch an investigation, according to a redacted version of the CFTC order authorizing the monetary award.
“We hope that an award of this magnitude will incentivize whistleblowers to come forward with valuable information,” said CFTC chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo.
However, money isn’t necessarily the best incentive to encourage people to step forward with damaging information, research shows.
What really makes whistleblowers come forward
Whistleblowers are often motivated by a strong sense of justice and fairness that outweighs whatever loyalty they feel to their employer, said Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who co-authored a 2015 paper on the psychology of whistleblowers.
“A lot of whistleblowers tend to be folks who feel they have some kind of higher calling,” Waytz said. “Some have a real sense of patriotism, some have a sense of even religiosity. They are people who feel some higher loyalty than the parochial loyalty they feel to the organization they belong to.”
Because of their “moral thrust,” money is not the primary motivator for many whistleblowers, he said. For example, a Deutsche Bank whistleblower refused an $8 million payout from the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2016 because regulators had only fined the company and not punished the executives responsible for the wrongdoing. (A Deutsche Bank spokeswoman declined to comment at the time.)
Famed whistleblower Edward Snowden said he felt compelled to give up a “comfortable life” (and a six-figure job) to leak classified documents to the press exposing the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans. “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building,” Snowden told the Guardian in 2013.
A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study of whistleblowers in the pharmaceutical industry found that financial gain wasn’t what pushed people to come forward. Instead, informants were motivated by “integrity, altruism or public safety, justice and self-preservation.”
People tend to underestimate whistleblowers’ “pro-social” motivations, meaning their desire to help others, said James Dungan, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business who coauthored the 2015 whistleblower study. In fact, offering huge payouts as a way to entice more whistleblowing could actually have the opposite effect, he told MarketWatch.
Big rewards may actually backfire
While whistleblowers themselves may only be motivated by moral considerations, outsiders may fixate on the money, Dungan said. “It’s possible that adding extremely large incentives for blowing the whistle may backfire by simultaneously increasing the backlash that whistleblowers often receive from their peers,” Dungan said in an email. In other words, people may think, “They don’t care about the company, they are only in it for the money,” he added.
Who is the typical whistleblower? Previous research has suggested that employees who are likely to reveal wrongdoing tend to be higher-ranking, well-paid men who have been with the organization longer than others. That could be because more powerful people are less likely to be punished for violating an organization’s sense of unity. It’s illegal for companies to retaliate against workers who alert authorities about wrongdoing, said CFTC spokeswoman Donna Faulk-White
But whistleblowers aren’t always employees. “A whistleblower need not be an insider; under our program, any member of the public can be a whistleblower, including a harmed investor or other market participant,” Faulk-White said.
Huge payouts could shrink soon
The CFTC considers several factors in determining the size of whistleblower awards, including the significance of the information and how helpful the whistleblower is to investigators, Faulk-White said. Under CFTC rules, the awards must be between 10% and 30% of the total amount the agency collects in the resulting enforcement action.
Prior to this award, the highest ever amount given to a CFTC whistleblower was $10 million in 2016. In 2017, the CFTC saw a 28% drop in enforcement actions, with the agency collecting $413 million in fines or penalties, down from $1.29 billion in the previous year.
Earlier this year the Securities and Exchange Commission awarded its highest ever payouts, when one whistleblower received $33 million and another two split nearly $50 million. Those big payouts prompted the SEC in June to propose limiting whistleblower awards, over concerns they may be getting “too large,” according to the proposal.
An attorney who represents whistleblowers called the proposed limits a “bad idea.” “It could deter whistleblowers from disclosing the largest frauds,” attorney Jason Zuckerman told MarketWatch in June. “Significantly, whistleblowers have been instrumental in halting ongoing fraud schemes. Congress wisely chose not to impose a cap on SEC whistleblower awards and the SEC should refrain from doing so.”