A voice for others
Lerner had never been a whistleblower or represented one before taking the five-year appointment, but she arrived with a reputation for fairness, and the Senate approved her nomination unanimously. Growing up in Detroit in the civil rights era — and with a grandfather who was jailed in Czarist Russia for criticizing the government — she learned that “I needed to stand up for those who couldn’t protect themselves,” she says.
Just don’t call her a flamethrower.
When her office revealed the findings at Dover, the media gantlet made her nervous. In 20 years in private practice, she had been on television once. She hates being the focus of attention.
Lerner, who lives in Chevy Chase and is on the board of a nonprofit group that advocates for workers with family responsibilities, is married to a lawyer and has two teenagers. She actively promotes telework and flex time for her staff — and dreams of a puppy she can bring to the office. (In her short spare time, she’s a matchmaker, boasting that she has put two married couples together.)
She’s also gracious and deferential, hesitating to opine on a subject unless she knows exactly what she’s talking about (“Let me refresh myself on the facts on that”).
Her supporters insist that her placid appearance masks a tenacious approach to her job.
“She’s a pit bull,” says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, which defends whistleblowers. “Most effective advocates go out of their way to keep their personalities out of it.”
Lerner prefers the mediation room to the courtroom.
“Virtually every case, if you can get people to sit down and talk, can be resolved,” she says. Workplace disputes can be messy. Sometimes an employee who feels wronged just wants an apology, or the parties can agree on a change that would improve his morale — even if a court would not convict his employer.
“A lot of times, we would shake our head at the creativity,” said Stephen Chertkof, one of Lerner’s former law partners. “Through force of persuasion, she would resolve a huge percentage of cases.”
Whistleblowers come in many sizes, shapes and mental states. They’re either embraced as heroes or maligned as snitches, the tendency of many managers.
Every president since the special counsel’s office was created under Jimmy Carter has told whistleblowers they have a friend in the White House. But it hasn’t always worked out that way.
The agency has been largely irrelevant, whistleblower advocates say — languishing under Carter, gutted under Ronald Reagan and embroiled in scandal under George W. Bush, whose appointee, Scott Bloch, purged the staff of lawyers who disagreed with him and announced that he would not follow up on cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bloch pleaded guilty last summer to scrubbing his computer while under investigation for retaliating against his staff.