Haugen reached out to the Washington, D.C.,-based agency for help sometime earlier this year. It provides free legal representation for whistleblowers who otherwise would receive little help and provides them with support, which has included armed bodyguards, electronic communications devices customized for security and even therapy for clients who have experienced trauma.
Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing has historically been a solitary and perilous experience. Most people cannot afford a highly paid legal team to further their cause, and the fear of a prison sentence or a lawsuit deters many from speaking up. Whistleblower Aid hopes to change the dynamics by offering discounted or free services so that more whistleblowers can come forward to expose corruption and other malfeasance.
“These companies and governments are getting more and more powerful, and it is a scary world for a whistleblower,” said Libby Liu, chief executive of Whistleblower Aid, in an interview. “Nobody should have to compromise their own conscience because they’re so scared of their employer.”
The organization was pushed into the spotlight earlier this week, as Politico reported that one of the charity’s backers was Pierre Omidyar, who made grants to the organization in 2019 and 2020. Omidyar has not earmarked any donation to Haugen directly, Whistleblower Aid says, and the money he did give went to the general fund and was already spent by the time Haugen was taken on as a client.
A person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter said Omidyar will continue to support Whistleblower Aid. Omidyar has also supported Haugen directly by helping her with media strategy, this person said. It also plans to pay for some of her travel expenses, as she has been flying to testify in front of government bodies and other groups.
For the nonprofit, which has a $2 million-per-year budget, the decision to bring Haugen on as a client meant spending a huge percentage of its funds on one case, and it was unable to raise new funding for the case because of the secrecy surrounding it.
After a nerve-wracking period of uncertainty about where the charity would find funding, it’s received an influx of money from donors over the past week, and the firm is finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think that her impact is definitely resonating,” said Liu, citing as one factor Time magazine’s decision to put her story on the cover, along with a photo illustration of Mark Zuckerberg and the question “Delete Facebook?”
Haugen worked on Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, focusing on misinformation and counterespionage. After first trying to change the company from within, she decided the only route was to go public, and set out to methodically document Facebook’s internal machinery by taking screenshots of company research and messages. Those documents formed the basis of a series of stories in the Wall Street Journal that highlighted, among other things, the harmful effects that its platforms have on young girls.
Whistleblowers like Haugen can take documents from companies and even top-secret government agencies without legal repercussions because of existing laws meant to protect people who report wrongdoing. Lawyers specializing in whistleblower law sometimes take the cases on a contingency basis, usually because the whistleblower stands to gain a financial reward for coming forward.
Whistleblower Aid is unusual because it often represents whistleblowers who do not stand to gain significant financial rewards, Liu says. In Haugen’s case, there is a possible financial reward for reporting alleged securities fraud by Facebook. But as with most whistleblower cases, success is far from guaranteed and the process will likely take years. Whistleblower Aid said it hired three law firms, including two firms in California and one in Colorado, a public relations firm and temporary staff working on redacting documents for Congress. It has also covered Haugen’s flights to Washington, D.C. The complicated nature of securities law means lawyers can charge upward of $2,000 an hour.
To help whistleblowers navigate the legal maze, Whistleblower Aid was founded in 2017 by John Napier Tye, a Yale Law School grad and Rhodes Scholar who, as a U.S. Department of State official, exposed an NSA effort to conduct warrantless searches of Americans’ emails and phone calls.
When Tye was planning to blow the whistle in 2014, he hired an attorney to navigate the process within the bounds of the law, but it cost him $13,000 in legal fees, a sum that many would-be government whistleblowers cannot afford. Now, Whistleblower Aid covers those legal fees for its clients and provides them with everything from legal services to armed bodyguards to electronic devices customized for security.
Ronan Farrow, a contributing writer for the New Yorker who has written stories that relied on whistleblowers represented by Whistleblower Aid, said in an email that it has helped those who have taken risks to provide him information. “The kind of expert legal representation whistleblowers often need is in surprisingly limited supply,” he wrote. “In those cases they’ve played an important role filling that void and helping sources to navigate the process of coming forward.”
Whistleblower Aid has also tried to push the message that whistleblowing is not some untoward activity, but a noble one specifically protected by law and encouraged with financial incentives. It purchased ads on the D.C. Metro that said “Legal advice for patriots. Affordable and confidential,” and paid human billboards to walk around the streets, teeming with government workers, that read “Report government lawbreaking. lawfully.”
Whistleblower Aid has also represented whistleblowers who derailed congressional confirmations of presidential appointees. Its clients exposed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s financial ties to Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with sex trafficking just before his suicide, and revealed the activities of Black Cube, hired by film producer Harvey Weinstein to spy on journalists investigating him, including Farrow.
“That’s a remarkable body of work for a new organization and a testament to how well they do it, and to the benefit it provides the public,” said Ian Bassin, co-founder and executive director of Protect Democracy, a pro-democracy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
When it was approached by Haugen, Whistleblower Aid began reaching out to people who had backed the organization in the past, including the Omidyar Network. Unable to provide any detail about the case, it did not receive a single grant to help offset Haugen’s fees.
Liu was almost certain that once the details came out, the impact would attract donors, and went ahead with Haugen’s case anyway. “It is a gamble. A lot can go wrong, but you know, we knew what we were handling. We just couldn’t talk about it,” Liu said.
Liu became more optimistic after she began working on the Haugen effort. “We were digging in on the case. We were going through the documents, we were doing the analysis, we were doing legal filings to make her case. As the work progressed, so did our confidence and our faith in what was going to happen afterwards,” she said.
Haugen revealed her identity on “60 Minutes” on Oct. 3. The revelations made international headlines. But the donations did not immediately come pouring in, Liu said. After Haugen went public, Whistleblower Aid launched a GoFundMe page, with a fundraising goal of $100,000. It has raised $58,707 from 946 donors, according to the website.
Whistleblower Aid had still spent multiples more than the donations and was beginning to stretch thin. But late last week, something changed. Big backers started coming out of the woodwork.
“Maybe it’s not the wisest thing in the world to try to raise money on something that we couldn’t talk about,” Liu said. “After they can put a name and face and dozens of news stories around this thing, then it’s much easier for them to conceptualize what they’re supporting.”
It still hasn’t brought in enough to offset the cost of Haugen’s case, but the organization is relieved for the latest funding, said Liu and Tye. They believe it took a little bit of time for the impact to sink in. Haugen has appeared before Congress and talked on “60 minutes,” and Facebook is now considering changing its name.
“Let that sink in. They’re changing the name from Facebook. I mean, clearly, people are paying attention,” Tye said.