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Whistleblowing for wildlife

  • The National Whistleblower Center (NWC)’s new Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program is launching a secure website and attorney referral service to help people provide tips on wildlife crime and obtain rewards from whistleblower provisions in relevant laws.
  • The program combats wildlife extinction by incentivizing potential whistleblowers to come forward and submit tips confidentially and anonymously.
  • To increase the platform’s impact, the NWC is ramping up outreach and hoping to develop an app in 2017 to facilitate mobile reports.

From the Lacey Act to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), many laws aim to protect wildlife, but the clandestine nature of wildlife crime makes it hard to identify violations. Wildlife crime often sidesteps official surveillance, but those involved in the illegal activity and independent citizens can bear witness to such lawbreaking. As Stephen Kohn, a founder and Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center (NWC), points out in the Environmental Law Reporter, both of those laws—in addition to several others pertaining to wildlife—“include language providing monetary incentives to persons who disclose information about wildlife crimes, but these provisions have not been effectively implemented.”

Wildtech spoke with NWC’s Chief Operating Officer Ashley Binetti earlier this month to learn how the organization’s emerging Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program works to counter wildlife crime and promote conservation by harnessing such whistleblower reward laws. The innovation consists of a secure website where potential whistleblowers can confidentially and anonymously submit intelligence on wildlife crime, as well as an attorney referral service that assists them in delivering their tips to appropriate law enforcement agencies and accessing monetary rewards for their contributions under applicable U.S. laws.

The NWC’s Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program helps whistleblowers securely provide tips on wildlife crime online and receive monetary compensation through legal reward provisions. Photo credit: NWC.

Wildtech: Can you describe the NWC whistleblower platform and its significance for conservation?

Binetti: The NWC has been doing whistleblower advocacy for 30 years. Not too long ago, Stephen Kohn found that important wildlife laws like the Lacey Act and ESA have whistleblower reward provisions whereby if someone provides a tip about a wildlife crime they see happening, they can receive a monetary reward for providing that information to law enforcement. It sparked this new program at the Center where we realized, there’s an incentive to create more tips to combat wildlife trafficking, and it hasn’t been used. The laws have been on the books for 30 years, and no one has activated the whistleblower provisions. That is the motivation behind NWC’s Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program.

Wildtech: When did the NWC start addressing wildlife trafficking?

Binetti: In September, we were announced a Grand Prize Winner by USAID’s Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge. That helped catapult the program onto new ground. People recognized the massive potential this program had. We were fortunate to receive a grant with that grand prize that allowed us to begin implementing the program.

Wildtech: How did the NWC decide to use its whistleblower platform specifically for wildlife trafficking?

Binetti: The laws themselves criminalize the trafficking of animals and parts of animals that are endangered, and provisions within those laws offer monetary rewards to whistleblowers. There’s 40 some-odd U.S. wildlife laws that are incorporated; Lacey also incorporates any endangered species that any other country’s laws have criminalized. The bounds of the program are based on those laws.

None of the NGOs working in wildlife specifically knew or were doing anything with it [whistleblower incentives]. The government agencies responsible for implementing Lacey, ESA and other laws that have whistleblower provisions were not tapping into their massive potential. These laws got put on the books and forgotten about for decades until we were lucky enough to rediscover them.

Illegal big cat products held at USFWS Mountain-Prairie. Photo credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie.

Wildtech: How is applying the platform to wildlife trafficking different from what the NWC has done in the past?

Binetti: The typical areas we work in have been the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), False Claims Act (FCA) and different violations that come before the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Wildlife is a different ballgame; there’s a personalized aspect that you don’t see as much in economic whistleblowing. Animals on the verge of extinction tugs at people’s heartstrings in a different way. That’s cool. We’ve been learning a ton about the wildlife protection laws and how we can best use them with our whistleblower expertise to ameliorate wildlife trafficking. We’re going to bring on a wildlife legal expert to broaden our knowledge of the wildlife laws aspect of this platform.

Wildtech: What’s particularly challenging about applying the platform to wildlife trafficking?

Binetti: With whistleblowing, one of your primary challenges is ensuring the safety of a whistleblower. You also want to incentivize potential whistleblowers to come forward. That’s what’s great about the monetary reward provisions in the laws. In 1986, the FCA, America’s premier anti-fraud law, signed by Abe Lincoln, was amended to include whistleblower rewards. From 1986 to present day, the number of people reporting has exponentially skyrocketed, and the money being brought back that was fraudulently spent has also exponentially increased. There’s a lot of evidence that whistleblower incentives work well, particularly in incentivizing insiders to come forward. Whether it’s the SEC, IRS, FCA, Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), wildlife, these crimes are occurring clandestinely. If you don’t have an insider to provide a tip, you’re not going to learn about the crime. Safety being a priority, part of implementation is the secure platform for receiving an intake. You have incentive and confidentiality. We’re hoping that will encourage whistleblowers to come forward. We need their help. Without them, wildlife trafficking will continue.

Wildtech: At what stage is the Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program currently?

Binetti: We’re about to launch the secure wildlife crime reporting intake form, the heart and soul of the program.  We are also using SecureDrop for whistleblowers who want added protection—through this system they can submit evidence in a way that user identity can’t be traced. It’s critical that whistleblowers are able to report confidentially. We’ve also set up our attorney referral service. Individuals will report on the intake form (or submit information through the SecureDrop platform); intakes that match the program will be set up with an attorney in the referral service who will interview the potential client, assess their case, assess what evidence they have. The form is about to be live with new website material; we’re recruiting attorneys. Because of the publicity we’ve had winning one of the grand prizes and [going] to conferences like the IUCN Congress in Hawaii in September, people know about our project. They’ve independently approached us. There have been cases with potential to be worked on already, and we look forward to receiving more cases once the intake system goes live in January.

Red and green macaws, major victims of wildlife trafficking, at Las Piedras clay lick in Peru. Photo credit: George Powell.

Wildtech: How accessible is the Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program to people in the field?

Binetti: That’s where partnering with organizations on the ground is helpful. We translated the intake form into French and Spanish. We’re looking to expand into more languages, focused on the supply side where trafficking’s occurring in Africa and the demand side where trafficked parts are going, primarily in Asia. We’ll do outreach through Google ads that are translated and webinars that are widely accessible. We’re hoping to develop a mobile app, so if you’re in the field and have your cellphone and cell reception, you can submit the tip on the site.

Wildtech: How big are the rewards?

Binetti: The rewards the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have given out have been small. We’re hoping for the rewards to be much larger. In the Lacey Act, there’s the whistleblower Reward Fund that has at least $500,000. The FCA says you get between 15 and 30 percent of the recovery. With the IRS, Bradley Birkenfeld, the UBS whistleblower who took down the secret Swiss banking system, received $104 million. In the whistleblower programs we’ve seen work well, there’s a relationship between the recovery and the reward. We’re going to work with different agencies and see what rules they’re going to publish. Right now they don’t have a system to designate these awards. The implementing agencies for Lacey, the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, Interior and Agriculture, don’t have an office for this.

You can also use the FCA and FCPA where appropriate. The FCA criminalizes fraud against the government. When you have a customs violation, one theory of liability is under the FCA. There are customs violations when you’re talking about trafficking endangered species or mislabeling types of wildlife you’re bringing in. The great thing is the FCA has strong whistleblower rules; it has proven to be a whistleblower success law. Same with the FCPA under the SEC’s reward program. If you have government officials bribed at ports in wildlife trafficking cases, that’s another theory of liability where you can get wrongdoers under the FCPA. The whistleblower will have an easier time getting a reward at this stage because the SEC has a well-defined, workable whistleblower program. We’re looking at these other laws that have strong whistleblower programs so we can use them in addition to the wildlife laws and while we’re waiting for agencies to implement whistleblower programs.

Wildtech: Do you know of other platforms like the Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program’s? What are its pros and cons in comparison to them?

Binetti: A couple of other platforms allow individuals to report tips; however, our program is secure, which is huge. Other platforms don’t provide for confidentiality or anonymity. User identity can be traced. Those programs aren’t connecting whistleblowers to attorneys who can represent them. You have the secure reporting system with the NWC program, attorney-client confidentiality and an attorney who can marry your tip to the law and help you apply for that whistleblower award. None of the existing programs do that.

Black rhino at Lewa Conservancy, Kenya. The species is critically endangered because of unprecedented poaching resulting from increasing Asian demand for traditional remedies containing rhino horn. Photo credit: George Powell.

Wildtech: What outreach is the Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program doing?

Binetti: Attending the IUCN Congress in September was hugely helpful with outreach. We were able to meet with a ton of intelligent, passionate organizations. We’re exploring what partnerships would be viable and successful for all parties. We need additional funding to do Google ad outreach, not just placement of ads but also translation because we want be widely accessible and don’t want language to be a barrier. We’re going to launch the secure intake form and website pages that will include information about what evidence should you look for, what a successful tip report look[s] like. We’ve published information about the attorney referral service, so potential whistleblowers will know what happens with their tip once they submit it. We’re doing social media outreach through Facebook and Twitter. We have an action alert network online. We compose petitions, and individuals send action alerts to their congresspersons and other influential stakeholders.

Wildtech: How has the NWC been collaborating with conservation groups?

Binetti: We want to partner with as many NGOs as possible. NGOs with experience working on the ground have direct access to whistleblowers [and] observe wildlife trafficking as a part of their daily routine. Tapping into that resource would be beneficial for the program because if we access those potential whistleblowers, then we can stop crimes happening because we have informants who will learn about the program and hopefully be incentivized to come forward. We have worked with the Environmental Law Institute (ELI). We’re cohosting a panel on wildlife whistleblowing, a two-part series in February in D.C. It’ll also be offered as a webinar. We did a webinar for a UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and had over 300 people sign up. We were able to get the word out to a broader audience with international attendance, which was great. We’re partnering with Zoological Society of London (ZSL) [and] the SATAO project, [which] work[s] on the ground in Africa uncovering wildlife crime rings and many others.

Wildtech: What are your hopes for the future of the Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program?

Binetti: My hopes are that we have whistleblowers come forward with helpful tips about trafficking and other wildlife abuses they’re observing, and we’re able to bring their reports to appropriate U.S. agencies and those agencies are able to enforce the law, bring wildlife criminals to justice, honor the whistleblower reward provisions and reward the whistleblowers under the laws. We need the responsible agencies, potential whistleblowers and stakeholders in general to get onboard because if we have that support, the program has the potential to reverse the extinction crisis.

 

Kohn is releasing a 2017 edition of his acclaimed The Whistleblower’s Handbook with a new section on wildlife. As a part of its end-of-year giving campaign, the NWC is holding a promotion where every $30 donation receives a complimentary copy.

 

Banner image: USFWS ivory crush at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on November 14, 2013. Photo credit: Gavin Shire/ USFWS.