Germany's respected Handelsblatt, that country's parallel to the Wall Street Journal, recently devoted an entire section and a featured interview to the deliberate and ongoing crushing of American Michael Winston's finances and spirit by one of our country's largest banks.
"A Life Like in the Detective Novel" was the headline, and the article traced Winston's frustrating path from the time in 2005 when he discovered full-scale fraud at Countrywide, their attempts to get him to make false statements to Moody's rating agency, their board members lying under oath, forged documents, and the triumph in 2011in receiving an award of $3.8 million in compensation in a jury trial.
In the U.S., that caused him to became a 2011 media -- if not banking industry -- hero.
A New York Times headline screamed: "How a Whistleblower Conquered Countrywide." The Consumer Rights Publication, The Corporate Observer, applauded journalist Gretchen Morgan for the story and for "continuing to 'shine a light on practices in American business that -- while not pretty -- must be exposed.'" It declared:
"The story has a happy ending. In a jury trial against Countrywide and Bank of America, Michael Winston prevails and the jury awards him $3.8 million. For Mr. Winston, surely a man of principle, it likely not just about the money."
Three Years Later -- Not Quite a Happy Ending
Winston never received one penny (pfennig, to my German readers) of the damages.
The new owner of Countrywide, the Bank of America, began to use its money, might and influence to overturn the jury's verdict and judgment and to do to Michael Winston what every malfeasant business wants to do with those who break ranks and reveal dark secrets -- break them financially and have that experience serve as a clear message to other employees of the dangers inherent in truth-telling.
"In case you were thinking of trying this..."
Incomprehensibly, a California Court of Appeals, was persuaded to open the case again -- even though no new evidence was offered and even though Winston was not invited to attend the hearing by the three members of that court.
In February, 2013, the jury verdict and judgment were thrown out by these fine, robed gentlemen. Nullified! They (the court) declared Winston had failed to make his case. A stunned Winston responded:
The real story is that the appeals court can manipulate facts, law and legal issues to justify the conclusions they want to reach. I have learned firsthand that the case one reads about in the published opinion can bear little resemblance to the case actually presented to the lower court.
To make matters worse, judges have absolute immunity to any suit seeking remedy for grossly erroneous decisions no matter how negligently, recklessly or maliciously the judge acted in depriving a deserving party of a just judgment. This is almost farcical. Who judges the judges?
Not only did BofA successfully turn away every attempt by Winston to get a higher review, it then set about to sue him for their "costs" of defending their case - to the tune of over $100,000 in legal fees.
No crystal ball needed here: they won their suit and enforced the judgment this month, proving once again that a bottomless checkbook and compliant guns-for-hire white-shoe law firms will serve you well in seeing that justice be damned.
Winston tapped the last of his resources to write out that check.
Apparently, this is what caught the attention of the Handelsblatt, but not the big guns of the American press. One incensed American journalist/blogger, Diane Dimond, heard of the final $100,000 extortion success by BofA, and had this to say:
If a top-tier executive can't prevail blowing the whistle on a corrupt company, if the feds fail to pursue prison terms, and if a jury's verdict can be over-turned without the opportunity to appeal -- what kind of signal does that send to the dishonest?
You know the answer. We're telling them it is OK to put profit above everything else. We're telling them to continue their illegal behaviors because there will be no prison time for them. At worst, they may only have to part with a slice of their ill-gotten gains.
This is not the way the justice system is supposed to work.
Mind you, this is the same bank that a federal jury found liable for fraud by their Countrywide Financial unit to the tune of $848 million in October, 2013, the bank which has paid out countless millions in compensation to victimized home mortgage holders, and barely survived a $1.5BB lawsuit finding them tapping Social Security benefits to pay off customer debt.
This is the same bank that settled lawsuits filed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for $9.5 billion and, according to the Wall Streeet Journal, is currently in talks with the Justice Department to attempt settlement -- for $18 billion -- of mortgage fraud claims.
This is the same bank that picked $100,000 from the pocket of an annoying whistleblower as a final injury to add to this court-mandated insult and as a warning to those watching from the sidelines. And then to walk away.
Now, that is newsworthy! If you speak German, perhaps.
So, Why the German Press and Not Ours?
Even odder this, considering that there is no word in the German language that approximates "whistleblower" and the act of whistleblowing. "Informant" is negatively connoted, and too imperfect to capture in their language the sense of this dangerous exercise in honesty. Wherefore the interest?
"In Germany there are no laws to protect whistleblowers or to serve as an incentive for whistleblowing," Johannes Ludwig, a professor at Hamburg's University of Applied Sciences and a board member of Germany's Whistleblower Netzwerk, told Deutsche Welle. "In the US there is both ... whistleblowing ... serves the purpose to improve things, are not as developed in Germany as they are in other countries."
Also, formal channels exist for employees encountering wrongdoing to reveal that information in Europe -- by way of works councils and worker representatives on boards. Something that obviously does not exist, or ever will, within the American Banking System.
Only Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia and the UK have laws that include "comprehensive or near comprehensive" procedures for whistleblowers. Sweden's legal framework for whistleblowers, its Freedom of Information Law passed almost 250 years ago, provides the "de facto" protection for those who expose wrongdoing, even though there is no dedicated law.
Still, the U.S. considers itself to be exceptional in the way it protects the rights of whistleblowers and as it welcomes their outings of corporate "baddies." This proves to be as worthy to fit into American claims of "exceptionalism" as do our claims about our schools, medicine, democratic social structures, and transparent government. Not, not, not, not and not.
We are not exceptional in the way we treat those who brave everything to bring truth to light, and we shouldn't have to rely on a German publication to stand up for Americans who do.
Given that the U.S. press looks more for headlines than for content, and is increasingly criticized for serving its corporate advertisers and not its audience, exactly where can Michael Winston go to promote his cause, press his case, and -- finally -- see him vindicated and rewarded?
It's gonna have to be independent bloggers, the likes of which we have here on The Huffington Post and elsewhere (here's my earliest notice of Michael Winston, a radio interview with him almost a year ago) and throughout the cybersphere.
As bloggers, we don't have to buy ink by the barrel to do this, thankfully. Nothing is less expensive than bits and bytes we employ...but it will take a universe of them to reach the audience which needs to hear this story, to become outraged by it, and then to put the pressure on the powers-that-be.
I am certain that every fair and justice-minded journalist in social media regrets that you had to write out that check, Mr. Winston.
Perhaps, just perhaps, together we can get the court of public opinion to reverse the charges and vacate the wrongful judgment reversing a jury verdict that was the product of a near month-long trial and two and a half days of careful jury deliberation.
And, we shouldn't have to be "Deutsch sprechende" to get someone's attention.