Copyright © 2003 Henrietta W. Hay
Women of the Year
January 10, 2003
Since 1923 Time Magazine has been choosing a Person of the Year, someone
who truly left a stamp on the world, be it good or bad. Such widely
diverse persons as Charles Lindbergh, Queen Elizabeth, Joseph Stalin,
Martin Luther King, Jr. and King Faisal have been named.
This year the cover shows three women whom most of us have never heard
of, or only incidentally as we skim the news stories. They are Cynthia
Cooper of WorldCom, Coleen Rowley of the FBI and Sherron Watkins of
Enron. They are Whistleblowers. They left a stamp on the world. And
they took major risks. All are wives and mothers who are the main
breadwinners of their families.
In choosing the three women for the cover, Time said, "In a year that
saw our trust in American institutions tested so severely, what better
way to capture that news than to profile three ordinary people who in
extraordinary ways tried to restore confidence in business and
As children we are taught not to tattle -- not to tell something just to
get somebody in trouble. As adults we know that gossip and false
accusations can ruin reputations and careers.
But there are actions that we have a moral obligation to report Those
who have the courage to do that are called Whistleblowers.
Coleen Rowley is a special FBI agent in Minneapolis. Last May she
wrote a 13 page memo outlining how the Bureau had ignored repeated
requests from her office to take seriously the case of Zacarias
Moussaoui, a French-Moroccan who spoke poor English and had signed up at
a local flight school to learn how to fly a 747. She added two
sentences to her memo asking for federal whistle blower protection, not
knowing how weak a shield that was. She was called to Washington for a
private interview with staff members of the House and Senate, and later
when she testified in the open, the memo became public. She has
received bitter criticism within the FBI but still remains faithful to
the Bureau. We will never know what would have happened if someone had
listened to her.
Cynthia Cooper grew up in Clinton, Mississippi and was proud of her
town when WorldCom, a global communications giant established its
headquarters there. Cynthia became president of the internal audit
division. But then last June she told the audit committee of WorldCom's
Board, then the 25th biggest company in the country, that there were
major flaws in its accounting practices. The company had inflated its
profits by $3.8 billion which has grown to $9 billion, the largest
accounting fraud in history. Cooper had spent her career trying to get
the higher ups to take her internal audit division seriously. She was
never thanked personally by a single executive at WorldCom, has lost 30
pounds but she still goes to work every day in a nearly empty building.
Sherron Watkins had risen to the position of vice-president of Enron,
the 7th largest company in America. In the spring of 2001 she was
charged with finding some assets to sell off. She discovered
questionable off-the-books records. She wrote two memos to Kenneth Lay
warning of an extensive accounting hoax. On one she wrote in the
margin, "There it is! This is the smoking gun. You cannot do this."
Lay agreed to have his attorneys look into it. We all know what
happened then. Six months later she had been demoted 33 floors and was
asking security for advice on self defense. In November she left her
$165,000 job. Texas law does not protect whistle blowers.
As highlighted in Time, Whistleblowers can have an extraordinary impact
on the protection of the public interest and public safety. In a year
celebrating heroes on the action front, let's not forget the quiet
heroes who put the public good ahead of their own security.