Southwestern whistleblowers come forward

Brown, J. R.; Final Horse Charge of Richard III at Bosworth Field
Richard III makes his final charge at the Battle of Bosworth Hill

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ve noticed a steady stream of reports about questionable expenditures from several administrative officials, including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the Secretary of the Treasury, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the list goes on.  There are also stories swirling that administration officials may have retaliated against whistleblowers who shined the spotlight on their lavish spending.

What you may not know is that whistleblowers — and the protection of them — is a critical tool in the quest for integrity, transparency, and accountability for any public or private institution.

Amid some of the early stories about excessive spending by Trump Administration officials, I was contacted last September by a student worker at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who offered information about the school’s financial disarray. I listened carefully, took notes, and asked the student to begin taking pictures of invoices, purchase orders, and copying other internal accounting documents and correspondence.

And then, I asked the student to send it all to me. The student worker was hesitant, fearing retaliation from the seminary administration in general and from Dorothy and Paige Patterson in particular. Indeed, I know all too well how a decision to expose fraud can exact an emotional and financial toll, as well as cause ostracism among peers who were once considered friends. Nevertheless, the student worker was convinced that truth and integrity are more important than invitations to afternoon tea at Pecan Manor.

Thus I began receiving documentation that sounds alarms about dishonest accounting and a pattern of frivolous expenditures at Southwestern, much like emerged at Southeastern in the final days of the Patterson administration.

Several years ago I had a leading role in writing two major reports of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. One dealt with the Countrywide Financial scandal in which high profile congressional leaders received preferential mortgage terms in exchange for political favors. The other report unraveled the ACORN organization, ultimately ending lucrative government contracts for ACORN, enacting an outright ban on future taxpayer funding, and ultimately leading to Chapter 7 liquidation and dissolution.

Through that process — and dating back to my own experience uncovering waste, fraud, and abuse in entities of the Southern Baptist Convention — I learned the value of cultivating whistleblowers. Men and women of conscience who quietly do their work until one day, something snaps.

They can no longer sit and watch the glaring hypocrisy and the greed. But they don’t know where to turn. Everyone, it seems, has been compromised. They go through four of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. But they never allow themselves to accept what they have witnessed. They know it shouldn’t be this way, and they resolve to do something about it. They face the ordinary fears, and they take extraordinary action. They stare deceit and complicity in the face, and they refuse to flinch. They find courage — or it finds them — and they initiate the kind of reckoning many have anticipated but few could stomach.

In recent weeks, a number of current and former faculty, staff, students and trustees of Southwestern Seminary have contacted me, offering to provide additional information. Some of it is about new buildings on campus. Some of it is longstanding rumors yet unsubstantiated. Some of the information points to misleading and potentially falsified government and accreditation filings. In the meantime, a handful of denominational leaders have emailed or called to tell me what they know (or have heard) about Southwestern’s decline, the root causes of the decline, and the singular responsibility of its president and “First Lady” for that decline.

Thus have Southern Baptists arrived at a moment that could have been avoided. The convention could have been spared. The Pattersons could have written the closing chapters of their shared ministry without further scandal.

But some dogs love their own vomit too much.

The growing sense of their own irrelevance — dare we call it impotence — amid the decline has maddened them. Their eccentricities — both personal and theological — have metastasized. The once idiosyncratic programme for Anabaptist revitalization has taken the seminary to the lowest enrollment in more than four decades. Faculty are demoralized due to heavier work loads, fewer students, and sweeping cuts to their own retirement benefits while the president constructs yet another multi-million dollar home for himself on campus. And everyone watches while the tragedy plays out. Some are bitter. Most are just sad.

The image is powerful: Paige and Dorothy Patterson, increasingly isolated from reality, stand in the smoke and haze of the many battles fought and all the blood spilled demanding more sacrifices from the weakened remnants of an army in retreat.

“A horse,” they cry, “Our kingdom for a horse.”

It’s not funny anymore. Maybe it never was. But it has to stop.

Southwestern whisteblowers are already emerging, and more will surely follow.

With that in mind, I thought it might be provident to publish a partial list of items investigators find useful when attempting to sort through whistleblower claims of potentially fraudulent administrative acts:

  1. Unedited and unredacted copies of internal purchase orders, invoices, accounting reports, balance sheets, administrative memoranda or other documents concerning the expenses associated with administrative or executive housing.
  2. Unedited and unredacted emails from administrative officers or staff detailing expenses associated with the executive travel, compensation, reimbursements, office furnishings, and the use of official personnel and resources for private/personal services.
  3. Legally obtained audio and/or video recordings of private and/or administrative meetings with agency officials that include discussions about inordinate, illegal, or unauthorized expenditures. This may include but is not limited to event planning meetings, official and unofficial travel, furniture and food expenditures, maintenance, and the use of domestic staffing.
  4. Unedited and unredacted emails between officials in which concerns were raised about the costs associated with the executive’s home, travel, office or potential misuse of official property and/or funds by the same.
  5. Unedited and unredacted emails from officials concerning the potentially punitive suspension, elimination, or reduction of employment or employment benefits for current and former staff.
  6. Evidence of efforts by officials to conceal or falsify accurate reports from auditors, the appropriate oversight authority, or the public.
  7. Evidence of efforts to conceal spending authorized by agency officials or questionable accounting for the use of official funds on the organization’s executive or that person’s family and friends.
  8. Evidence of abuse of authority, mismanagement, or potentially criminal violations of state or federal laws by officials.

Whistleblowers are advised of the following:

  1. Do not use an official email account to send information either to yourself or another person.
  2. Do not tell any colleague, spouse, friend or family member of your intention to share information.
  3. Do not use agency-owned computers, cell phones, or other technology to capture screenshots or scan/print documents.
  4. Do not seek to gain unauthorized access to official property, records, or IT infrastructure.
  5. Do not seek to transmit information electronically using the official servers.
  6. Do not attempt to seek, copy or share financial or sensitive personal records directly or indirectly in any way that violates local, state, or federal laws.