Persons of The Year 2002: The Whistleblowers


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This was the year when the grief started to lift and the worries came in. During the first weeks of 2002, two dark moods entered the room, two anxieties that rattled down everybody's nerve paths, even on good days, and etched their particulars into the general disposition. To begin with, after Sept. 11, the passage of time drew off the worst of the pain, but every month or so there came a new disturbance--an orange alert, a dance-club bombing in Bali, a surface-to-air missile fired at a passenger jet--that showed us the beast still at our door. In the confrontation with Iraq, in the contested effort to build a homeland defense, we all struggled to regain something like the more secure world we thought we lived in before the towers fell. But every step of the way we wondered--was this the way back? What exactly did we need to be doing differently?

And all the while there was the black comedy of corporate fraud. Who knew that the swashbuckling economy of the '90s had produced so many buccaneers? You could laugh about the CEOs in handcuffs and the stock analysts who turned out to be fishier than storefront palm readers, but after a while the laughs came hard. Martha Stewart was dented and scuffed. Tyco was looted by its own executives. Enron and WorldCom turned out to be Twin Towers of false promises. They fell. Their stockholders and employees went down with them. So did a large measure of public faith in big corporations. Each new offense seemed to make the same point: with communism vanquished, capitalism was left with no real enemies but its own worst impulses. It can be undone by its own overreaching players. It can be bitten to pieces by its own alpha dogs.

Day after day, one set of misgivings twined around the other, keeping spooked investors away from the stock market, giving the whole year its undeniable saw-toothed edge. Were we headed for a world where all the towers would fall? All the more reason to figure out quickly, before the next blow to the system, how to repair the fail-safe operations--in the boardrooms we trusted with our money, at the government agencies we trust with ourselves--that failed.

This is where three women of ordinary demeanor but exceptional guts and sense come into the picture. Sherron Watkins is the Enron vice president who wrote a letter to chairman Kenneth Lay in the summer of 2001 warning him that the company's methods of accounting were improper. In January, when a congressional subcommittee investigating Enron's collapse released that letter, Watkins became a reluctant public figure, and the Year of the Whistle-Blower began. Coleen Rowley is the FBI staff attorney who caused a sensation in May with a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller about how the bureau brushed off pleas from her Minneapolis, Minn., field office that Zacarias Moussaoui, who is now indicted as a Sept. 11 co-conspirator, was a man who must be investigated. One month later Cynthia Cooper exploded the bubble that was WorldCom when she informed its board that the company had covered up $3.8 billion in losses through the prestidigitations of phony bookkeeping.

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