Evellyn Santos, director of the documentary film The Poison Garden about racial injustice in Florida, accepts the Impact Award from Whistleblower Summit Co-Director Michael McCray on July 30 at the National Press Club. [Source: Photo courtesy of Jeremy Kuzmarov]

Whistleblowers past and present, who fought against injustices and exposed the truth about government malpractice, were honored at an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on July 30 featuring a tribute to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

The event was part of the 11th Annual Whistleblowers Summit and Film Festival, which aims to celebrate whistleblowers and lobby for better protections and legislation to help whistleblowers.

The summit included a presentation by JFK Secret Service whistleblower Abraham Bolden, and other panel discussions from journalists, academics and whistleblower advocates, including panels hosted by the Justice Integrity Project, Coalition for Change (C4C), and the Government Accountability Project (GAP), as well as a panel on the need for law enforcement reform and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Marcel Reid, festival director and chair of the Washington, D.C., ACORN, said at the July 30 National Press Club event that whistleblowers often face tremendous hardships and that there was no turning back to their former lives once they decided to blow the whistle and expose government wrongdoing.

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Marcel Reid [Source: Photo courtesy of Jeremy Kuzmarov]

The co-host of the July 30 event, Michael McCray, from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, became a whistleblower in the 1990s while working for Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community (EZ/EC), a Clinton administration program established to provide federal assistance to boost economic development in distressed communities around the U.S.

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Michael McCray [Source: Photo courtesy of Jeremy Kuzmarov]

He exposed $40 million worth of waste and fraud being carried out under the direction of Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy (1993-1994), a Clinton appointee and former Mississippi Congressman accused of taking bribes from Tyson Foods, whose president and CEO Don Tyson was a major donor to Bill Clinton going back to when Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

Espy was channeling money from EZ/EC to districts in Mississippi in order to boost the electoral prospects of his brother Henry, who was running to fill his former congressional seat.[1]

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy with Bill Clinton in 1993. [Source: wikipedia.org]

McCray had worked for EZ/EC, monitoring grants with the goal of helping communities like the one he grew up in the Arkansas Delta, which had been rated one of the worst places to live in America, but the Espys’ scam diminished EZ/EC’s ability to genuinely help those communities.

When McCray reported what was going on, McCray lost his job and then his fiancée and hit rock bottom for a time.

To add insult to injury, Espy was acquitted after being indicted on corruption charges and Clinton granted his request to issue presidential pardons to people associated with him, including a Tyson Foods executive (Archie Schaffer III) and lobbyist (Jack L. Williams), Espy’s chief of staff (Ronald Blackley), and three others convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Henry Espy (James H. Lake, Alvarez Ferrouillet Jr. and John Hemmingson).

In 2007, McCray said he became involved with other whistleblowers with whom he felt a kinship and began organizing events on Capitol Hill that led to the creation of the now-annual whistleblower summit and film festival.

McCray said that “whistleblowers pay a very high price for speaking truth to power and for having integrity. Publishers win Pulitzers, books are bestsellers, but whistleblowers risk their lives and livelihood with nothing in return.”

Marcel Reid paid tribute at the National Press Club to the late whistleblower Zena Crenshaw-Logal, a civil rights attorney who was a driving force behind the Notification and Federal Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act, the first civil rights law of the 21st century, and Thomas Raney, who championed the power of whistleblowing on the Local Station Board of WPFW 89.3FM Pacifica Radio Station.

Dr. Cleo Higgins was also given an award for helping to integrate the school system in Palatka, Florida, during the era of the Civil Rights movement.

A posthumous award was given to Eric Christopher Antrum, a native of Prince George’s County, Maryland, who helped change the “clean-shaven” and uniform compensation policies at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

Antrum, who died at the age of 41, suffered a rare skin condition that made it difficult for him to follow the clean-shaven policy and fought back after he was discriminated against. According to Reid, his actions helped thousands of WMATA workers retain their jobs over the years.

Eric Christopher Antrum [Source: Press release issued by Whistleblower Summit]

The Shaw-Marven Pillar Award for veterans who report waste, fraud and abuse was given to the Philadelphia 15, a group of Black sailors serving on the USS Philadelphia on the eve of World War II who wrote a letter to a Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, describing the abuses and indignities that they faced on the warship—including being forced to work as servants for the ship’s officers—solely because of the color of their skin.

The men urged Black mothers not to let their sons join the U.S. Navy. Because of the letter, the fifteen were given “bad conduct discharges” that hindered their subsequent employment prospects and deprived them of benefits.

Today the men are considered to be whistleblowers whose complaints helped lead the movement to desegregate the armed forces and promote civil rights in U.S. society.

Two of the Philadelphia 15: John Ponder, left, and his brother James. [Source: nytimes.com]

In June, they were granted honorable discharges at a ceremony at the Pentagon attended by family members, as all the men are now deceased.

Franklin Parker, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, presenting the surviving family members of James and John Ponder with certificates of the men’s newly upgraded honorable discharges in a June ceremony at the Pentagon. [Source: nytimes.com]
The USS Philadelphia around the time of Pearl Harbor. [Source: nytimes.com]

Dr. Jean Arrigo, a social psychologist, oral historian and daughter of an intelligence operative, was another honoree on July 30.

She exposed the involvement of the American Psychological Association (APA) in the U.S. torture program and tried to bring some level of humanity to the interrogation process by encouraging intelligence operatives to try to get information from captives by aligning with them and befriending them.

Dr. Arrigo’s efforts, which were later validated, resulted in attempts to intimidate and silence her.

Dr. Jean Arrigo [Source: theguardian.com]

Other award winners on July 30 were:

  1. Erie Sampson, an attorney who exposed irregularities in the D.C. Retirement Board and was fired after she told the truth.
  2. Filmmaker Evellyn Santos and her husband Chris Mancini, who produced and directed The Poison Garden, about racial injustice in Florida.
  3. Rebekah Jones, who was fired from her position at the Florida Department of Health after she challenged Governor Ron DeSantis’s reporting of the number of Floridians impacted by COVID-19.
Erie Sampson [Source: Photo courtesy of Jeremy Kuzmarov]
Rebekah Jones receiving a whistleblower award at the National Press Club on July 30 from Michael McCray. [Source: Photo courtesy of Jeremy Kuzmarov]

Jones said in her acceptance speech that she was honored to be in such good company and that she had endured personal hell after her family was intimidated and she had to move away from the State of Florida.

Her case is all too typical of those who challenge government authority in a country that is supposed to welcome free speech and dissent, but routinely fails to live up to those ideals.

  1. Henry Espy ended up losing the seat to Bennie Thompson.

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