Newscoop: There are more and more recent cases of whistleblowers that raise awareness to the wider public although it’s already been an issue for many years. Let’s start by you telling me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How long have you lived in Belgium?
McCoy: I am Robert McCoy, I was born in Liverpool, in the UK in 1950. I came to Belgium in the early 1970s. I started working for the EU in the mid-70s. I worked for the Commission and the Economic and Social Committee. In 2000, I was asked to take over the job of financial controller and subsequently internal auditor of the Committee of the Regions (CoR). It was not the best move but unfortunately I didn’t realise the extent of fraud that had been going on.
Newscoop: When did you first notice anything illegal, the irregularities?
McCoy: My predecessor handed me a series of cases, mostly involving the reimbursements of politicians’ expenses, which had not been solved. I examined these and informed my secretary general of the CoR, that these were fraudulent. That was the initial problem. It involved a large number of eminent politicians, including two presidents of the Committee of the Regions as well. The administration of the CoR had turned a blind eye to all this over the years.
Newscoop: It was so high-level reaching?
McCoy: Yes. That is the problem for whistleblowers in many cases. They are often attacking the status quo and very important and very powerful people. I suggested that we should inform the European anti-fraud office (Office Européen de Lutte Anti-Fraude = OLAF) about these problems, get back the money that is owed and take the necessary steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I wasn’t interested in people going to prison, I just wanted to make sure that we protected the EU tax payers’ money. As we went on over the next years, from 2000 to 2003, I found more and more examples of important amounts of money which were being embezzled as well as tampering with public procurement procedures via fake offers. My secretary general told me in 2003 “But it can’t be fraud Robert because it’s not enough money.” How out of touch with the day-to-day reality of common people can one get? As I always say, if I were a single mother with two children to feed, 500€ or even 100€ a day is a lot of money.
Newscoop: It’s not about the amount anyway. It’s a question of principle.
McCoy: Exactly. This is the whole point. It’s obviously worse if it’s 10 million than if it’s 10€. But on the other hand, I’m particularly appalled by blue collar crime because there isn’t the economic justification for it. You can understand it if someone who is starving, is stealing money but not when you’re rich and powerful. In the end, I spoke to the president of the CoR, in March 2003, who did nothing about it. By this time, I had refused to sign of the accounts. There was a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Chris Heaton-Harris, who said to me “Look, it’s up to you. You can do nothing about it and keep on talking internally or you can talk to parliament and OLAF and go public on it. But if you do that, you must accept that you’re going to lose everything.”
In March 2003 I was called into parliament and made a statement to the Budgetary Control Committee, explaining the situation. As a result, OLAF brought out a report in October 2003 which vindicated all my allegations, found I had been bullied and harassed and recommended disciplinary proceedings against the secretary general and senior manager of the CoR. The European Parliament (EP) adopted the first of its eight resolutions supporting me. All this was ignored by my former employers. In April 2004, I received notice by the CoR that they had organised a bogus internal inquiry against me without my knowledge and on grounds the Committee refused to reveal to me! It’s Kafkaesque harassment, that’s all it was. The mechanisms involved in whistleblower harassment are exactly the same as for domestic violence and sexual harassment. It’s all about power and control. It’s very easy to organise it and to get away with it. As soon as I informed OLAF of the problems, they sacked my staff. I was isolated and prevented from doing my job.
Newscoop: How is it possible that the CoR can ignore court rulings, resolutions, the pressure of the parliament?
McCoy: Interestingly, the CoR is an unknown institution. Nobody has really heard of it, nobody is really interested in it. It was set up in 1993 under the Maastricht Treaty but whereas most people in Europe cannot even name their own MEP, they’ve heard of the European Parliament. Now, the CoR is the opposite – nobody has heard of the CoR but the politicians themselves are well-known powerful politicians from their appointments back home, the mayor of Barcelona, the mayor of Birmingham for example. That’s the difference. If you come from a parliamentary democracy, as we all do, we cannot understand how an institution can ignore the parliament and how it can ignore the court rulings.
Newscoop: It must have disillusioned you a lot about the values of the European institutions.
McCoy: It’s made me very sad. Having believed in something and being very idealistic about it. It’s not easy. Especially, if you get sacked simply for having done your job.
Newscoop: So, the harassment ended in your dismissal?
McCoy: There is no point in going into the gory details of all the concerted harassment but it took place over a long period of time. I spent 12 weeks in hospital as a result of this. I was basically constructively dismissed. No one told me on what grounds I was invalided out. I don’t know because the CoR still refuses to tell me. I can only presume it’s because I’m a whistleblower. I’ve been fighting ever since then. I am still locked in a battle. I’ve had two court judgements in my favour, so far in 2013 and 2014 which my former employers continue to ignore. The harassment was terrible and it can happen to anybody. I’m a big fellow, I’m not quickly scared. But you feel physically threatened, you feel mentally threatened. You have to be exceptionally strong to be able to stand up to organised harassment.
Newscoop: At the press conference back in May 2018 in Brussels you said that as much as you act on the values that you have, now if you would meet a person who would be in a similar situation you would give them very sincere considerations about blowing the whistle.
McCoy: If somebody would come to see me, and people have come to see me, to say “What should I do? I’ve discovered fraud” my reply is “If you blow the whistle, you have to accept it’s the end of your career. You will be threatened. You will be harassed. You will probably be sacked. You will possibly end up in hospital. You will most likely lose everything. If you accept that then do it.” I even tried to find a job elsewhere. People used to say “You’re the person we need but until this is solved, you’re unemployable.” You not only lose your job in the organisation you become unemployable elsewhere. But it’s too easy for me to say “don’t do it” because if you have conscience, and I’m afraid to say I’ve discovered that a lot of people don’t have one, you have no choice. You cannot live with yourself, if you don’t “do the right thing”, report the fraud. People should be able to report fraud without being threatened.
Newscoop: People shouldn’t even be in this dilemma – between choosing to follow their conscience and doing the right thing or keeping quiet and not destroying their lives or their family’s lives.
McCoy: People shouldn’t be faced with such a dilemma simply because it’s the right thing to do and that’s all there is to it. People should feel safe when they report wrongdoing. There is the theory and the reality. If we were able to apply the whistleblower protection rules as they exist for example in the EU, there really shouldn’t be any problem. They’re good enough. If everybody plays the game. But because people don’t play the game we have to reinforce the rules. You’re talking about people’s livelihoods here. And also, about your own self-worth. There was a collapse of a lot of my values at the age of 55 when all this happened. To end the career as a sort of pariah and a reject of society, psychologically, it’s not much fun.
Newscoop: What do you think about the proposal directive for the protection of whistleblowers by the European Commission? Has the topic of whistleblower protection become more important in the public’s mind in recent years?
McCoy: I absolutely believe that we need this EU directive and I think we will get there, surprisingly. I believe that whistleblower harassment will one day become the exception rather than the norm. I’ve seen how much the process has changed over recent years – the general public is becoming more aware of whistleblower harassment and people accept it less and less. What I’m saying is that I’ve come from a time when the public knew about it but accepted it to a time where they won’t accept it anymore. It’s the public’s definition of what is acceptable which changes. I think that is where we’ll get with whistleblowing.
Newscoop: Have you met other whistleblowers who faced similar things?
McCoy: Yes, certainly. 15 years ago, I met Marta Andreasen and quite a few other well-known whistleblowers. Everybody described the same experience. The abuse and behaviour towards whistleblowers are universal. Nigel Farage wanted to take me on in UKIP in 2003 I think it was. But I didn’t want to be involved with the anti-Europe faction.
Newscoop: He saw potential in you to use you to promote his anti-European agenda?
McCoy: That’s what he did with Marta Andreasen. She joined UKIP. But I didn’t want to be involved in this. This is one of the things I would like to show: the EU can at long last show that it will protect whistleblowers. And show that the EU can work.
Newscoop: Where did you take the strength from throughout all these years to continue and stick to your values?
McCoy: I’m not especially proud of what I’ve done. I did my duty and what I had to do, that’s all. I’m a fairly determined person which means that I don’t let go easily. I’m not sure where madness starts and where determination stops. I often use this quote “Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.” I have a lot of hope. What makes the human being survive is also what can destroy it – the hope. I have destroyed my life and my family’s lives for the last 15 years. Perhaps I will give up, I am tired of it all.
Newscoop: Do you think now, looking back, that it was worth it? For your principles and values and despite all the harm it’s caused?
McCoy: It can only be worth it if it is going to have some effect on a general level. I don’t believe in being a martyr, I don’t believe in being a victim. It would be nice for my story to serve a purpose in terms of protecting other whistleblowers and perhaps in changing society’s perception as to how a whistleblower should be treated. I only did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. Of course, you get caught up in something which you can no longer control.
Newscoop: Do you think you will ever get to a point where you feel you have exhausted all your capacities, you have tried everything possible to do the right thing?
McCoy: Yes. I suppose I will have to accept defeat sooner or later. But it’s sad because it would have been nice for this case to provide hope for protection of whistleblowers. Things can work out. You don’t have any choice, if you look into the mirror in the morning, you have got to live with this person. I do think we have a moral obligation. It’s far too easy to look the other way. That’s when the forces of evil win.
Photo Credit: Robert McCoy