The Whistleblower Onslaught
Chapter 1 - December 16, 2015
My name is Scott Phillip Winslow. I live in Thousand Oaks, California, one of the many suburban areas within the Greater Los Angeles area, with my gorgeous wife, Lisa, and two amazing kids. I am a partner in a small law firm called Simmons and Winslow, in a practice that emphasizes employment litigation. My life has been pretty darn good, I must admit. At least until now—when changes in my world will soon come at me like a tsunami.
On Saturday morning, just nine days before Christmas, the chain of events that will change everything begins. I am perilously perched on the same rickety stepladder I had vowed to replace each year, for the past three years. I stand on the top step, which is plainly marked “do not stand,” in an effort to reach the ragged hooks on the eves of our overpriced, suburban home with a string of Christmas lights. I am sweating, even though it is only sixty-five degrees outside, in keeping with my tendency to work too fast and too hard during what should have been a relaxing Saturday morning.
In truth, the kids had been asking me about our Christmas lights, or “Santa’s wights,” as Katy calls them with her adorable lisp and in her most serious tone, since Thanksgiving. I am feeling guilty about how long it’s taken me to put them up. You should know that Katy is a force of nature. She is five years old, going on thirty-five. She has big blue eyes and blonde, wavy hair that flips just above her shoulders, where she carries the weight of the world. On no topic is Katy without an opinion. She knows how everything should be, and she makes it her business to see things happen as they should.
The end of my decorating procrastination came at the breakfast table just two hours ago, where I have been had so many times by the huckster disguised as my little girl and her “born cool” older brother, Joey, while my wife, Lisa, barely suppresses her laughter.
This morning’s destruction of my plans to return to the office began with Katy’s emergence for breakfast with the sad expression of a child whose hamster had just died. She sat silently pushing her fork at the pancakes on her plate, but eating nothing. Lisa and I exchanged perplexed gazes and then set about prompting her to share.
Through big, sad blue eyes, after brushing away a solitary tear, Katy confided, “This will be the first year that Santa’s not coming on Christmas, that’s what.”
“What?” Lisa asked incredulously. “Why would you think that? Santa wouldn’t miss us.”
Katy shook her head in wide, slow motions, wholly unconvinced. “Santa’s wights,” she said. That lisp kills me. She furrowed her brow. “How is he supposed to land the sleigh?” I could already see my trip to the office becoming less likely.
Sometimes I hate how precocious she is.
“If we don’t have a lit runway for the reindeer, there will be no presents on Christmas morning and no one to eat the cookies and drink the milk we leave on the fireplace on Christmas night,” she said, pointing dramatically to the hearth for effect. Then she looked directly at me and said, “Daddy, I know how busy you are being a liar, but we need to have them on the house before The Wizard of Oz comes on Monday, because that’s when Christmas really begins.”
Seasons measured in TV events, I thought to myself, wondering what I might do to avoid having her extract the inevitable promise that I put the lights up now. A liar, for those outside our family, is a lawyer. It’s both adorable and slanderous, and anyone who hears Katy refer to my profession requests that she do it again and again, grinning at me all the while.
Joey sat back in his chair with an expression that meant he was about to jump in, then said, “Yeah.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “Yeah what?”
“She has a good point,” he urged in his worldly seven-year-old manner.
“She does, huh?” I asked.
“Yeah. You can’t dis Santa, then expect him to bring us all the stuff we want.” The jet-black hair that Joey got from no one I know extended in all directions, with a few of the longer strands falling across his forehead into his right eye. His hair would remain a mess until we made him comb it after breakfast. He sat back in his chair, the man with all the answers, and waited while this gem was digested by his parents.
“Dis Santa?” I asked.
“Right,” Joey urged with conviction. “He knows everything, so you can’t fool the dude.”
At this piece of wisdom from her big brother, Katy was nodding supportively. She is always impressed by the insights of her older brother. I looked over at Lisa for some support, but she was busy smothering a grin and silently enjoying watching me swim against the tide.
I frowned at Joey. “You can’t fool the dude? Who taught you to talk like that?” He shrugged, having no time to waste on silly questions.
I looked from Joey to Katy. “Okay, you guys, we’ll get the lights up,” I offered, surrendering to this extemporaneous conspiracy.
Joey nodded with satisfaction, and Katy beamed. “Thank you, Daddy,” she said and blew me a kiss. She reflected for a moment, and then said, “When?”
Once they have you on the ropes, they show no mercy. “This morning,” I said, in total surrender. By the combination of Katy’s face, and Joey’s logic, I was had. I looked over at Lisa, whose blue eyes were alight with amusement. After ten years of marriage, the last several of which have been characterized by two kids constantly within earshot, we have developed a means of nonverbal communication that would make a porpoise jealous. She also knows that my Achilles heel is virtually anything that means a lot to the kids. I gave her a smile, acknowledging my predicament, while suddenly distracted by how great she looked. Those gorgeous blue eyes that she passed to both kids draw me in every time I look at her. Her blonde, shoulder-length hair and a slightly upturned nose evoke something between elegance and aristocracy, and her easygoing and practical manner helps keep me in check when I get too caught up in a crisis of the moment. Having been snared in a breakfast table trap and seeing no way out, I canceled my plans to go into the office in favor of putting up too many Christmas lights and adding to the energy crisis.
I walked over and whispered to Lisa, “I’m so glad you were having fun instead of bailing me out. You thoroughly enjoyed watching me squirm.”
She put her arms around my neck and gave me a kiss. She smiled wryly and said, “You might also want to build a control tower, so Santa can get the proper landing clearances.”
“I’m glad you’re amused,” I said. I started toward the garage, then turned back and added, “I’ll deal with you later.”
“Great. I’ll put a good ravaging on my calendar,” she said, then turned responsively to Katy’s call for help with finding her shoes.
I went out to the garage, thinking that if I got this done fast enough, I could still get into the office for a couple of hours to finish jury instructions and my trial brief for the sexual harassment case set to start in two weeks. I found myself wondering how I would explain the case to Katy when she asked about it, and she would—she always asked about my trials. What I couldn’t say was that the middle manager in a large company had spent two years asking his secretary about her sex life and favorite positions, and grabbing and rubbing against her whenever she bent over to file a document. I needed a more G-rated version of those events.
Once the work of putting up the lights begins, it proves to be as frustrating as ever. Burned out bulbs, blown fuses, and hooks that readily come off the house are among the highlights. And that has been my morning until right now.
Bernie Jacobs, my good friend and next-door neighbor, suddenly appears at the bottom of the ladder and looks up at me, a smug grin on his face. “Looks like you’re working awfully hard at that,” he offers with amusement. “You know, if you’d just convert, you wouldn’t have to do all this stuff. I think everyone on this cul-de-sac should be Jewish. You guys and the McFaddens are the only holdouts.”
I frown and say, “Maybe, but it’s all I can do to prepare for one big day. If I had as many as you do to worry about, I’d never stay current.”
“Not to worry,” he says, “Katy would make you a chart.”
I can’t help but chuckle. He has her pegged. “She would,” I offer, “in twelve colors, with footnotes.” I point to the ground beneath the ladder. “Pass me that hammer,” I ask.
He hands up the hammer. Bernie says, “Don’t forget you and Lisa are coming over for drinks and dinner tonight.”
I take the hammer and whack at a protruding nail, immediately bending it and causing it to drop to the ground. “Shit,” I blurt out, staring downward at the grass that had swallowed up the fallen nail.
“Eloquent, counselor,” Bernie muses. “Very articulate.”
“Shut up and go start the barbecue. And get working on the mai tais. We’ll be over in about six hours. I plan to be hungry and thirsty.”
“Okay, I’ll do it. It’ll take that long to get your steak sufficiently well done to have that shoe leather consistency you strive for.” I chuckle and glance down at Bernie.
His expression had become more solemn. “Actually,” he offers, “there’s another reason I came over.”
“You want to apologize for four years of bad jokes and insults, right?”
“The thought never occurred to me,” he says, sounding reflective. “Now that it has,” he pauses a moment, then he adds, “no.” He is grinning again.
“What then?” I ask, feeling as impatient as I probably sound.
“A good friend of mine came by this morning. His name is Kevin Walters, and he’s got some big problems that are right up your alley.”
I look down at Bernie, and there was no trace of humor in his expression. I climb down the ladder to make conversation easier. “And he needs to talk to me this morning?”
“If you can find the time.” He pauses a moment and then adds, “It’s important.”
I nod. “What’s the situation?” I ask, inviting a conversation that I had no time to have.
“Kevin is senior vice president with Consolidated Energy, or at least he was. The president of the company called him in and fired him on Thursday.”
“For what reason?” I ask, now thoroughly off task and sucked into the scenario. It was an occupational hazard for an employment lawyer.
“Performance,” is what he was told.
“And he disagrees with that conclusion, I take it?” I think briefly about my full calendar, and then say, “Maybe I can meet with him sometime this week.”
Something caught Bernie’s attention. He is looking over my shoulder toward his house. “Here he is now,” Bernie says, gesturing for someone to join us.
My immediate response is an unspoken, Oh shit, at the thought of one more item on the morning’s calendar. I turn around and see a tall, slender man of about sixty moving toward us. He wears wire rimmed glasses and has a full head of meticulously combed white hair. There are slight crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes, and his features are sharp. He also wears a serious expression.
Walters joins us on the lawn and introduces himself with a deep voice that clearly enunciates, “I’m sorry to trouble you, Mr. Winslow. I know that you’re a busy man and that this is your day off.”
“It’s okay,” I say, somewhat disingenuously. “You want to come in and talk in my study?”
Walters nods. “Yes, if you’re sure this is a good time.”
Bernie says, “I’ll leave you two to speak.”
Walters shakes his hand. “Thanks for being a good friend, Bernie.”
Bernie waves him off and turns toward home. “I’ll see you and Lisa later,” he calls out to me without looking back.
I nod to the back of him, and then lead Walters inside. I introduce him to Lisa, who greets him with a warm smile and an offer of coffee that he declines. As I lead the way into my study, Lisa asks that we let her know if we need anything.
My walnut desk is angled in the far corner of the room, while two armchairs separated by a small lamp table face the red brick fireplace on the wall closest to the door. Some evenings, when the kids are tucked in, between calls for water, retucking after bathroom trips and the comforting after the occasional nightmare, Lisa and I read by the fire in the warmth of each other’s company.
I close the door and gesture to the closest armchair. I grab a yellow legal pad from my desk and sit down in the other chair. “How can I help, Kevin?”
“I don’t know if you can, or for that matter if anyone can.” He draws a breath, and then says, “I worked for Consolidated for twenty-seven years. As I’m sure you know, it is a huge international conglomerate. I was senior vice president of administration for the past seven years, reporting directly to the president and CEO, Michael Constantine. Before that, I was a regional vice president for the Central United States. I’ve been promoted seven times during my career—the whole fast track thing.”
He pauses, and I sense that he was working to suppress emotion. “Anyway, Constantine called me in Thursday, flustered like I have never seen him, and tells me it’s not working, and we need to part company. I knew instantly that it was because of my complaints about mine conditions that had gone unremedied, but part of me still couldn’t believe it. Mike and I had been close for a lot of years, and I never thought …”
He lets the sentence trail off, and then continues. “I told him that lives were put at risk by some of these conditions, and money can’t be the reason not to protect employees. I’ll never forget the anger in his eyes. Then he said he didn’t know what I was talking about, and the company just needed a … what were his words, yeah, ‘a change in its top policy-making team.’ I looked into his eyes and saw a flash of anger before he looked away. We sat in an awkward silence for a few minutes, while I tried to put all the pieces together. Then I told him I couldn’t believe he could do this after all our years together.”
Walters sits back in his chair and shakes his head as he relives the moment, then says, “He just looked at me and said that Human Resources would contact me to discuss my severance. Then I got up and walked out.”
I am taking copious notes on my yellow pad, and looking up at Walters intermittently as I write. “Did Human Resources contact you?” I ask.
He replies, “Yes. Someone I had never spoken to before gave me a call and sent me the packet. The deal was that they give me a year’s salary and medical, then I take early retirement, and I sign a release of any claims against the company.” I could see anger on Walters’s face. He pauses a moment, suppresses whatever it was, and speaks calmly. “I was about to take the package and retire, but the sons of bitches called me into a meeting and threatened me.”