A whistle blower is someone who alerts the government to fraud. The term often gets used in a broad sense to describe someone exposing the unethical or illegal behavior of a corporation. Actual whistle blowing, however, is exposing fraud against the government.

If your employer is cheating customers, encouraging sexual harassment in the workplace, or violating health and safety codes, it’s technically not a whistle-blower situation. You certainly can turn them in for these bad actions, but it doesn’t fit within the definition because these actions are not against the government.

So what does constitute whistleblowing? Reporting your employer for tax evasion, or for cheating the government out of money in a contract. There are state and federal whistleblowing laws, and there are Illinois lawyers who help whisteblowers take action and expose the wrongdoing.

What happens next? The whistleblower doesn’t just tell someone what’s going on. They also file a lawsuit against the wrongdoer. It’s a unique situation, because the lawsuit is on behalf of the government. It’s called a qui tam lawsuit. You serve the lawsuit on the Justice Department, rather than directly on the defendant. The Justice Department can take over the case if they choose, or else the whistleblower can follow through.

Why would anyone go through all that trouble? Some do it for moral and ethical reasons, but the law also rewards the whistleblower for sticking their neck out and taking on a lawsuit. If the case is successful, the government will be awarded damages and penalties. The whistleblower is allowed to share in the penalties that are paid to the government. A whistleblower might get around 15-25%. The amount can depend on how much the defrauder is ordered to pay and what type of fraud they were involved in.

Written by Michael Helfand