The ninth annual Ridenhour Prizes luncheon was yesterday, April 25, 2012, at Washington, DC's National Press Club. The room was packed. Several former prizewinners attended, including James Scurlock, Ronit Avni, Thomas Tamm, Rick Piltz, and Thomas Drake. A member of the press interviewed Lt. Col. Daniel Davis as the final tables were being prepared by the waitstaff. A news team arrived early to set up their camera.
MC Danielle Brian, the Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight, opened the program with these words: In a town that is full of events that are featuring undeserved accolades and self-serving faux awards, this is a day when real heroes are honored." Randy Fertel, president of the Fertel Foundation, made a few remarks that remembered Ron Ridenhour, the late muckraking journalist and My Lai whistleblower in whose memory the prizes were created, and spoke about the spirit of the awards. "Part of our mission is not only to bring to public light acts of bravery that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but also to communicate these stories as widely as possible," Fertel said, urging the audience to spread the word about the prizes to their friends and family and social networks.
Leslie Cockburn, who co-produced the film American Casino, introduced Prize for Truth-Telling recipient Eileen Foster. "Without Eileen and those like her," she said, "we would be in the dark. Remember when the White House said, 'We are all, in a way, responsible.' We are not all responsible. Those who committed fraud were responsible." Cockburn went on to tell the story of one important investigation that Foster undertook while working in the fraud investigations department at Countrywide Financial. In an investigation of the Massachussetts branches, Foster found that employees were brazenly committing fraud, doctoring paperwork to create "liar loans," except it was not borrowers lying on loan applications but loan officers who fabricated documents. In the end, 44 out of 60 employees quit or were fired. Foster's reward was to be marginalized within her own organization, and ultimately, fired.
"Eileen Foster is a hero of the mess we call the financial meltdown," Cockburn said. "And, without Eileen Foster and others as brave, the country will sink under this systemic corruption. We salute her today."
In Foster's speech, she acknowledged two of her colleagues from Countrywide who faced a similar fate for standing up to corruption: Michael Winston and Cynder Niemala.
"I never realized I would ultimately be labeled a whistleblower," Foster explained. "I believed I was hired to improve investigations and reduce fraud. I simply set out to accomplish that. I came to learn that the true expectation was to conform and propagate the status quo." She made a passionate plea for those responsible to be prosecuted and held to account. "We must insist on full and complete investigations with accountability and punishment for the guilty parties. We must keep the heat on and see justice done."
Former Ridenhour Courage Prize recipient and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh took the stage next to introduce the second recipient of the 2012 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. In moments of crisis, Hersh said, Presidents turn to their generals, because generals always tell their leaders that the war is going well. It takes "a very rare man," Hersh said, to fly in the face of all that history, to contradict that narrative. For that, and for his brave service for the United States, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis was a true hero, Hersh concluded.
Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, in uniform, took the stage to confess that he had thrown out the remarks that had been written a few weeks ago because they didn't feel quite right. He spoke of something that's gone wrong in society, when it's ok for the truth to be "negotiable." He related that "a reporter recently asked me how I rationalized my speaking out against the military requirement for unity of effort. And I told him, 'There's nothing to reconcile. I have an obligation to stand up for the truth and do the right thing, irrespective of the consequences.'" He ended by asking everyone in the audience to do the same in their own lives.
Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon, co-producers of the film Semper Fi: Always Faithful, were the recipients of The Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize. Semper Fi is the chronicle of one determined Marine, Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, whose quest to understand the reasons for his daughter's early death pitted him against the organization to which he had pledged to be semper fidelis, or "always faithful." The water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Master Sgt. Ensminger lived with his family while his wife was pregnant with his daughter, had been contaminated with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals for thirty years. It is estimated that as many as one million Marines and their families may have been exposed to this contaminated water. The Marine Corps were made aware of the contamination in 1980, but refused to officially notify the residents of the base until 2008, after Ensminger's campaign brought national attention to the issue.
"As a Marine," Libert said, "Jerry truly believed in the United States government and the Marine Corps. He was shocked and disappointed in their failings. And his sense of betrayal runs very deep. But ironically, Jerry's military training prepared him perfectly for the struggle that has filled the last 15 years of his life. His dedication and unwavering belief in our democracy keeps him going to the end of our film and beyond." When Ensminger took the stage, he saluted the other winners for their courage in standing up and speaking out. "Telling the truth is truly many times harder than just falling in line and going along with the status quo," he said. "Keep telling it like it is, like it really is."
Tags: ali soufan, eileen foster, james scurlock, jerry ensminger, john lewis, lt. col. daniel davis, rick piltz, ridenhour, ridenhour prizes, ron ridenhour, ronit avni, semper fi: always faithful, thomas drake, thomas tamm