Meet the Whistle-Blower How a look at her sister's 401(k) led a Wall Street veteran to make a phone call that shook the mutual fund world
(MONEY Magazine) – A nameless, faceless business." That's how Noreen Harrington, the Goldman Sachs veteran who blew the whistle on the mutual fund late-trading scandal, describes the way trades are executed and money is made on Wall Street: "I'm not saying it's right or wrong. But in this business that's how you look at it. You don't look at it with a face."
In her 11 years as a managing director of fixed income at Goldman and her stints at Barclays Capital and Stern Asset Management, that's how Harrington looked at it as well. She resigned from Stern in April 2002, unhappy that her complaints about late trading in mutual funds at Stern's Canary Capital unit were disregarded internally, but with no intention of telling authorities.
Until a year later. That's when her older sister, whom Harrington describes as one of the "hardest-working people I've ever met," asked for advice on her 401(k). Her sister had lost a lot of money, and she wasn't sure she would be able to retire. "All of a sudden, I thought about this from a different vantage point," Harrington explains. "I saw one face--my sister's face--and then I saw the faces of everyone whose only asset was a 401(k). At that point I felt the need to try to make the regulators look into [these] abuses." That's when she called the office of New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer.
Much has been made of the fact that Harrington--like former Enron vice president Sherron Watkins, former WorldCom vice president of internal auditing Cynthia Cooper and former FBI attorney Coleen Rowley, the three whistle-blowers Time magazine named People of the Year in 2002--is a woman. Sheila Wellington, management professor at NYU Stern School of Business, says she believes women are more likely to out corporate wrongs because "research shows that even the highest-ranking women feel...they're not part of the gang." Other experts speculate that since women are less often the breadwinners, the fallout doesn't pose as great a risk to their families, or that women are the keepers of our moral compass.
Harrington doesn't buy much of that. First of all, she is the primary breadwinner. And though she concedes that she's occasionally felt like an outsider, you couldn't get much higher in Wall Street ranks--or have much farther to fall--than Harrington did. But mostly she believes that men are as likely as women to try to fix practices they see as wrong.
Harrington's theory, and I agree with her, is that it comes down to good parenting. It's all about the little voice inside your head--which sounds like your mother's or father's early in life and later (if they've done a proper job) becomes your own--that tells you it's the right thing to do.
THE SEPT. 11 EFFECT
Good parenting and life experience. Like the rest of the fixed-income community, Harrington was profoundly affected by Sept. 11. Thirteen of her friends died that day, and she couldn't return to her home near Ground Zero for months. "A lot of people my age who thought they had a lot of time left died," she says. "It makes you realize that life really isn't that long. And what you do next or what you do on the job becomes less important than trying to make sure that with your time left you do something right."
Harrington is sticking close to home these days. Friends answer the phone. And she's reassessing her options, knowing full well that doors close to whistle-blowers. "There are a lot of people on the street who have been hurt [by what I did]," she says. Deep down she knows they won't look at her as a peer who tried to do something right. They won't remember that she, like Rowley and those who came before her, tried to solve the problem internally before taking it outside; they'll look at her as a person who can't be trusted. "I can live with that," she says.
Let's hope she doesn't have to.