The Whistleblower Whisperer : Planet Money Jordan Thomas is a lawyer who represents some of Wall Street's biggest whistleblowers. The life that led him here is extraordinary.

The Whistleblower Whisperer

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Just tell me your name and your job so I don't forget that.

JORDAN THOMAS: Sure. My name's Jordan Thomas. I am the chair of the Whistleblower Representation Practice at Labaton Sucharow. And I'm based out of New York.

GOLDSTEIN: Tell me about growing up.

THOMAS: Well, my mother, a white former nun turned school teacher, kind of instilled in me a profound faith and encouraged me to kind of dedicate my life to serving others. My father was a black judge turned political fixer who kind of taught me the unwritten rules of power. He was a kind of incredibly smart and charismatic man who believed that the American Dream was a myth. You know, if I could kind of distill the tenants of my father's faith, it was that the world is rigged. The ends justify the means. And you're either pulling the strings, or you're the puppet.

And for many years, I wanted to kind of join the family business, for lack of a better way of saying it. I wanted to be a power broker, a string puller, if you will. To be close to him, to earn his love, I was willing to do illegal and unethical things. I'm not proud of it, and I've spent the better part of my life trying to make amends for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN ROWCROFT'S "PYRAMID THOUGHTS")

GOLDSTEIN: Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Jordan Thomas may be the top lawyer in the country in his field representing people who have seen some kind of financial wrongdoing and want to report it to the SEC. When I first called him, that's all I expected to talk about - working with Wall Street whistleblowers to bring cases against some of the biggest banks in the world. But as we talked, he also told me this just extraordinary story about how he grew up and what made him the person he is today. So today's show is both about the work Jordan Thomas does and the life that led him to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: During and after the financial crisis, Jordan Thomas worked as a lawyer at the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission. That's one of the federal agencies that regulate Wall Street. And while he was there, he helped create this new whistleblower program. Under the program, people who see banks or other companies breaking the rules can anonymously report it to the SEC. If the SEC follows the tip and winds up collecting money from the bank, the whistleblower is eligible for an award. It's like a bounty.

After the program was up and running, Jordan went into private practice, helping whistleblowers bring their cases to the SEC. In exchange, if his clients get paid a bounty, his firm gets a chunk of the money. He's become one of the preeminent lawyers in the field. His clients have provided tips that have helped the SEC collect hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the biggest banks in the world. He told me he thinks there are a few reasons for his success.

THOMAS: One is we're very selective. We get into contact with all kinds of people - whack jobs awash in conspiracy theories...

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

THOMAS: ...And foxhole converts looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Our job is to kind of figure out who the good guys are, the real whistleblowers, the ones who know where the bodies are buried and the ones who can lead us to them. And we're pretty good at that. I think the second thing is that we're kind of hardened realists. We understand how things really work and are willing to use non-traditional tactics, gray - the grey arts, if you will. A good example is the SEC is not permitted to covertly record conversations. Well, I, as a whistleblower advocate working with my clients, can covertly record conversations in many states in the United States.

GOLDSTEIN: Including New York.

THOMAS: Correct. And (laughter) I sometimes joke that some of my clients must've been trained by Mossad because they have enough recordings of people that are game changers. So in the past, the SEC would have to build cases from the ground up circumstantially. Now my clients are bringing them, you know, countless recordings of senior people talking about wrongdoing. It doesn't get much better than that.

GOLDSTEIN: What can you tell me about specific clients of yours?

THOMAS: Not much. Our clients tend to be senior people with a lot to lose. And, actually, the No. 1 question that whistleblowers come to whistleblower counsel with is, will I lose my job? Will I be blacklisted in my career? And under the SEC whistleblower program, you can report anonymously. And so, you know, in many of our anonymous whistleblower cases, we will make arrangements for the SEC to speak to the client by phone. But we will use voice-change technology to change the gender or timbre of the whistleblower's voice so...

GOLDSTEIN: So the SEC itself can't even identify the voice of the whistleblower.

THOMAS: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: You said you can't talk about the clients. I know that you mentioned a few cases. Are there instances where you can talk about the case?

THOMAS: Yeah. Well, let me give you the example of JP Morgan. JP Morgan was telling its clients that they would objectively pick the best funds for their clients, when in fact they had a bias toward picking proprietary products in which they made more money. And sometimes those products had worse performance because they were able to make greater fees. And our client, along with another whistleblower not represented by us, were able to provide evidence of that to the SEC. And the SEC was able to confirm that this is something that affected over 100,000 JP Morgan clients and was stopped because of our client.

GOLDSTEIN: And what happened to JP Morgan? Like, what did they have to do as a result?

THOMAS: They had to pay over 300 million.

GOLDSTEIN: And Jordan's client in that case got an award of $13 million. A second whistleblower in that case represented by a different attorney got over $30 million. Those awards were announced just a couple of months ago. That was the third biggest case in the history of the SEC's whistleblower program. The biggest award was last year. In that case, Merrill Lynch got in trouble for misusing customer funds. And three whistleblowers, all represented by Jordan Thomas, were awarded a total of $83 million.

Even now, does Merrill Lynch know who the whistleblowers were, who your clients were?

THOMAS: No, they don't.

GOLDSTEIN: Wow.

THOMAS: The same with JP Morgan. If we do our job well, our clients can and do continue working at the organizations in which they reported even though they could buy an island. Some of them like working, so they keep working.

GOLDSTEIN: I mean, not to be glib, but there is the, like, hey, Bob (ph), how'd you show up in a Lamborghini today? Well...

THOMAS: (Laughter) Yeah. No, some people don't show their money.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. Yeah.

THOMAS: And this - they - yeah, I call them secret millionaires, you know, people who won a whistleblower award but choose to keep working.

GOLDSTEIN: At the same firm.

THOMAS: Yeah. It does happen. People's relationship with their work is in some ways like family after a period of time, and breaking it off is hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANUEL KALLINS AND STEPHEN TELLER'S "SNEAKY NEIGHBORS")

GOLDSTEIN: After the break, families, secrets and how Jordan Thomas became Jordan Thomas.

What was your name before you were Jordan Thomas?

THOMAS: Paul Thompson (ph).

GOLDSTEIN: Does anybody still call you Paul?

THOMAS: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: Tell me about your mom.

THOMAS: Well, my mom is a former nun. I joke that my my mother is a cross between Mary Poppins and Mother Teresa.

GOLDSTEIN: That seems pretty good.

THOMAS: Yeah. No, she is one of the most loving people that I've ever known, but she's also not a worldly person. And as a result, I think that the world hasn't always been kind to her.

GOLDSTEIN: How did she and your father get together? They sound like they were living in very different worlds.

THOMAS: Well, my mother - she was in a convent in Compton, Calif. And my father was working in politics in Los Angeles. And she and another nun went to a public hearing to advocate for a crosswalk near the school that she worked for and somehow struck up a conversation. And a year or so later, she left the convent and began dating my father. And shortly thereafter, they had a surprise, and that was me.

My parents weren't married long. And she remarried my stepfather, who was regularly unemployed and kind of saw me as an enemy. At different times in my early life, I was neglected, abused and homeless. But I got glimpses of a more glamorous life when I visited my father.

GOLDSTEIN: What did he do? What was his job, or...?

THOMAS: Well, my father was a rising star as a young man. He kind of came from nothing, went to community college, then went to a night - an unaccredited night law school, and then ended up working for the county supervisors in Los Angeles, and then was kind of the first elected black judge in Southern California - and then, unfortunately, got in a serious car accident. And the car accident required him to take prescription painkillers. And prescription painkillers affect your ability to - it affects your judgment. And so he was medically retired from the bench. And kind of all of his dreams and kind of future seemed to fade away.

So after his path, his career, ended he kind of used kind of what he knew to solve problems for people. If people wanted to be appointed to certain positions, he would help them get appointed to those positions. If you wanted to receive federal funds for something, he would use his political connections. If you were a builder and you wanted to build beyond the code, he was the guy you'd go to. He solved problems and helped people kind of leverage the government.

GOLDSTEIN: How did you think about your dad when you were a kid, and how did that change as you were growing up?

THOMAS: You know, I idolized my father. He was everything that I hoped to be. You know, he knew famous people, partied with celebrities, drove fancy cars, lived on the beach or near the beach and had a farm in Hawaii.

GOLDSTEIN: Wow.

THOMAS: I mean, it was - and kind of that was his existence. You know, he ate every meal out. He was kind of flashy, he - kind of a successful sort of person. And kind of the alternate universe that I lived in was with my mother and stepfather in mobile home parks. We didn't have a lot of money. I remember going regularly to the day-old-bread store. You scrape off the mold and, you know, eat the bread. And it was a stark contrast, the life we lived.

And I guess every son wants to be like his father, but for me, he was everything. My dream was to be his number two. And my father's plan was for me to enter some form of politics and then kind of, with that sort of station, wield power and influence.

GOLDSTEIN: It's interesting. I mean, I could imagine going a very different way if you're, you know, going to the day-old-bread store and seeing your father go out to a restaurant at every meal, wondering, well, why he isn't giving your mom money to take care of you?

THOMAS: Yeah. I think that that is something that I didn't appreciate when I was younger but I began to appreciate more later, as I grew older. In my teenage years, kind of my idealized image of my father began to crack. As a student at UCLA, I was finally living close to him and began to see him at his worst, dishonest with those close to him, kind of motivated by kind of self-interest and dependent on prescription drugs. I saw him for who he actually was - not who I wanted him to be. And during this dark time, I became depressed and near suicidal.

GOLDSTEIN: When was that?

THOMAS: When I was 19. After a close call while drunk behind the wheel on a steep ravine in the Malibu Hills, I almost died on the - driving. I knew it. I knew I needed to break away entirely. I broke with my father shortly thereafter. And at that point, I decided to reinvent myself, essentially putting myself into a witness protection program kind of my own making.

GOLDSTEIN: That's an interesting choice of phrase. What do you mean by that?

THOMAS: I didn't believe that if I stayed in Los Angeles I could get away from my father and his influence. And I thought my best chance of having a new beginning was to get lost. And I didn't know it at the time, but it also was important for me to find myself.

And so I sold everything I could, packed up my old Volkswagen bug and transferred across country to Bennington, a well-known modern dance school in Vermont. It was, like, the furthest away from where I was. And I'd never been there. And to help make this transition, I legally changed my name to Jordan Thomas. My first name was Jordan because I love Michael Jordan. I love playing basketball.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

THOMAS: And so I thought that would be a good first name. And my last name was Thomas because it had some tie to my old name, Thompson. And my middle name has a good story to it, I think. Since I related to kind of Michael Corleone's efforts to legitimize himself in "The Godfather," I took Corleone's original name, Andolini, as my middle name, and from that point, fully detached from my family, friends and kind of former life.

GOLDSTEIN: It didn't end well for Michael Corleone.

THOMAS: It didn't end well. And I suppose I didn't think through that...

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

THOMAS: ...As much as I should have, but it has ended well for me.

GOLDSTEIN: What was your name before you were Jordan Thomas?

THOMAS: Paul Thompson.

GOLDSTEIN: Does anybody still call you Paul?

THOMAS: No.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think of yourself as Paul Thompson at all?

THOMAS: I don't. You know, up until very recently I couldn't remember anything about my life prior to changing my name. For a million dollars on a game show, I couldn't have told you one name of a friend, teacher, coach, girlfriend. Even today, after going back and trying to remember, I don't remember much about Paul. I think that most of his life was very difficult.

GOLDSTEIN: It's amazing that you call - that you use the word his, right? That's like it's somebody else.

THOMAS: It really is.

GOLDSTEIN: You said until recently, you didn't remember anything. Was there something that caused you to remember?

THOMAS: There was. There was a New York Times story that came out that profiled me and alluded to some of my past. And it felt surprisingly - made me feel lighter. But I felt like because of that feeling, I realized that I hadn't fully dealt with my past. And as a result, kind of encouraged by my clients and some of the readers of the profile who told me that I'd inspired them, I decided to revisit and investigate my history. So what I did is I took time from work and traveled to all the places that I once lived and sought out people who knew me then and tried to remember what had happened.

GOLDSTEIN: That sounds terrifying to me.

THOMAS: It was, but necessary.

GOLDSTEIN: Jordan gathered up old family photos and letters he'd kept stored away. And he got on a plane to fly out to the west coast to talk to people who knew him when he was Paul Thomas.

THOMAS: And for me, there was a moment, you know, I was at 35,000 feet or something like that. And I was reading old letters that I'd written and looking at pictures. And all of a sudden, my memory started flooding back. And literally the woman next to me said, are you all right? Because I was just, like, clearly affected. And that was the beginning of me beginning to see what I hadn't been able to kind of revisit.

GOLDSTEIN: Were there any particular moments on that trip that stand out - specific conversations you had, places you went?

THOMAS: You know, I had - I talked to you about the airplane experience.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes, yes.

THOMAS: I also remember at a different point meeting with my cousin, who knew me when I was a teenager, and her describing an incident where she was babysitting. And I wanted to make pancakes. So I somehow made batter, and then - but I put it in a toaster. And obviously that didn't go well. And she recalls talking to me about my reaction.

GOLDSTEIN: What was your reaction?

THOMAS: Apparently, I lost my mind. It was like I was going to be beaten. It was going to be - it was like the world's going to end. It was like there was just - hide me, you know. And some of these conversations helped me to see that terrified child and kind of grieve for him. One of the things that I've kind of learned from my clients is that secrets are rarely empowering. So part of my decision was to no longer keep the secrets, and that's why I'm speaking to you today.

Reflecting on where I am today, I know that I wouldn't be doing the work I do but for the encouragement of my mother. I wouldn't be as successful as I am and doing what I do but for the training kind of in the quote, unquote, "dark arts," by my father. And I wouldn't have had the courage to kind of take this unconventional path but for the difficult times in my life and the need to recreate myself. So I've been kind of holding on to them - to secrets - when those have been kind of the foundation of my life, my success, who I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "SMOKE AND MIRRORS")

GOLDSTEIN: Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Liza Yeager. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt, and our senior producer is Alex Goldmark. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. If you're a fan of the show, you could help us out by leaving a review and a rating wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you want PLANET MONEY in video form, I've got good news for you. That is available at npr.org/planetmoneyshorts - short, cheeky, delightful videos on things like the invention of plastic and the economy of the tooth fairy. Those, again, are available at npr.org/planetmoneyshorts. I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

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