“Whistleblowers violate the powerful taboo against speaking up. Even when faced with termination and blacklisting, they shout the truth when the boss demands lies. The Government Accountability Project defends these heroes and builds critical support. With help, whistleblowers are less likely to sink beneath the waves their courageous actions have created. And by committing the truth, whistleblowers with both information and fortitude are reshaping our institutions and securing a more democratic society.”
Louis Clark defines a government whistleblower as a public employee who discloses information to the public about government activity which is illegal, inefficient or wasteful, and which endangers the health, safety or freedom of the American public. With the rise of massive bureaucracies in business and government, Clark sees widespread threats to institutional integrity and accountability and believes that over recent decades the social importance of whistleblowers has grown exponentially. Clark helped launch the Government Accountability Project (GAP) in 1978 and since then has worked not only to support and protect government and corporate whistleblowers, but to remedy the institutional problems they identify.
Clark was born and raised in rural Indiana in the years following World War II. His parents were liberal white Southerners — a Methodist minister and a teacher — who came north to escape the racial segregation and the racism of the American South. Being a “preacher’s kid” has been a significant part of Clark’s identity, nurturing the close relationship he forged with his three siblings as the family moved from one small farming community to another, drawing the attention of bullies during grade school and high school, and pushing him always to show greater empathy and offer more assistance and friendship to some of his isolated peers.
Until 5th grade, Clark had a speech impediment that made it nearly impossible for anyone except his older sister to understand him, so she served as translator to their parents, teachers and peers. Despite years of speech therapy, he could not pronounce his own name and called himself by his middle name “Alan” so that he was able to respond to the simple question, “What’s your name?” In 5th grade, his speech therapist lost her patience (and professionalism) with him, yelling, “You’re never going to change! You are going to be like this for the rest of your life!” After this, he abruptly overcame his disability, his schoolwork improved and he found he could relate better to his classmates.
In 1965 he entered the University of Evansville, where his siblings also attended college, and within six months had launched an underground newspaper. He considers his first business trip to Washington, D.C. to have been when he went as a Vietnam War protester in 1967. In 1966-68, he volunteered with the Delta Ministry, a National Council of Churches organization, and joined the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, working as a poll watcher and to help illiterate black voters register, get to the polls, and read the ballots. Those were dangerous things to do in rural Mississippi in the 1960s. One night he and a fellow poll watcher, a member of the local African-American community, were deserted by the minister of the church where the voting was to take place. Soon after, they found themselves being chased by an angry white mob down country roads, sure that they were about to be killed. Luckily, they reached a place of safety. The minister, it turns out, was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan.
Clark decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He received a Masters of Divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion and was ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. While in school he served as a youth minister and focused his studies on pastoral counseling. However, he never served in a church of his own. Instead, in 1971, fueled by his opposition to the Vietnam War and his refusal to accept a ministerial deferment, he left the country, traveling to Europe and then Latin America.
After returning to the U.S., he received a law degree from American University in Washington, D.C. While doing freelance legal work to make ends meet, he encountered research put out by a fledgling whistleblower project that had aided Daniel Ellsberg before he gave top secret documents (known as the Pentagon Papers) that revealed the true Presidential intentions for the Vietnam War to Congress and then to the press. Clark was so excited about the concept for this new organization – the Government Accountability Project – that he agreed to work for free for two months until he could raise the rest of his first year’s salary. Already he was convinced that GAP would be his life’s work. For one thing, it was a perfect combination of his training and skills as a minister (applied ethics, social justice and counseling whistleblowers who have to make hard decisions about whether to go public and risk losing their positions, livelihoods, and good reputations) and as a lawyer (defending individuals before the law and working to change the law and government policy in the public interest).
In the early years of GAP, most of Clark’s time was spent working one-on-one with whistleblowers to make sure they understood the likely consequences of their exposure of fraudulent, illegal, and often dangerous practices within government. “Whistleblowers,” says Clark, “violate a powerful taboo. They have deserted their agencies for the enemy – the public.” (Barrister, March 1978)
With Louis Clark at the helm, GAP grew as an organization, helping whistleblowers in both private companies and public agencies, including the National Security Administration (NSA), the Justice Department, the Department of Education, the National Regulatory Commission (NRC), and many more. In the 1980’s, GAP worked with hundreds of whistleblowers in the nuclear energy and weapons sector, stopping the construction of three nearly completed power plants and shutting down the space-based piece of the Star Wars program, revealing it as a boondoggle costing an estimated $30 billion of taxpayers’ money. Clark, his legal partner Tom Devine and a small staff, along with a cadre of law student interns from Antioch College and elsewhere, worked around the clock to fight adversaries using corruption to maintain the power and control of vested interests. As he wrote in the GAP newsletter Bridging the GAP (Winter 1987), “Unfortunately, in reality the government is run by and for thousands of bureaucrats who respond to the will of the citizenry only when forced to do so.” He made a plea for Americans to “help challenge these officials to serve you as taxpayer, citizen, and consumer.” (Ibid)
As part of his commitment to social justice and community building, Clark continues to give church sermons, seeking to connect current events with stories from the Bible, focusing on how radical Jesus was in his day. Through decades of Democratic and Republican administrations, Clark has continued to educate the public about the indispensable role of whistleblowers and new laws which GAP helped write and persuade Congress to pass. These laws now cover 80,000,000 corporate workers and all federal employees, a major contribution to the public’s right to know. Says Clark, “[O]ne person – committing the truth – can in effect throw a rock into a vast pond… It is then up to people like me, and I hope people like you, to see to it that the ripples from that rock – in Bobby Kennedy’s words – build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. We are also obliged to ensure that the truth-tellers do not drown in the waves that they themselves create.”
Americans Who Tell the Truth (AWTT) offers a variety of ways to engage with its portraits and portrait subjects. Host an exhibit, use our free lesson plans and educational programs, or engage with a member of the AWTT team or portrait subjects.
AWTT has educational materials and lesson plans that ask students to grapple with truth, justice, and freedom.
AWTT encourages community engagement programs and exhibits accompanied by public events that stimulate dialogue around citizenship, education, and activism.