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I could afford to be a whistleblower—but not everyone can

A whistleblower shares how he was thrust into the role when he leaked documents to the press—and how public support has shaped his life and livelihood.

I could afford to be a whistleblower—but not everyone can
[Photo: David Werbrouck/Unsplash]

From 2008 to 2010, Antoine Deltour was an employee at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), based out of the professional services firm’s Luxembourg offices. During his time there, Deltour discovered PwC was helping large corporations sidestep large tax sums by granting deals that allowed them to pay less than 1% in taxes. Deltour, who found—and saved—a trove of documents detailing those tax agreements, was taken to court for leaking the documents to the press.

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Last year, after years of appeals, a conviction against Deltour was overturned, and he was finally recognized as a whistleblower. We spoke with Deltour about his experience, why public support was crucial to his acquittal, and how his life has changed after the experience.

“I had already tried to bring attention to these tax matters”

I was working for PwC as an accounting auditor, which means I was checking the accounts of clients. I found out that most of the clients I was working for had no real economic activity in Luxembourg but had an artificial presence just to avoid taxes. Luxembourg is very well known for its very attractive tax environment, but what I found out was that the effective tax rates were really below what I could imagine—often very close to 0%, thanks to tax deals that were negotiated between the tax administration authorities of Luxembourg and some international companies, with PwC acting as tax advisor.

I resigned for many reasons, including that I disagreed with these tax practices. But on the day before my last day, I found thousands of pages of these tax agreements on the company network, which were very sensitive and, normally, had very restricted access. I was very surprised to have free access to these documents. It was absolutely not normal and was actually a mistake. I decided to copy the documents but at that moment, I didn’t know what exactly I would do with them.

I had already tried to bring attention to these tax matters by speaking about it anonymously on French national radio, and I thought maybe the documents could be used to go further. But when I resigned, it was very difficult to validate my interpretation because I’m not a tax specialist or advisor. I tried to get some further analysis from specialists, but it wasn’t easy to find because I was nobody, and I couldn’t say publicly, ‘Hey, I’d like your advice on these very confidential documents I’m not supposed to have.’ A month later, a journalist contacted me because he was investigating tax avoidance; I gave him all of the tax agreements I had, and he made a TV program in 2012. Someone then shared the documents with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, so many journalists investigated the documents, and they released their investigation in November 2014.

“The plan was not to become a public whistleblower”

After the first TV program, PwC discovered that the leak came from their side, so they led an internal investigation to find the source. I’m not a hacker, so I didn’t take special precautions to hide myself. They tracked my copy paste of the documents. In 2014, I was charged with five criminal charges: theft, violation of trade secrets, violation of professional secrecy, unauthorized access to the network, and laundering.

There was a trial in 2016, and I risked up to 10 years in jail and a fine of more than 1 million Euros. The first sentence was a 12 month suspended sentence and a fine of 1500 Euros. I appealed, and the sentence was reduced to six months. I appealed again and finally, I was recognized as a true whistleblower, and was  acquitted on all charges following the definition of the European Court of Human Rights.

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I couldn’t have imagined what would happen. I knew I was taking risks because what I was doing was not allowed, theoretically, but I thought I would remain an anonymous news source. I was just giving some documents to a journalist. The plan was not to become a public whistleblower.

“The story ended well because I had a lot of support”

I wouldn’t say I have regrets, and I think it was–and is still–a positive experience because I meet lots of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. But at the moment when I went public, it was difficult because some people in Luxembourg and elsewhere said I was just a thief and deserved to go to jail. The story ended well because I had a lot of support from NGOs and dozens of people, including my family; some of those people were saying that I am a hero.

When you’re in the middle of this, it changes the image you have of yourself. From one day to another, you become a thief or a hero, and it doesn’t fit with your own identity. So it takes some weeks and months to adapt to this new identity. I didn’t change, but the way people see me changed. So it’s not easy, but what I experienced is much less difficult than the situation of many other whistleblowers [who] are today in jail or have had to move to a different country.

“I really thought I could go to jail”

I really thought I could go to jail. The first time I met a lawyer, it was just to ask him not to go to jail; it was really my first request to a lawyer. At that moment, I believed that what I did was good, but I was absolutely not confident I would be dismissed in the end. So I really thought I could go to jail, but I was also thinking that it was maybe the price to pay for the ideals I served. Like many whistleblowers, I acted first because I have some convictions. That’s why I don’t know whistleblowers who have any regrets, even when they pay a very high price.

“My legal defense was only possible because of donations from the public”

I got a lot of support and money from the public, so I didn’t have to pay even one Euro to my lawyers. The defense cost a total of more than 80,000 Euros. It would have been impossible for me to pay this amount. My legal defense was only possible because of donations from the public—which was due to the publicity and media coverage from the ICIJ. Lots of whistleblowers don’t have such attention. I know whistleblowers who are 50-years-old who went back to their parents’ house because they had to sell their homes just to pay for lawyers.

I do my best to help future whistleblowers avoid having to rely on luck. When I can, I advocate for them through organizations that bring support to whistleblowers.

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“It’s important not to live in the same environment”

I do think whistleblowing is much more difficult if you have a family or children or material obligations like paying for a house. At the moment I blew the whistle, I was very young and had no children. I was really free.

I never felt any physical threats. But I think for a whistleblower, it’s important not to live in the same environment. If you’re still living in the same region or country, and you blew the whistle, of course society will see you as a threat–a black sheep. A lot of people close to Luxembourg depend on the wealth of the finance industry, and they don’t see me as someone who did the right thing. But I moved and now I’m living 200 kilometers from Luxembourg. I think those 200 kilometers are very protective because my day-to-day environment is not linked to Luxembourg.

“I don’t have a lot of responsibilities or ambitions”

I now have a job that has nothing to do with accounting auditing, finance, or Luxembourg. But in my case it was a choice; I resigned early and wanted a change of professional environment. I think that for many whistleblowers, it’s not always a choice: Even if you don’t plan a change of job when you blow the whistle, usually you have to. It’s a personal consequence for most whistleblowers.

It’s working for me because I don’t have a lot of responsibilities or ambitions. But if I wanted to become the boss of my organization, maybe it would be more difficult because I would represent the organization outside, and people would know what I did. I now have a page on Wikipedia and it will never disappear. People who Google my name will always know what I did in Luxembourg in 2010.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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