Whistleblower

A true story of racial justice in Pittsburgh
Illustration by Stacy Innerst Whistleblower
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In 1991, the smell of Nabisco saturated the air in Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods. The cookie factory was still just that, years away from its second act as a Google anchor. Sears was closed, but its big blue shell sat fading in the parking lot on Highland Avenue. Peabody wasn’t Obama and Bush I was in the White House. Phones were anchored to landlines, reading was done on paper, and twitter was the sound of birds.

I was a broke 25-​year-​old, and though I didn’t know it, I was about to become a whistleblower.

New to Pittsburgh, I was anxious to finish night school at Duquesne University. After stints on the seventh floor of Kaufmann’s, a lot of waitressing and gofer gigs on movie productions, I needed a steady job. My fingers were perpetually smudged black from a long newspaper classified job search.

Finally, I found the “rental assistant” ad listed by National Apartment Leasing Company (NALCO) and rode my bike to drop off my typewritten resume. The largest apartment rental company in the city hired me a week later. I was thrilled.

NALCO’s main office was a beehive of rooms in the basement of one of their vintage properties at the corner of Negley and Penn avenues in East Liberty. Half a dozen girls like me were peppered among the fast-​talking, jewel-​drenched ladies who wielded their Realtor licenses like swords. We existed to facilitate the NALCO system of getting renters in and out of properties as seamlessly as possible to keep the inventory full.

In 1991 Pittsburgh, banks were banks and factories were factories. There wasn’t much cool loft living in converted spaces. With more than 1,000 rental units across the city, NALCO had the rental market cornered.

It’s hard today to imagine the cumbersome paper, pen and personal nature of the real estate industry in the early ’90s. People physically met each other to transact a rental. There was a lot of paperwork, which proved to be both an enabler and the downfall of NALCO.

It started with a pink message slip with a caller’s name and the property they wanted. Those slips went through many hands on the journey to us rental assistants. We would then transfer the stuff to “rental lead sheets” so that an agent or one of us could call back an interested renter. The next phases occurred when a renter was passed on to a “showing” appointment. The last step was filing lease agreements. The handwritten paper trail existed with near-​obsessive precision. But not everything was filed. Curiously, there were always a batch of messages, rental lead sheets and filled-​out-​but-​not-​processed credit checks in the garbage. This meant that the people on those papers hadn’t had the chance to see the apartment and decide against it, or they hadn’t gotten to the credit check stage to be rejected, or they did and it was never processed. This stuff filled the wastebaskets nearly every day.

Around the fourth week of my employment, it was time for a deeper level of training that required me to understand any number of codes and numbers associated with processing and inputting paperwork. Aside from the sequential file numbers and alphabetical filing of all applications, I’d frequently noticed little chicken scratches like dots or hastily circled words on the pink slips with transcribed answering machine messages. While I noted them, I didn’t think too much of these marks.

On one balmy October afternoon, I sat down to be trained in the nuances of the system. Pen poised over notepad, head down, I listened, scribbled notes: “Be sure to use the grey filing cabinet for Point Breeze, brown for Shadyside properties. Paper sticks in front copier so use the one in the back if…” My trainer (also named Jennifer) had become a fast friend. This day she went on and on, the details becoming more arcane. And then suddenly, like a record skipping, I heard but surely heard wrong, her last sentence. I asked her to repeat what she’d just said. She shrugged. “I said, be sure to throw away the black callers. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Those dots, and when the word ‘call’ is circled? That’s a black person and we don’t rent to them. It sucks, I know, but that’s how it is.”

I’m sure you’ve seen it. Those dots, and when the word ‘call’ is circled? That’s a black person and we don’t rent to them.”

She said it started the day she was trained at the front desk by the president and continued in the 2½ years she’d been working at NALCO, but the more senior staff knew it had been going on as long as they could remember. Decades.

I shut the door and demanded an account of how this could be? Why would this be? She hated it, but if I wanted to keep my job (as she did), I was to do as all other employees who answered the phone, and make a notation of several dots on messages or circle the word “call” if the voice on the other end “sounded black.” She literally recited phonetics of key words that had been identified by NALCO leadership that would indicate a “black dialect.” She actually said (this quote is in one of the Pittsburgh Press articles about the case), “You know, like the way they say ‘bet-​room’ instead of bedroom or ‘nort’ instead of ‘north.’ ” I stared at her. I said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” She was absolutely not kidding me. I was assured not to worry when some people phoned seven or eight times, angry to have not been called back. I was to ignore these.

Like most white people, my experience with discrimination was either reading about it or hearing about it on the evening news. Civil rights were an important issue in my family, and here was an astounding, calculated example of the worst kind right in front of me.

Even as I recount this story, 25 years later I have a stomach ache. I fear recrimination. I am not protected. The thing about being a whistleblower is that it is lonely. Even if what you are exposing involves or affects thousands of people, it is the lone voice which triggers the investigation into wrongdoing. Why is it so scary? Because the thing that the whistleblower uncovers was there and either remained ignored or undiscovered and you walked in and exposed it. What entitles the whistleblower to breeze in and make noise? Nothing. It is a matter of conscience and action and frankly sometimes, raw anger.

That fall was particularly electric with issues of race. Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas took turns sharing mortifying humiliations with the country at the behest of white politicians. The beating of Rodney King had scorched televisions earlier in 1991. Race relations were tense, making my choice to expose NALCO’s complete moral disregard and illegal rental practices all the more urgent.

While I understood intellectually that I would become a whistleblower, I have to say I was driven by pure emotion and adrenaline. Like others who speak up, I acted in secret, an investigative reporter to gather evidence.

It didn’t take long. The honesty about the discrimination was breathtaking. I was told by an employee who scheduled showings for agents that if there was any suspicion of a potential renter (who passed the dot test on the phone screen) being black, the agent would do a “drive by.” If the person standing in front of the building was indeed African American, they would be stood up. At this my throat closed and tears welled up.

I had to put together a cogent case, fast. A case that I would bring to whom, I didn’t know yet. I was no Deep Throat. No Google search existed to learn how to blow the whistle. This predated now billion-​dollar whistleblowers like Erin Brockovich who hadn’t yet stumbled upon the chemical poisoning and Sherron Watkins who took down Enron. The whistleblower as a movie character had certainly been around for a long time, “Serpico,” “Silkwood” and any number of Watergate depictions among them. So, while it existed in pop-​culture parlance, being a whistleblower was an obscure notion to me.

The systemic racism at NALCO was as infuriating as it was absurd. I asked why, of course, on several occasions. The answers would have been comical had they not been so unjust. “Old people are afraid of integration” or “They need to keep the properties nice…” I was shocked they’d never been caught, and I had to ask. I was told they had been approached by African Americans accusing them of discrimination on a regular basis, but nothing was ever proven or pursued. That made sense too. If you are a person looking for an apartment, you are rushed and distracted and busy. Accusations cost time and money. Later in life, when I relayed this story to a new boss, she said, “Um, no, I’m a black woman. If I wasn’t called back, the FIRST thing I would assume is racism.”

In looking back, it is no wonder NALCO got away with this for so many years. We take for granted now our instant access to information. In 1991, people took pictures with a film-​loaded camera and paid to look at them days later. A whistleblower sure doesn’t want to be caught red-​handed holding a blooming Polaroid shot of evidence.

I scanned the Yellow Pages for “housing discrimination” and “racism.” The scary thing was that I couldn’t take a break and make the call from a cell phone outside. Nobody I knew had a cell phone then. I had to call the city’s Commission on Human Relations from my NALCO office. It was terrifying. But I got lucky. I reached Yancey Miles, an investigator for the commission. He listened with dead silence to my story. Finally, he said, “And you work there now? And you are white?” We hung up after making plans for him to interview me at home that night. I was so afraid, I considered calling him back to back out.

Within 15 minutes, my desk phone rang. My heart exploded. Did my bosses hear me through the stone walls?

I strained to close the door with my foot and lowered my voice. “Jennifer Papale speaking, how may I help you?” I answered. “Hello, it’s Yancey Miles again.” “Yes? I can’t talk anymore now,” I whispered. He said, “I just want to repeat — you are not a victim, you work there presently?” “Yes, yes!” I said rudely. “OK. You need to understand, Jennifer. We have been after these people for years. I need you to tell me if this is all true.” I was terrified. I was officially a whistleblower and couldn’t turn back now.

That night, as I watched him emerge from a drab, old car, adjusting his glasses, my spirits sank a little. I kind of needed a buff, dashing Denzel in a leather jacket and Rolex. Yancey looked more like a rumpled social worker than a racial justice avenger. I felt very vulnerable and alone. I hoped he was tougher than he looked. And as it turned out, he was.

For the next three hours he sat at the dining room table. He hammered me with questions and demands. There was already a NALCO case file. Over the years, the city Human Relations Commission had received dozens of complaints from would-​be renters who were black. Some of them filed complaints but simply couldn’t prove the reason they weren’t called back was discrimination. Others called but didn’t follow through. In the haze of bureaucracy, the lack of cohesion left the cases in limbo. I would be the needle to thread together years of complaints.

I hoped [Yancey Miles] was tougher than he looked. And, as it turned out, he was.

He still wanted just one more white employee to step forth and confirm what I was charging. Yancey wanted copies of the dotted messages and other evidence.

The next week was excruciating. I bullied and cajoled my friend Jennifer to come forth. She was very unhappy with me. I promised her I would do the evidence gathering. I shoved discarded pink slips and records into my purse in a cold sweat. My fear of getting caught was visceral. I sat in a staff meeting ready to pass out from fear that they would know my secret. That I knew their secret.

Finally, Yancey gave me a headsup that they would be contacting NALCO very soon and it was up to me how I wanted to handle it. Like, get out of Dodge. I was not protected in any way. Whistleblower laws weren’t exactly anyone’s specialty, and I wasn’t being harmed by what the company was doing. They didn’t know I knew, so they didn’t fire me. Whistleblowers like John Slowik, who in May of 2016 received $51 million for outing a global pay-​to-​play scheme by Olympus Corporation of the Americas, reap financial rewards because they have been wronged somewhere in the process of blowing the whistle. Lawsuits are good for keeping your name clear and enabling the bills to get paid when you tangle with a company and blow the whistle on them. This was never to be the case with me.

While I didn’t have lawyers to represent me, I did understand that the media was a way to shed the brightest possible light on the situation. In 1991 there was certainly no Instagram upon which to post incriminating documents. I needed the newspaper to know the facts before I quit. Once I was gone, I’d never be able to get back in and get more details.

By then I’d convinced another girl to come forward and we went to the Pittsburgh Press. As luck would have it, Doug Root, one of the paper’s best reporters, was there that day. I laid it all out. He asked: “They told you to code messages?” A young white woman exposing housing discrimination against black people in 1991 in the city of Pittsburgh was no minor headline. Thankfully, he reported the case faithfully and accurately for a long time after.

The day the story came out, the NALCO staff was gathered. I heard somebody whisper, “We’ve finally been caught.” Moments later the leader of the company assured us the story in the Pittsburgh Press was totally false. The paper was picking on NALCO because they were so big. The stone-​faced staff dispersed. I went to my office and grabbed my purse and walked out, now unemployed and feeling naked.

For a couple weeks, I had a mini turn as an in-​demand interview subject. I was featured in The Pittsburgh Courier and a full-​color, front-​page Pittsburgh Press Sunday magazine story. By today’s standards it was a mild media circus. Still, producers sought me out. I appeared on WTAE’s “City Chronicles” hosted by Cathy Milton. Dave Clark, host of “Black Impact” on WPXI interviewed me on his show. Later, in 1994, I flew to Chicago and appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for a segment on doing the right thing. One of her producers had worked on one of the shows I was on and remembered me. It was all very awkward being in the spotlight, but to me, the story had to be told to maybe inspire others to speak up or scare other companies out of doing this same thing. Whistleblowing tends to beget whistleblowing.

In the last two decades, there have been many notable whistleblowers. In 2002, three separate whistleblowers made the TIME magazine Person of the Year cover: Sherron Watkins of Enron, WorldCom accountant Cynthia Cooper and FBI agent Coleen Rowley. ProPublica cites at least five complex whistleblower cases that were part of the 2008 banking crisis. But with any level of notoriety comes trouble.

Some weird moments happened. I was an invited guest on “Black Talk,” a radio show on WCXJ-​AM. The host, Dave Scott, didn’t make eye contact with me when I arrived at the studio and he said to his producer, “Here she is, the great white hope.” People called in to admonish me to mind my own business. I didn’t really know what to say in response. Another time, when I told the story to Oprah Winfrey, her response was, “What do you have, a trust fund or something?” It stung to have this thing distilled and diluted.

I was subpoenaed to the other Jennifer’s unemployment benefits hearing. Because NALCO denied the discrimination, they said she quit for no reason. Luckily, Doug Root was allowed to attend the public hearing and wrote about it the next day. It was a breakthrough in the narrative of the case because it forced the NALCO lawyer to address the discrimination accusations out of context. Their lawyers doggy-​paddled to get the press off of the real issue and focus on the staff. It didn’t work. The coverage got more and more devastating to NALCO.

The story has a good ending. Many months after I quit, I was called upon for depositions once the Human Relations Commission brought a class action case to civil court. My testimony was critical. In 1993, they settled and it was announced at the time as the largest housing discrimination class action suit in Pennsylvania history. Tenacious Yancey took it all in, he of few words and great work.

One day out of the blue, one of the witnesses for the prosecution asked me to lunch. We sat in Bloomfield over a burger and she slid a card across the table. She said, “I will never be able to thank you enough. I won money. I have a home. I was able to buy a new Maxima.” Inside the pretty thank you card were five $100 bills. It was more cash than I had ever held at one time. I was grateful. I was uncomfortable.

When I was contacted in January by the YWCA Racial Justice Awards committee inviting me to the 25th Anniversary Dinner I couldn’t believe it’s been that long. I wonder how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. My sense of deja vu was chilling when I read reporting by The New York Times that Donald Trump was accused of housing discrimination against blacks in the ’70s and ultimately settled the suit brought by the government. I don’t know that I thought our case was so unique, but it was bizarre to see the similarities.

It’s a strange thing to be a whistleblower. In explaining to my daughters what this means, I pulled up a 2013 list on Politico titled “Top 10 Famous/​Infamous Whistleblowers.” It evokes mixed feelings. Hollywood is clear about its feelings: Of the 10 on this particular list, seven stories were made into major movies.

What I did doesn’t come up too often in my life. On the rare occasion that it has, people always ask the same thing: “Would you do it again?” And my answer is always the same: “Without hesitation.”


Jennifer Papale Rignani

Jennifer Papale Rignani is a marketing professional and a freelance writer living in south Pittsburgh with her husband and three daughters.

Other stories in this category: « Time for a change
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