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Leading SEC whistleblower attorney Jordan Thomas was featured on NPR’s Planet Money podcast. In the episode “The Whistleblower Whisperer,” Jordan tells Planet Money co-host Jacob Goldstein about his work representing whistleblowers who provided evidence to the SEC that led to landmark enforcement actions against Wall Street’s biggest banks, including Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan. Jordan also details his childhood and the “extraordinary life” that led him to this work.
Jacob: Just tell me your name and your job so I don’t forget that.
Jordan: Sure, my name is Jordan Thomas I am the chair of the whistleblower representation practice at [prior firm]. I am based out of New York.
Jacob: Tell me about growing up.
Jordan: Well, my mother, a white former nun turned schoolteacher, instilled in me a profound faith and encouraged me to 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 an incredibly smart and charismatic man who believed the American dream was a myth. You know, if I could distill the tenets 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. For many years I wanted to ‘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.
Jacob: 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 told me this 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.
During and after the financial crisis, Jordan Thomas worked as a lawyer at the SEC. That’s one of the federal agencies that regulate Wall Street. 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 whistle blower is eligible for an award, 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.
Jordan: One is, we’re very selective. We get into contact with all kinds of people; whack jobs, conspiracy theorists and foxhole convert looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Our job is to figure out who the good guys are, the real whistleblowers, the ones who know where the bodies are buried and the ones that can lead us to them. We’re pretty good at that. I think the second thing is that we’re hardened realists. We understand how things really work and are willing to use non-traditional tactics, 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.
Jacob: Including New York.
Jordan: Correct. I sometimes joke that some of my clients must have been trained by the Mossad, because they have enough recordings of people that are game changers. In the past, the SEC would have to build cases from the ground up circumstantially… now my clients are bringing them countless recordings of senior people talking about wrongdoing. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Jacob: What can you tell me about specific clients of yours?
Jordan: Not much. Our clients tend to be senior people with a lot to lose. And actually, the number one question that comes to whistleblower counsel is:” Will I lose my job? Will I be blacklisted in my career?” Under the SEC whistleblower program you can report anonymously And so, 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 changing technology to change the gender or timbre of the whistleblower’s voice.
Jacob: So, the SEC itself can’t even identify the voice of the whistleblower?
Jacob: 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?
Jordan: Well let me give you an example of JP Morgan. JP Morgan was telling its clients that it would objectively pick the best funds for their clients when, in fact, they had a bias for picking proprietary products in which they made more money. Sometimes those products had worse performance but 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 effected over 100,000 JP Morgan clients and was stopped because of our client.
Jacob: And, and what happened to JP Morgan like what did they have to do as a result?
Jordan: They had to pay over $300 million.
Jacob: And Jordan’s clients 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 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 dollars.
Jacob: Even now, does Merrill Lynch know who your clients were?
Jordan: No, they don’t. The same with JP Morgan. If we do our job well, our clients can and do continue working at the organizations on which they reported. Even though they could buy an island, some of them like working, so they keep working
Jacob: I mean not to be glib but there is — “Hey Bob! How’d you show up in a Lamborghini today?”
Jordan: Some people don’t show their money and I call them secret millionaires, people who won an award but choose to keep working.
Jacob: At the same firm.
Jordan: Yes, it does happen. People’s relationship with work is in some ways like family after a period of time and breaking it off is hard.
Jacob: What was your name before you were Jordan Thomas?
Jordan: Paul Thompson.
Jacob: Does anybody still call you Paul?
Jacob: Tell me about your mom.
Jordan: Well, my mom is a former nun, I joke that my mother is a cross between Mary Poppins and Mother Teresa.
Jacob: Seems pretty good.
Jordan: Yes, she is one of the most loving people that I’ve ever known. But she is also not a worldly person, as a result the world hasn’t always been kind to her.
Jacob: How did she and your father get together? They sound like they were in very different worlds.
Jordan: My mother was in a convent in Compton, California. My father was working in politics in LA and she and another nun went to a public hearing to advocate for a crosswalk near the school where she was working. Somehow they struck up a conversation and a year or so later she left the convent and began dating my father. 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 of my early life I was neglected, abused and homeless. But I got glimpses of a more glamourous life when I visited my father.
Jacob: What did he do? What was his job?
Jordan: Well, my father was a rising star as a young man. He came from nothing, went to community college and then went to an accredited night law school and then ended up working for the county supervisor in LA. He was the first elected black judge in southern California. Then, unfortunately he got in a serious car accident and the accident required him to take prescription pain killers, which affect your judgment so he was medically retired from the bench. All of his dreams and his future seemed to fade away. So, after his career path ended, he used what he knew to solve problems for people. If people wanted to be appointed to certain positions, he would help them get those positions. If they 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 leverage the government.
Jacob: How did you think about your dad when you were a kid and how did that change as you were growing up?
Jordan: You know, I idolized my father. He was everything that I hoped to be. He knew famous people, partied with celebrities, drove fancy cars. He lived on the beach or near the beach, had a farm in Hawaii.
Jordan: That was kind of his existence. He ate every meal out he was a flashy, successful person. 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 daily bread store, you know scrape off the mold and eat the bread. It was a contrast the way we lived. 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 with that station, wield power, and influence.
Jacob: It’s interesting, I mean I could imagine going a very different way if you’re going to the day old bread store, see your father go out to a restaurant for every meal and then wondering why he isn’t giving your mom money to take care of you…
Jordan: That’s something that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger, but I began to appreciate more later when I grew older. In my teenage years, my idealized image of my father began to crack. As a student at UCLA, I was finally living close to him to see him at his worst. Dishonest with those close to him, motivated by self-interest, 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.
Jacob: When was that?
Jordan: When I was 19. After a close call while drunk behind the wheel on a steep ravine in the Malibu hills, I knew I needed to break away entirely. I broke with my father shortly thereafter. At that point I decided to reinvent myself. Essentially putting myself into a witness protection program of my own making.
Jacob: That is an interesting choice of phrase. What do you mean by that?
Jordan: I didn’t believe that if I stayed in LA I could get away from my father and his influence. I thought my best chance of having a new beginning was to get lost. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was also important for me to find myself. So, I sold everything I could, I packed up my old Volkswagen bug and transferred to Bennington, a well-known modern dance school in Vermont. It was like the furthest away from where I was. And I had never been there. To help make this transition, I legally changed my name to Jordan Thomas. My first name was Jordan because I loved Michael Jordan. I loved playing basketball, so I thought that would be a good first name. 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 because I related to 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 former life.
Jacob: It didn’t end well for Corleone.
Jordan: It didn’t end well. I suppose I didn’t think that through as much as I should have but it has ended well for me.
Jacob: What was your name before you were Jordan Thomas?
Jordan: Paul Thompson.
Jacob: Does anyone still call you Paul?
Jacob: Do you think of yourself as Paul Thompson at all?
Jordan: I don’t. 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, girlfriend, teacher, coach. Even after going back trying to remember, I don’t remember much about Paul. I think that most of his life was very difficult.
Jacob: It’s amazing that you use the word his, like it’s somebody else.
Jordan: It really is.
Jacob: You said until recently you didn’t remember anything, was there something that caused you to remember?
Jordan: There was. There was a New York Times story that came out that profiled me, that alluded to some of my past. Surprisingly, it made me feel lighter. Because of that feeling I realized that I hadn’t fully dealt with my past. Some of my clients and readers of the profile told me that I had inspired them, so I decided to revisit and investigate my history. I took time from work and traveled to all of the places that I once lived and sought out people who knew me then and tried to remember what had happened.
Jacob: That sounds terrifying to me.
Jordan: It was. But necessary.
Jacob: Jordan gathered up old family photos and letters he had 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 Thompson.
Jordan: There was a moment, I was at 35,000 feet or something like that, and I was reading old letters and looking at pictures. All of a sudden, my memory starting flooding back and literally the woman next to me said “Are you alright?” because I was clearly affected and that was the beginning – I was beginning to see what I hadn’t been able to revisit.
Jacob: Were there any particular moments on that trip that stand out? Specific conversations you had? Places you went?
Jordan: I talked to you about the airplane experience, I also remember meeting with my cousin who knew me when I was a teenager and her describing an incident when she was babysitting, and I wanted to make pancakes. I somehow made batter and put it in a toaster and obviously that didn’t go well. She talked to me about my reaction.
Jacob: What was your reaction?
Jordan: Apparently, I lost my mind… like I was going to be beaten, like the world was going to end, like ‘hide me.’ Some of these conversations helped me to see that terrified child and kind of grieve for him.
One of the things that I’ve learned from my clients is that secrets are rarely empowering. So, part of my decision was to no longer keep those secrets. 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 doing what I do but for the training in the ‘dark arts’ by my father. And, I wouldn’t have had the courage to take this unconventional path but for the difficult times in my life and the need to recreate myself. So, I have been kind of holding on to secrets when those have been kind of the foundation of my life, my success, who I am.