Famous Whistleblowers Who Paid the Painful Price for Truth

At age 28, Victor Carlström was the hottest financial broker in Sweden. He’d built relationships with the world’s top banks, he hosted Swedish royalty on his yacht, he flew the world in a private jet. And he worked for one of the biggest financial firms in the nation.

Today, seven years later, he has had more than a dozen death threats, two attempts on his life, he fled to the United States to seek asylum. He’s lost his family, his business and his livelihood.

What happened between 2013 and today? Victor Carlström became a whistleblower.  And he’s learned why people don’t often blow the whistle.

His story is true rags to riches, full of corruption, crime, and loss. In late 2019, he filed a $4.2 billion lawsuit versus powerful Swedish banks, and government and business officials. At the center of his research, he says, is the biggest money laundering scheme in history.

“At the core of my passion was a fundamental belief in the systems – the markets, the banks, and the global economy – I revered them, I worshiped them, perhaps a bit naively,” Carlström said. “With youth comes a certain amount of confidence, new-school thinking, and some cockiness, which overlap like a Venn Diagram. All those factors pushed me to speak up, for better or for worse.”

Carlström’s whistleblowing is on par with several other international cases of honest people speaking truth to power and paying the price.

A Financial Rock Star Speaks Up

At age 28, after six years as the leading financial broker in Sweden, the biggest financial company in the country — Folksam — came calling. It was a good match. Roughly 50 percent of the country’s population was a client of Folksam in one form or another. He signed on and quickly became Folksam’s biggest partner in acquiring new cash and clients on a monthly basis. But soon, he was encouraged to steal from his clients. Already suspicious of some of the company’s activities, he sniffed around and came up with questions about the company’s business practices. More digging produced not only more questions, but some shocking and unfortunate discoveries.

He mentioned his concerns to CEO Jens Henrikkson, who is currently the head of Swedbank, in charge of cleaning up its money laundering scandal. Almost immediately, his investing responsibilities were diminished. Before long, Henriksson severed the relationship, stole his clients, smeared his name, and stole $12 million in fully-earned commission owed to Carlström, the lawsuit alleges.

Carlström discovered that Henriksson was very close personal friends – sometimes college buddies — with many powerful people, including top people in Sweden’s financial regulatory and oversight organizations. They all used those relationships for personal gain, stealing, defrauding, and lining their own pockets at the expense of so many others, he believes.

Once he realized that instead of going after Swedbank, Folksam, Henrikkson and others, that the target was on his back, Carlström fled Sweden. After first stopping in Dubai, Carlström left for America, where today he hides and hopes that his plea for asylum is approved.

He employs armed bodyguards 24/7, police protection, and moves around every two to three days.

There have been multiple attempts on his life, more than a dozen death threats, and his family has left him, fearing for their own lives. He’s attempted suicide twice and now realizes why speaking up and being a whistleblower is rare.

Carlström says he and his companies have been the subject of four years of harassment and investigations by corrupt Swedish authorities. His offices have been raided and ransacked. Meanwhile, his whistleblowing on Swedbank, Folksam, other financial firms, government agencies and officials has resulted in not a single hearing or investigation in Sweden.

“I was naïve and I thought I could beat a corrupt system with honest methods and playing by the rules,” Carlstrom said. “I learned the hard way — after more than four years of fighting corruption and spending millions of dollars on lawyers and private security — that it is impossible for a single person to beat corruption.”

Carlström turned to the legal system to help in fighting corruption. His lawsuit, filed in New York City, includes allegations of RICO Act crimes against the Swedish Tax Agency, Financial Supervisory Authority, the Swedish Tax Agency’s Director-General Katrin Westling Palm, Financial Supervisory Authority’s Director General Erik Thedéen and other officials. The 74-page lawsuit can be found here. Folksam is preparing a response that is due within the next few weeks.

Carlström’s story, though complex, is simple in that whistleblowers are simply never believed. And if they are they are maligned, ignored or punished for speaking up. A look at other high-profile cases:

Christine Blasey Ford

Christine Blasey Ford is a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. In September 2018, Ford alleged that then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in Bethesda, Maryland, when they were teenagers in the summer of 1982.

She testified about her allegations during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination later that month. Despite her coming forward, Kavanaugh was confirmed by the US Senate to serve a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.

Ford received a number of threats – including death threats – for coming forward with her allegations against Kavanaugh. During her testimony, Ford stated, “I have been called the most vile and hateful names imaginable. People have posted my personal information on the internet. This has resulted in additional emails, calls, and threats. My family and I were forced to move out of our home.”

Rui Pinto

Rui Pinto is a computer hacker and founder of the website Football Leaks, which revealed various financial transactions, tax violations, and other damaging information about European football (soccer) stars.

The website was set up in 2015 and routinely reveals salary and contract information about famous European soccer stars and clubs. Football Leaks would reveal signing bonuses and bailout clauses that were not reported by soccer clubs and amounts earned by stars to do photo shoots and endorsements. Clubs were named for violating league rules, and the site would break news about new events that were being considered by leagues before they were announced.

Pinto’s interference with European soccer teams was not well received by the sport and he was under great scrutiny for years after founding the site. Pinto was arrested in Hungary in early 2019 at the request of the Portuguese authorities for suspicion of attempted qualified extortion, violation of secrecy and illegally accessing information. He was extradited to Portugal and has been charged with 147 crimes by the Public Ministry.

In April 2020, Pinto was released from prison but kept under house arrest by Portuguese authorities.

Michael Atkinson

 Michael Atkinson was Inspector General of the US Intelligence Community, appointed by President Donald Trump in 2018. He received a whistleblower’s complaint from an intelligence community official accusing President Trump of abusing his power over foreign police to coerce Ukraine’s government to announce investigations that would benefit him personally.

Atkinson was compelled by federal law to report the whistleblower complaint to Congress. After he did, House Democrats held hearings on the issue, eventually impeaching Trump, who was later acquitted by the US Senate.

Trump fired Atkinson in April 2020, citing his filing of the whistleblower complaint and saying he had done “a terrible job” overall.  Within days Atkinson encouraged future whistleblowers to come forward, saying in a statement, “The American people deserve an honest and effective government. They are counting on you to use authorized channels to bravely speak up – there is no disgrace for doing so.” 

No Disgrace, But Often a High Price

Although motivated by the desire to make a positive change, whistleblowers are more often than not mocked and insulted, if not outright threatened and harmed.

“If my case proves anything it’s that to create change in a system, you must build a team to affect change,” Carlström said. “You can bet that those in power are aligned, arm in arm, to keep and expand that very power. And if you get in the way of their march towards greater power, you will be collateral damage to them, and they won’t look back.”