141209, Interview corrupt Vice-President Sales
Richard Bistrong: Q&A “…it is pretty clear that the current compliance models, while essential, are still not working.”
An interview with Richard Bistrong. By Bertrand Venard, Professeur de Stratégie chez Audencia, Nantes (France), Visiting Professor (Research Fellow au sein du Financial Institutions Center) The Wharton School, June 2003 – present, Philadelphia, USA.
Find out about bribery from the front line from someone who has been there, seen it, done it and got the jumpsuit.
Where did you go to school, university etc?
First, Barry, I want to thank you for inviting me to thebriberyact.com , and for giving me the opportunity to exchange perspectives with you and your community. I really enjoyed our discourse at the Pinset Masons Regulatory Symposium and I appreciate the chance to continue the dialog. As to education, I went to undergraduate school at the University of Rochester where I received my bachelors in Political Science, cum laude with high honors, which included studies at the Institute for European Studies in Vienna. Immediately thereafter I commenced graduate studies at the University of Virginia, where I received a Masters of Arts in Foreign Affairs in 1987. At the Regulatory Conference, I think we referred to my academic credentials as the “asset” side of the balance sheet!
What was your job when you were engaged in bribery as per your charging documents?
I was the Vice-President of International Sales for a large, publicly traded manufacturer of products for the law enforcement and military markets. My responsibilities required a great deal of direct customer, third party, and sales-team interface, resulting my spending approximately 250 days a year overseas over a ten year period, and twice residing and working out of the United Kingdom. That period capped off a twenty year career in the Defense industry where I started out after graduate school in a fourth generation family business, which was one of the first manufacturers of bullet resistant armor.
Why did you bribe?
I guess I fit into the definition as referenced in so many of the anti-bribery conventions: To win business, to retain business, and to “move the process along” as to complete transactions which were in the sales cycle.
How did you violate the FCPA?
Basically, I conspired with others to pay bribes as well as to keep commissions off the company’s books and records. I think the latter one may have some relevancy to today’s environment where the books and records provisions are perceived as a corporate matter for public issuers; however, as my own charging document exemplifies, if you are causing those violations to occur, you will be personally held responsible for that conduct.
How did you get caught, three times!?
Broadly speaking, the first occurred when my employer called me in as the subject of an internal investigation that ultimately resulted in my termination. As I have shared, in that context, I was very focused on the financial consequences of losing an income stream that was quite steady, albeit lucrative, over an extended time period. Time two was a few months later, when my attorney received a call from the Justice Department that I was the target of a criminal investigation. That resulted in my decision to come in and ‘Proffer’, and from those initial proffer sessions, with Federal investigators and prosecutors, I started cooperating with US Federal Law Enforcement. My cooperation lasted five years, the first half of which involved covert cooperation, which was then followed by trial preparation and trial testimony as a government witness.
It was at this second moment when I really started thinking about the moral, legal and ethical consequences of my behavior and commenced the process of coming clean from a number of different perspectives. The third time occurred almost a year after I stared cooperating in the US, while I was in the United Kingdom working as a covert source for UK law enforcement. It was during one of these visits to London, when I discovered that I was the subject of a Border Watch by another UK agency. That discovery led to a series of meetings involving UK and US governmental representatives, in addition to my own counsel.
It was ultimately agreed upon that I would receive ‘Immunity from Prosecution’ in the UK and would continue to cooperate with UK prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. What I find interesting is that there is a great deal of writing and discussion about the ‘threat’ of carbon copy prosecution and international law enforcement cooperation. Well, from my own experience, let me share that those ‘teeth’ are very real, as having come very close to a cross-border prosecution, and having been a covert source and cooperating witness for multiple countries. By the way, there was actually a ‘fourth’ moment, but I will save that as to give us something to ponder for future discussion!
Do you think training would have stopped you bribing?
I don’t think so, as I was thinking and behaving corruptly. At that time, and shamefully so, I would have looked at compliance training as a ‘bolt-on’ obstacle to success and a ‘work around’ at the front-lines of business. Thus, the fact that I did not have compliance training would not have altered the outcome, as I don’t think I would have given it any thought at the time in terms of altering my thought process, and conduct.
If not, what could have stopped you?
It remains a good question, and one that I often think about, but it is still too abstract for me to really address. As I discussed with respect to training, I was thinking and behaving corruptly, so I am not sure what could have changed my approach. However, with that said, as someone who was in a position of responsibility, I did have a certain level of authority that presented me with the financial tools needed to turn behaviors into transactions, and those are well stated in my charging documents. Thus, in a situation where I had very little oversight, I was able to leverage that in a way that was corrupt. Accordingly, if there were greater controls and limits upon my discretionary and financial authority, my corrupt intentions would have been thwarted at the front lines of compliance, where red-flags would have likely detected improper conduct.
If you could take one positive from your experience of getting caught and going to prison – what would it be?
Barry, as we have discussed, I was well educated, nicely compensated and enjoyed a long career in my industry, so why risk it all? Well, I lost sight of the importance of loved one’s in my life during the years of conduct to which I pleaded guilty. My dedication to those bonds, which were once extremely strong, had been replaced with the never-ending want and accumulation of material things. “Getting caught” by the government stopped that downward spiral in my life and set me back on a course toward reconnecting with what is truly important in life and on a path of reconciliation. I don’t know what life would have been like had my attorney not received that call from the DoJ, but that is another one of those abstract bridges that I thankfully don’t have to cross.
Looking forward, what are your ambitions today?
I think they are evolving. As I reflect upon my broad and extensive career as an international sales executive, along with an extended term as a cooperator for multiple governments, I ask what value can I bring to what is already a well experienced field of anti-bribery compliance professionals and practitioners. Accordingly, I currently look at my blog, web-site (www.richardbistrong.com) and speaking invitations, as vehicles to engage with the compliance community on current anti-bribery issues and challenges. I do this by sharing my own perspectives and inviting that of others. I hope that by welcoming outside comment that I might ascertain if the sum of my experience brings any value by complementing the current level of anti-bribery debate and practice. Furthermore, I look at this as a long-term process. I am employed in my community, working on a weekly basis to satisfy and exceed my court ordered community service, so I see this very much as an effort to find a long term voice in the compliance discourse.
What really interests me is how I can share my experiences with organizations that continue to confront front-line anti-bribery challenges, especially as they impact those operating in high-risk markets. I think that by sharing my perspective, both in a general sense, for example, how I rationalized bribery, and also in a specific sense, as in how I experienced third party manipulation of due-diligence, that I might be able to amplify the emotions and challenges that compliance personnel and corporate executives do not often hear about. In fact, sometimes I ponder if compliance professionals want to hear about the temptations and rationalizations that occur at the field level.
The ‘sharp end’ of bribery is not in the Board Room; it is with the international front line teams that have to confront risk and corruption in their travels. In my opinion, they need tools for how to manage their challenges in the field beyond the compliance paradigm of “just say no.” Barry, from reading the never-ending newsfeeds of bribery enforcement actions and settlements, I think it is pretty clear that the current compliance models, while essential, are still not working. The dynamics of international sales and risk are complicated, and they have regional peculiarities. The people dealing with those issues in their territories need solutions that address and incorporate those challenges, both globally and regionally. I hope that my own experience might help others to realize that personal and professional success can be a partner to embracing an anti-bribery program and ethic. So, I guess if there is a second ‘positive’ from my own experience, including incarceration, it might be to help someone else from having to live through that awful crucible.
Richard, you certainly have a lot to offer just by your life experience. Having gone through it all and drawing important lessons from the ongoing complexity of doing business overseas and in challenging markets, you are empowered to elevate the importance of tailored controls, ethical leadership and wise oversight to the level needed to make that impact. You are dead right being doubtful about compliance folks being your target audience. What really matters that you were VP for sales, ie high enough in the food chain to see things in a strategic mode and detect blind spots that rarely get challenged. Keep it up! Your mission and crusade are both unique and of paramount importance!