Today is the anniversary of the most historic day of many in the history of the great state of Texas, the date of the fall of the Alamo. While March 2, Texas Independence Day, when Texas declared its independence from Mexico and April 21, San Jacinto Day, when Texas won its independence from Mexico, probably both have more long-lasting significance, if it is one word that Texas is known for around the world, it is the Alamo. The Alamo was a crumbling Catholic mission in San Antonio where 189 men, held out for 13 days from the Mexican Army of General Santa Anna, which numbered approximately 1,800. But on this date in 1836, Santa Anna unleashed his forces, which over-ran the mission and killed all the fighting men. Those who did not die in the attack were executed and all the deceased bodies were unceremoniously burned. Proving he was not without chivalry, Santa Anna spared the lives of the Alamo’s women, children and their slaves. But for Texans across the globe, this is our day.
While Thermopylae will always go down as the greatest ‘Last Stand’ battle in history, the Alamo is right up there in contention for Number 2. Like all such battles sometimes the myth becomes the legend and the legend becomes the reality. In Thermopylae, the myth is that 300 Spartans stood against the entire 10,000 man Persian Army. However there was also a force of 700 Thespians (not actors; but citizens from the City-State of Thespi) and a contingent of 400 Thebans fighting alongside the 300 Spartans. Somehow, their sacrifice has been lost to history.
Likewise, the legend that lifts the battle of the Alamo to the land of myth is the line in the sand. The story goes that William Barrett Travis, on the day before the final attack, when it was clear that no reinforcements would arrive in time and everyone who stayed would perish; called all his men into the plaza of the compound. He then pulled out his saber and drew a line in the ground. He said that they were surrounded and would all likely die if they stayed. Any man who wanted to stay and die for Texas should cross the line and stand with him. Only one man, Moses Rose, declined to cross the line. The immediate survivors of the battle did not relate this story after they were rescued and this line in the sandtale did not appear until the 1880s.
But the thing about ‘last stand’ battles is they generally turn out badly for the losers. Very badly.I thought about this when the former head of the Justice Department’s FCPA Unit, Chuck Duross said at Compliance Week session he shared with the Kara Brockmeyer, the former head of the SEC, FCPA Unit, that he viewed anti-corruption compliance officials as “The Alamo” in terms of the last line of defense in the context of preventing violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). I gingerly raised my hand and acknowledged his tribute to the great state of Texas but pointed out that all the defenders were slaughtered, so perhaps another analogy was appropriate. Everyone had a good laugh back then at the conference. But in reflecting on the history of my state and what the Alamo means to us all; I have wondered if my initial response too facile?
What happens to a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner when they have to make a stand? Do they make the ultimate corporate sacrifice? Will they receive the equivalent of a corporate execution as the defenders of the Alamo received? This worrisome issue has certainly occurred even if the person ‘resigned to pursue other opportunities.’ Michael Scher has been a leading voice for the protection of compliance officers. In a post entitled “Michael Scher Talks to the Feds” he quoted, “a compliance officer (CO) working in Asia asked for recognition and protection: “A CO will not stand up against the huge pressure to maintain compliance standards if he does not get sufficient protection under law. Most COs working in overseas operations of U.S. companies are not U.S. citizens, but they usually are first to find the violations. Since the FCPA deals with foreign corruption, how could the DOJ and SEC not protect these COs?”” In the same post, he asked of the DOJ “Wal-Mart’s compliance officers and professionals allegedly were intentionally obstructed by senior executives from conducting a compliance review and subjected to career-ending retaliation. If confirmed, will the DOJ and SEC’s settlement demonstrate that such harassment of compliance professionals is not condoned? Will the DOJ and SEC also make it clear that compliance officers working for multi-national companies like Wal-Mart in countries outside of America will receive the same protections as those working in America?”
Writing about the MF Global scandal in the New York Times (NYT) in an article entitled “Another View: MF Global’s Corporate Governance Lesson” Michael Peregrine stated that the “compliance officer is the equivalent of a “protected class” for governance purposes, and the sooner leadership gets that, the better.” Particularly in the post Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) world, a company’s CCO is a “linchpin in organizational efforts to comply with applicable law.” When a company fires (or asks him/her to resign), it is a significant decision for all involved in corporate governance and should not be solely done at the discretion of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Yet CCOs continue to face retaliation. Matt Kelly has been chronicling several such stories on his Radical Compliance blog. In a post entitled, “CCOs Facing Retaliation” he listed three such examples which have been related to him by (now former) CCOs:
- One audit executive at a municipal agency, who had been investigating misconduct by the agency’s chief operating officer. In theory, that auditor reported directly to the board, but after the COO inquiries he was told his and the ethics officer’s job were to be reorganized under the general counsel “at the direction of the superintendent” (the COO’s boss). That audit exec found another job. The ethics officer sued and won a settlement, but is still unemployed.
- A compliance program manager who reported concerns about a new chief compliance officer. That CCO was subsequently removed, but senior leaders then stripped this person of his compliance duties: no more organizing compliance training, no duties over conflicts of interest or data privacy. It was retaliation for “revealing that the C-Suite was completely aware of the CCO’s misdeeds but looked the other way.”
- A compliance consultant who told me, “It’s all too common. Happened to me twice. Now I’m my own boss and I love it.”
Kelly’s stories reflect that unfortunately CCOs are retaliated against and discriminated against for doing their jobs. Yet almost all compliance professionals feel their jobs are not only important but that they are doing the right things when they report internal misconduct.
Upon further reflection I now believe the Alamo reference appropriate for compliance officers. It is because sometimes we have to draw a line in the sand to management. And when we do, we have to cross that line to get on the right side of the issue, the consequences be damned.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2019