Rosie Ruiz died last month. If you were a long-distance runner in the late 70s or early 80s, you certainly heard of Rosie Ruiz. She won the Boston Marathon, for a few days, in 1980 with the (then) third fastest time recorded by a female runner. The problem was that she had not won the Boston Marathon, indeed she had not even run the course. She was the first and only cheater to be awarded the Boston Marathon garland.

It was never clear when the story actually began. At the Boston Marathon, it began at Kenmore Square, about a mile from the finish line where she jumped into the race. According to her obituary in the New York Times (NYT), “Ruiz was working as a secretary at a commodities trading firm in Manhattan when she stunned the running world by being the first woman to cross the finish line in Boston in 2 hours, 31 minutes and 56 seconds. It would have been the third-fastest time ever recorded by a woman in a marathon.”

Yet questions immediately arose about Ruiz and her miracle time. US long-distance running star and winner of the 1980 men’s race Bill Rogers said at the time that she did not appear as if she had run a marathon. After her death Rogers told AP, ““We knew that she had jumped in. We, who knew what the marathon was, we got it. She wasn’t sweating enough; she had on a heavy shirt; she didn’t know about running.”

Others immediately had suspicions about her. In addition to the fact that “Spotters had not seen her at checkpoints along the 26-mile course”, after the race Ruiz told “a television interviewer that she had run only one other marathon, the 1979 New York City Marathon, and that she had finished that race in 2:56:33.”

That interviewer was Kathrine Switzer, a TV commentator who had gained fame as the first woman ever to run in the Boston Marathon. She asked Ruiz “incredulously, “So you improved from 2 hours and 56 minutes to 2 hours and 31 minutes?” Ruiz replied, “I trained myself”. Moreover, Ruiz “appeared not to understand Switzer’s questions about interval training — workouts designed to improve a runner’s speed.” When Ruiz mounted the winner’s podium to receive her laurel wreath, Switzer intoned “Rosie Ruiz, the mystery woman winner — we missed her at all our checkpoints”.

It all unraveled quickly. Rogers was quoted in the Las Vegas Review ““I was with her the next day on TV, and she was just crying her head off,” Rodgers said, adding that he thought Ruiz wanted to confess. “If she had just said, ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake.’ Runners — we all drop out of races — we would have understood.”” Eight days after she was awarded the top spot, she was stripped of her title and second place winner Canadian Jacqueline Gareau was declared the rightful winner and returned to Boston the next month to receive her due. “People, they’re still sorry for me. But at the same time I think they should feel sorry more for her,” Gareau, who also came in second in Boston twice and had two other top-10 finishes. “Like everybody says, she’s part of my life. I cannot separate from her because of that story. She’s not a friend, but she’s been there so long. “I wish she would have contacted me some time and said ‘I’m so sorry,’ but no,” Gareau said. “She would have probably had a better life and felt better.”

But Ruiz never publicly admitted she was a cheat or had cheated to win the Boston Marathon. The NYT reported, “in 1996, Steve Marek, a defender of Ruiz’s who led a running club in Westchester, said that several months after the marathon she admitted to him that she had cheated. “She jumped out of the crowd, not knowing that the first woman hadn’t gone by yet,” Mr. Marek told The Boston Globe. “Believe me, she was as shocked as anyone when she came in first.”” But Ruiz always maintained she won fair and square, right up to her dying days.

How does the story of Rosie Ruiz inform the compliance professional and compliance programs? As bad as Ruiz’s conduct in claiming she won the Boston Marathon, she went on to have an equally ethically challenged professional career. According to the NYT, “She was charged in 1982 with grand larceny and forgery, accused of stealing cash and checks from the real estate firm where she had been a bookkeeper. She was sentenced to a week in jail and five years’ probation. In 1983, having moved back to Florida, she was arrested on charges of attempting to sell cocaine to undercover agents at a hotel in Miami and spent three weeks in jail.”

In other words, once you demonstrate you are ethically challenged or maintain a moral flexibility that allows you to lie, cheat and steal; it is highly likely you will continue to do so. Ruiz certainly continued to engage in behaviors which demonstrated her behavior in claiming she won the Boston Marathon was not an anomaly. That is one of the purposes of performing background checks on employees before you hire them. Sadly, only about 30% of employees ever go beyond the most routine background check. When you move up the ladder to the executive ranks, where it is more important to understand the background of a person you are hiring to run or help run your organization, the number actually goes down to 20%.

What about monitoring your employees after they are part of your corporate family? This is where most every organization falls to nearly zero. With such poor Human Resource (HR) practices, you begin to see why companies with even robust compliance policies, procedures and internal controls continue to have compliance violations. There are some employees who just do not feel the ethical norms of society apply to them. In other words, they take the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) training but they never give it a second thought.

A final word about the sad saga of Rosie Ruiz. As Gareau said “I wish she would have contacted me some time and said ‘I’m so sorry,’ but no. She would have probably had a better life and felt better.” I have often wondered why the US Sentencing Guidelines, Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) all require admission of culpability in any FCPA resolution. Perhaps the Ruiz example is the best answer, to get over a problem of being ethically challenged, you must first admit that you do have a problem.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2019