Victory or Death: William Barret Travis and the Obligations of a CCO

Thomas Fox
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William Barret TravisToday in 1836, Alamo commander William Barret Travis issued his famous ‘Victory or Death’ plea for reinforcements. It was short so I quote it in full:

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World:

Fellow citizens & compatriots—I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch—The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country—Victory or Death.

William Barret Travis

Lt. Col. Comdt

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 who fought and died 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 Barret 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 sand tale 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 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) unit at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Chuck Duross, said at Compliance Week a couple of years ago 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 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.’ My fellow FCPA Blog Contributing Editor Michael Scher has been a leading voice for the protection of compliance officers, as have Donna Boehme and Michael Volkov. In a post entitled “Michael Scher Talks to the Feds” he said, “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 the following of the DOJ and SEC “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). Jonathan Marks has long advocated that the departure of a CCO from a company is such a material event that it should be disclosed by public companies.

In the area of anti-money laundering (AML) compliance professionals, Reuters, in an article entitled “Bankers anxious over anti-money-laundering push to go after individuals”, reported that at the Securities Industry Financial Markets Association conference, John Davidson, E*Trade Financial’s global head of AML, said that the “new push by regulators and lawmakers to hold individuals, rather than just institutions, accountable for regulatory violations involving money laundering is spooking members of the U.S. financial industry.” He further said that this aggressive trend and a new vigorous AML bill, introduced in Congress by Representative Maxine Waters entitled “Holding Individuals Accountable and Deterring Money Laundering Act”, were all “a little scary.” He found the movement towards more AML enforcement against individuals “an incredibly disturbing trend.” The reason it is so scary, an un-named top level compliance officer said, is “that compliance officers at the largest Wall Street institutions were feeling especially nervous because the power structures in those institutions sometimes did not give compliance officers enough authority to act.”

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. This means that while you not only have to make hard decisions you may have accept employment separation if your company disregards your advice and engages in illegal activity. I do not pretend that to be a easy decision or one lightly made but CCOs have a different role in a corporation from that of a General Counsel (GC) and no amount of pining about attorney ethical obligations will change that dynamic.

 

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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