Corruption, Cannabis and AML 2020 with Tom Firestone

Tom Fox and Stephen Martin are talking with Tom Firestone, Partner at Baker & McKenzie, in this week’s episode of Big Brains in Compliance. Before joining Baker & McKenzie, Tom worked at the Department of Justice for 14 years, including as Resident Legal Advisor at the US embassy in Moscow. He, Tom Fox, and Stephen Martin discuss trading ethically in Eastern Europe, key issues in the cannabis industry, and what compliance professionals need to know coming out of the AML act of 2020.

Doing Business in the CIS Region

Stephen asks Tom, “[What] are some of the real issues you see now especially in Eastern Europe?” He responds that the issues are complicated and often relate to secret ownership of business partners by government officials. A lot of his work involved “unpacking these layers of corporate structures to figure out who’s behind them… and can you do business with this person.” He explains to Stephen and Tom why these issues arose and that it requires you to do detailed analysis before moving ahead. Triangular payment arrangements – often a tax evasion scheme – is one red flag compliance officers should look out for, he points out. It boils down to case-by-case investigation, and then making a decision based on your overall judgment. 

Cannabis is a Grey Area

“We review every cannabis-related engagement from anywhere in the world… to determine whether or not it’s something we can do legally and whether or not we’re comfortable with it,” Tom says. He comments that federal law contradicts state law in many jurisdictions because those states have legalized cannabis. “You have a very grey legal area of a very grey legal framework,” he remarks. The industry is heavily influenced by politics and many people in the industry come from a criminal background. You have to evaluate all the risks before moving forward, he advises. He predicts that the federal government will adopt a hands-off policy and defer to state law in these issues. It’s a fascinating area for lawyers because it draws on key skills. Ultimately, “it’s about verifying business partners, about verifying the legitimacy of licenses, and it’s about due diligence,” Tom comments. 

Prosecuting the Demand Side

Tom Fox asks why Tom advocates for a demand-side penalty to be added to the FCPA. Tom Firestone responds that in reality bribes are initiated as often by the recipient as the giver. Both are equally culpable, so both should be prosecuted. Other jurisdictions, such as the UK, prosecute both sides; however, the US has forgone prosecuting the recipient side mostly for political and diplomatic reasons. Instead, they are going after these bad actors in a roundabout way. 

The Future of FCPA and AML 2020

FCPA enforcement is here to stay, Tom Firestone predicts. There are fewer enforcement actions in 2021, but that’s just the natural ebb and flow. Tom Fox asks him what other white-collar priorities he expects from the Biden administration. He responds that he expects to see more sanctions, as well as SEC regulatory, environmental, and antitrust enforcements. Prosecuting domestic terrorists and police brutality are also this administration’s stated priorities. 

Tom Fox and Tom Firestone discuss what the AML act of 2020 means for compliance professionals. It comes down to knowing more about who you’re doing business with, Tom Firestone remarks: “It behooves compliance professionals to pay more attention to who their customers are and where they got the money from.” Stephen asks about future trends in compliance. Tom Firestone lists three areas he believes will define compliance in the near future. In the end, good compliance is about good day-to-day ethics, Tom reminds listeners. “If you have good day-to-day compliance with good day-to-day business ethics, you will protect yourself against a full host of risks that are out there.”


Tom Firestone on LinkedIn

Baker McKenzie


Talking Trade Compliance and More with Jonathan Poling

Jonathan Poling is one of the leading voices in sanctions and trade compliance. He has a wealth of experience as a federal prosecutor in the counter-espionage division of the Department of Justice, where he prosecuted spies, arms dealers, and people doing business illegally in sanctioned countries. Jonathan is currently a partner at Akin Gump. He chats with Tom Fox and Stephen Martin about his work at the DOJ, and other important trade compliance issues, including how he thinks the work of the DOJ will change under the Biden administration.

Working at the DOJ

When Jonathan joined the Department of Justice, the National Security Division was still new, having been established after 9-11 “to consolidate the different national security sections of the Department of Justice and facilitate the exchanging of intelligence with the intelligence community.” Jonathan explains that there were gaps in the economic sanctions that he and his colleagues focused on and helped to close. “Those seeds have since blossomed into a lot of new tactics,” he says. Stephen asks him what he expects from the Biden administration. He first responds with what he expects to stay the same, including an emphasis on foreign influence, particularly in China. What he expects to change, he says, is that things in the DOJ will “return to normal order”. 

Tom asks what Merrick Garland can do to rebuild the morale of the prosecutors working at the DOJ. Jonathan remarks that the first thing is to slow down. In recent times, there has been a rush to prosecution, and it’s understandable that the public wants to see cases tried as soon as possible. However, there’s a reason things take a while, Jonathan says. “It’s a serious thing to charge somebody. You want to go through the evidence gathering. You want to make sure you have your i’s dotted and your t’s crossed.” He emphasizes that the Attorney General should focus on setting the priorities of the agency: his able prosecutors know the job well and can perform their duties in the courtroom. He also shares why not every case that can be prosecuted should be.

Navigating Trade Compliance

“What we’re doing  [at Akin Gump] is trying to help our clients navigate a complicated regulatory space that is still very antiquated and doesn’t always fit their businesses,” Jonathan says. Companies trying to trade legally in sanctioned countries like Iran find it difficult to understand and navigate the regulations. “If they violate the regs – even technically – it can result in significant penalties to the company,” Jonathan points out. He is happy that sanctions are becoming more targeted so that companies can better understand what they can and can’t do.

World Bank Monitor & the Future of Trade with China

Tom asks Jonathan about his work as a World Bank monitor. He describes the role and his experience and comments, “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that program… that probably could be employed to other monitorships around the world.” 

With regard to trading with China, Jonathan comments that we’re witnessing a change of approach. Very soon, he says, how compliance is done in Chinese companies must change: “There is going to need to be a sea change in terms of how compliance is done in Chinese companies.” 


Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP


Elements of an Effective Compliance Program with Tom Fox and Stephen Martin

Big Brains In Compliance is the newest show on the Compliance Podcast Network featuring Tom Fox, the Voice of Compliance, and Stephen Martin, Partner at StoneTurn. In this week’s show, Tom chats with Stephen about the Six Elements framework Stephen helped develop. They discuss why it’s important and how companies can use it to construct a comprehensive compliance program that satisfies government requirements and drives an ethical culture.

The Six Elements

Typically business leaders would either find compliance programs too legalistic, so they would tune out, or believe that they would never run afoul of the guidelines, so they didn’t need to care. Stephen says they created the Six Elements framework for CEOs and companies to have an easily digestible, practical guide to create an effective compliance program for their companies. It helps them to benchmark their existing programs, recognize the gaps, and make enhancements. 

“[The Department of Justice] has become much more sophisticated in evaluating the effectiveness of your compliance program,” Stephen points out. The Six Elements allow companies to have a continuous cycle of monitoring and improvement in the key areas of compliance: risk assessment; governance and structure; policies, procedures, controls; training and education; oversight and reporting; and response and enhancements. “It gives you a very nice work plan of how to enhance,” Stephen says, “and it’s something that both helps you as a company but also you can then show to government regulators if you are ever asked about the effectiveness of your compliance program.”

Risk Assessment and Monitoring

Tom comments on the DOJ’s recent statement that you should do your risk assessment whenever your risks change. Stephen adds that the two areas of compliance that companies struggle with the most are effective risk assessment and oversight and monitoring. He shares how his company helps clients build a proactive risk monitoring protocol: this allows them to monitor their risk internally on an ongoing basis. He and Tom talk about the importance of Data Analytics in oversight and monitoring. It’s the number one question compliance officers ask, Stephen says. They all want to use data but they don’t know how. His company again takes a proactive approach by helping clients create dashboards to aggregate the data already present in the organization. This allows them to monitor key issues.


“How do you help a CCO… to help bring institutional justice and fairness leading to trust and a better culture to an organization?” Tom asks Stephen. Most compliance programs don’t focus on the ethics or culture side, Stephen admits. However, building an ethical culture and giving your employees the tools to speak freely, does more to protect your company than a compliance program in the long run. “Ethical leadership is the best compliance program that you could put in place,” Stephen argues.


Stephen Martin on LinkedIn


Introduction to Big Brains In Compliance with Tom Fox and Stephen Martin

Big Brains In Compliance is the newest show on the Compliance Podcast Network featuring Tom Fox, the Voice of Compliance, and Stephen Martin, Partner at StoneTurn. In this series, Tom and Stephen are going to be interviewing and learning from the biggest names in the compliance world.

In this premiere episode, Tom and Stephen share their professional backgrounds and their journey into the compliance space. Stephen’s interesting career – including his time at WorldCom during the scandal that brought down the company – taught him some important lessons that he shares with listeners. Tom talks about his own career and what eventually led him to become a leading voice in compliance. They also discuss how compliance has evolved over the years.

In future episodes, Tom and Stephen are going to be speaking to the people who have been at the forefront of the evolution of compliance and have transformed the industry for the better. Not only will listeners hear about guests’ professional contributions to the compliance space, but they will also learn a bit about them personally. 

Tune in every other Monday for another episode!


Stephen Martin on LinkedIn