Making Amends: From Corporate Felon to Ethics Champion

Richard Bistrong was vice president of international sales and marketing for a large, publicly traded manufacturer of products for the law enforcement and military markets from 1997 to 2007. During that time period, Bistrong was getting corruptly obtained pricing his competitors were charging before the non-public tenders were officially opened to the public, and used that inside information to win United Nations peacekeeper contracts for his company.

A UN investigation into a separate and different matter uncovered Bistrong’s actions. He was fired, and the U.S. Department of Justice targeted him for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He proffered to the DOJ, confessing to the crimes they knew about, including the UN deal, self-dealing, kickbacks, and other crimes, and telling them about crimes they didn’t know about, including bribing a Dutch police official.  

He agreed to a plea bargain to a one-count conspiracy for violating the FCPA, in the process avoiding charges for money laundering and wire fraud, among others. He signed an immunity from prosecution agreement in the United Kingdom, where he faced similar charges.

All that led to three years of covert cooperation with U.S. and U.K. authorities, followed by two years as a cooperating witness in multiple countries. At times, he wore a wire to gather information on prosecution targets. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, of which he served nearly 15 months, returning home in December 2013.

Bistrong, now the chief executive of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC, talks about what he was thinking as he was committing crimes, the impact deeply personal disclosures about his personal life had on his relationships, and how he responds to people who say he is cashing in on his crimes by being a well-paid corporate speaker.

At what point did you decide to work to promote better corporate behavior?

When I was in prison, I read a book that had a significant impact on my life, “Reinventing You,” by Dorie Clark. By the time I got through the first two chapters, I realized I was reading a road map of personal and professional recovery. As Clark shared: “People make mistakes; it’s only human. But working hard, being consistent, and building up goodwill over time will enable your community, and the world, to better understand where you’re coming from, and where you hope to go with your life. They may even mobilize to help you get there.” 

Those words turned me from despondency to hope, as I thought that perhaps the self-inflicted crucible of my own career might help others who face similar challenges in their work, where there is a natural tension between the unrelenting pressure to succeed and the pressure to comply. 

At the time you committed your crimes, did you think about the ethics of your actions? Did you feel bad?

I wasn’t thinking about the ethical or legal consequences of my conduct on my former employer, on society--and sadly, not on my family, liberty and health. I thought of my conduct as a win-win. I was selling life-saving products such as armored vehicles and armored vests to the people who needed them the most. I wasn’t tampering with products, so I wasn’t thinking I was hurting anyone. 

My company got all these large sales, the end-user ended up with a world-class brand, often at lower prices and faster deliveries due to the corruption. The intermediaries moved on to the next transaction, and the often poorly paid public official got something to make ends meet.  Personally, I was meeting all of my commercial objectives and targets, and hence, earning my bonus. 

I wasn’t thinking about how even petty bribery robs entire societies of human rights, economic development, and deprives people of even basic educational and medical needs. I was ethically numb to the consequences of my conduct. I was letting what was immediately important, like my goals and objectives, cloud my vision as to what was fundamentally important. These were illusions that were no fault but my own. I could have asked my company for clarification and guidance, but I didn’t. I asked myself the wrong question, “Do they really want to know,” and decided on their behalf that they didn’t.

As to when those feelings surfaced, it was when I got the call from the Justice Department. That was probably one of the best moments in my life, as it finally marked the moment to realize and embrace the damage I had caused, and to start what would be a long road of recovery and reconciliation.

Much of your personal life was made public during the trials in which you testified; how did you handle that, and what impact did that have with your relationships with family, friends, colleagues?

This still is a difficult subject for me. While my life has had ups and downs over the past few decades, this was a low point. It’s one thing to be in counseling, both individually and with family, dealing with a drug addiction that thankfully ended in May 2007, but it’s another dynamic to have it on the front page of the local newspaper where I was living. Having two young adult children, this was very difficult, and devastating for my younger child, who was in high school, where he was subject to all kinds of social ridicule and embarrassment. 

When it all became public, especially after the undercover operation, just like that, overnight, friendships over a 30-year career in the defense and law enforcement industry evaporated. 

When I talk to commercial and compliance teams, I spend time addressing what I call “duty of care,” and how we all have a collective responsibility to keep people both successful and safe, which means an obligation to keep them close with their networks. There’s a common perception the more time a salesperson spends on the road developing business, the better. That’s a dangerous notion, where too often our ethical radar, when spending extended time in far-flung global regions, can get ‘switched off’ to local norms and practices.

That’s why I share with commercial leaders on a global basis that when they are struggling with an ethical decision, to call home and listen to the voices of their loved ones, because if they make the wrong decision, those are the voices they will lose, as I did. Then call compliance. I learned the hard way that if you do the right thing each and every day, it’s your company and family that has your back, not your agents and intermediaries. Repairing some of those bonds, especially with my son, is going to involve a lifetime of healing.

Some people may question your sincerity, and think you are just further cashing in on your bad behavior. How do you respond?

When I got home from prison I asked myself, would my experience as a sales executive have any value to commercial teams who face the same challenges, and to  the compliance leaders tasked with keeping them to the right side of ethical conduct? 

When I started diving into the compliance discourse in 2014, I didn’t see much of a focus on the ‘what actually happens’ on the frontlines of international business, where commercial leaders are tasked with aggressive commercial growth in some volatile, high-risk and competitive environments, and where we know that lucrative business opportunities and corruption risk are intertwined. 

Coming home from prison, starting three years of probation, my first responsibility was finding work. That wasn’t easy. I ended up working in a local retail store at what was a little over minimum wage, but I was happy to find the work. In my free time I was working down 360 hours of mandated community service. 

With that background, I set up a simple blog, and just started writing about my experience. There was no part of my thinking that forecasted any financial component to my writing or future. I just wanted to share my experiences, often in the context of what might have been a more recent enforcement action with similar components to my own, and to see if my perspective had any value to the compliance community. 

I don’t think, or assume, that what the world wants to hear are the woes of a former felon. I get that. If my messages get distorted, diluted or discarded given my past, I leave that to the individual, and am always very respectful. As I learned from Dorie Clark, that’s OK. What’s not for compromise is the narrative under which it occurred. That doesn’t change. I own the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Through my writings, anti-corruption and compliance conference organizers started to ask if I could address their events. Some of those were with my former prosecutors. My only request was to ask if they could pay my expenses. It was all organic. I didn’t want to promote any practice, or how I went from violating U.S. law to preaching ethical decision-making. All I wanted to do, and still do, is to make some difficult issues discussable, and to help compliance and commercial leaders surface some unknowns by helping teams across functions to unpack challenges together. I do that through sharing my journey and what I have learned. 

Starting in 2016, some of the compliance personnel who attended those events asked if I could address their commercial, compliance and/or leadership teams. Some had budgets, some did not, but my model was if my experience could help others, I was happy to do it. I just needed a train or plane ticket, and a place to stay. I also was doing a lot of speaking in academia, including law schools and business schools, without any fees. 

In 2017, with the return of my passport, requests to speak at corporate functions started to increase, and it was then I thought it appropriate to put an economic model around the practice. Wherever I can, time permitting, I try to give back. In December, I will chair the International Chamber of Commerce Integrity Day in The Hague, and I still do a handful of academic events. While I never would have predicted it, this chapter of my career is the most rewarding, and I’m not speaking financially; it’s about having the opportunity to help and possibly touch the lives of others. 

Are you hopeful for the future of ethics and compliance? Do you envision a time when corporations really do behave better? Why?

The direction is absolutely hopeful and inspiring. Having worked with multinationals on a global basis, you can really feel the energy in how compliance, commercial, and business leaders are working together, and to make sure that goals are aligned so those on the frontlines don’t think they are in the middle of competing corporate objectives. I think corporations are really starting to embrace their roles and responsibilities in making sure  that everyone in the workforce appreciates how company values live through everyone’s decisions, and that all of our decisions are linked.

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