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  • Richard Bistrong

Bribery and the Classroom (not in the Classroom)

“Mr. Bistrong, in the complaint it was alleged that you were a conspirator in bribing foreign officials in multiple countries, such as Nigeria, the UK, and the Netherlands, as well as bribing UN officials. Were there instances in which you had opportunities to bribe other officials in other countries? If so, why didn’t you?”

Ouch. Tough question. And guess what, it didn’t come from a compliance professional at a symposium, or a Defense Attorney during cross-examination. It came from a student at Mike Koehler’s FCPA Law Class at Southern Illinois University.

Lately, there has been a great deal of writing about “teaching bribery and compliance” from a number of perspectives. That prompted my own research, where I have reviewed curriculum and course descriptions that speak to raising awareness of how “global business environments and practices” operate in the “real world” as part of the coursework. There are even “how to” books about bribery.

I’m skeptical.

But as this blog is a platform for inclusion as opposed to cynicism, I want to thank, as well as elevate, the perspectives of two professionals who invited me to address their classes as a guest lecturer. Mr. Koehler, who many know as the FCPA Professor, asked for me to come in via video to his “FCPA Law Class,” which specifically focuses on FCPA enforcement and FCPA compliance, at Southern Illinois University. Dr. Tim Hedley (Partner, KPMG) asked me to speak at his Fordham University “Contemporary Issues in Forensic Accounting” business class. What I found from both classes is that the students were extremely engaging, intelligent and wanting to know more about ‘what it’s like out there on the front line.’ Not only did they ask probing and insightful questions, but also they asked follow-on questions that I found quite challenging. It was like cross-examination without the stress and jury!

While I had prior thought that I had considered almost all the different elements with respect to my own experience, these students brought up issues that I had not considered. I had one psychology minor ask me if the sale of my family business (in the Defense sector) had any impact on my conduct and thinking later in my career. I am still pondering that one.

There is no shortage of textbook and case studies for today’s students. Obviously, this academic foundation is essential and appropriate. But what is the responsibility of today’s academic leaders to bring the front lines of international business to the front lines of the classroom? I am not talking specifically of my own experience with respect to corruption and bribery, but am also thinking of those who are currently on the front lines, and those who have retired from overseas positions. How about the perspective of those who made a career out of not paying bribes or agreeing corrupt transactions? While such perspective are certainly different to my own experience, they all provide lessons for tomorrow’s professionals, who will be tasked with providing legal, audit, and regulatory counsel to their future clients.

I recently participated in a Round Table discussion at the SIAS Corporate Governance Week via life-video feed to Singapore. The discussion topic was “Bribery and Corruption in Foreign Jurisdictions,” which was moderated by Professor Yuen Teen Mak, Advisor, SIAS Global Corporate Governance Conference. One of my co-panelists was Girija Pande, Executive Chairman at Apex Avalon Consulting Pte Ltd, and who spent the greater part of his career as Chairman and CEO of Tata Consultancy Services in Asia Pacific. During the discussion Mr. Pande shared his experiences about leading a large organization (Tata) in highly corrupt regions. Mr. Pande reflected on his practice of not engaging in corrupt activities, transactions and projects while still bringing value to both customer and company. For tomorrow’s professionals, these are the “real-world” perspectives that you don’t find in textbooks. 

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I don’t always agree with Mike Koehler’s perspective on FCPA matters, and I would probably be entirely lost taking Dr. Hedley’s accounting course! Yet these two professionals embraced an academic responsibility to their students to show them the “real-world” of overseas commerce. The fact that Mike Koehler and I disagree on a number of FCPA issues resulted in my even greater appreciation for his invitation. When I asked him after the class “why me?” he responded, “My students are engaged in a semester long study of the FCPA.  Having the ability to hear from an individual who violated the law they are studying, and being able to hear first-hand of real-world business conditions, was of tremendous value to the students and added an important dimension to the class.”

I asked Dr. Hedley the same question, not really considering the relationship between my own experience and a course on Forensic Accounting, and he replied, “No matter what I may do to teach students about FCPA, the Act remains an abstraction. You make the Act something much more tangible,” adding “from my experience, I can talk about the Act itself and how corrupt payments take place. But the real “why” corruption happens is best told from your perspective.”

Going back to all these articles about teaching the “real-world,” I hope that those leading tomorrow’s professionals will consider the possibilities of bringing the challenges of international business to their students. Bribery and corruption are real acts, engaged in (or refrained from) by real people, who ponder a decision when confronted with a corrupt transaction “to bribe or not to bribe.” By taking those who have faced those decisions in their own careers, and bringing them to today’s students, there is a tremendous potential to deepen their understanding of the issues which business personnel and groups face on the international front-lines.

As I reflect from these two examples, let me share that today’s students are ready for the experience, and based on their questions, they really want to know more.

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(cartoon copyright Richard Bistrong, not for distribution)


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