I was lying on my top bunk in a dormitory in a Federal Prison Camp in Florida when I originally had the idea that my story could make executives sit up and listen and really bring home the importance of having and following a robust compliance programme.
During my eight month sentence-241 days and nights, and believe me I counted every single one of them-I had a lot of time to reflect on how a typical executive, balancing the demands of a challenging business life and a full and happy personal life, ended up in prison. To go to prison in the United States, and to pay a US$20,000 fine was something I never imagined in my worst nightmares. The closest I ever thought I would get to breaking the law was the possibility of a speeding ticket or parking fine.
Yes prison, and the slow and traumatic process of getting there, was now a reality for me and certainly a punishment. The stigma of a criminal record and serving time in jail is with me for life. Words cannot explain adequately the heartbreak of being separated from family and friends for so long in such an alien environment.
The idea that came to me on my top bunk was that I was an example, a real life deterrent for other executives to take note that laws are serious, and apply not just to companies but to the individuals who run them. Although my story relates to competition law, it is also relevant to every executive, and indeed employee, who is subject to rules regarding any white collar crime, including fraud.
It’s changing now, but compliance training was typically delivered to large commercial audiences by in-house or external legal teams via PowerPoint presentations of the law itself, with some case studies to try to make it more relevant. Compliance can be a very dry, boring subject for commercial executives who generally view the training very much as a “box ticking” exercise that doesn’t apply to them, and easily let their minds drift to the many other priorities that they have.
It struck me that if a normal businessman, someone other executives could relate to easily, delivered an engaging and informative talk on something that had happened to him, the audience would be both fully engaged and educated. They would leave the training with a memorable case study that they wouldn’t forget and a clear understanding that they weren’t immune and that it certainly could happen to them. The reality is that it could happen to you too.
How I Ended Up on My Top Bunk
My story started on 14 February 2006 with a dawn raid at the BA World Cargo offices at Heathrow Airport. It is a day I now refer to as the cargo “Valentine’s Day Massacre” as four executives have served prison sentences and a number of others have been indicted and still await their fate. In the United States alone, over 15 airlines have paid fines of more than US$1.8 billion and the European Union recently announced fines of €800 million Euros for 11 airlines.
A year after the dawn raid, I left British Airways via a compromise agreement and started to plan my next career move. Then I got a call I will never forget. I was informed that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) was interested in my role in managing the surcharges at BA and information we had received from another airline. It was explained to me that I had potentially acted contrary to antitrust laws in the United States and for individuals this could be a criminal offence and a prison sentence. I had never worked or lived in the United States, although of course I had been there on many business trips. But US law has very long arms: as every kilo of cargo that flew in and out of America included the surcharge, I was advised that I was subject to US jurisdiction and US law.
In shock I took high level legal advice and explored every option. First, we checked if the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) would open a case in the United Kingdom so I could at least fight the case in my own country. Unfortunately I was advised that the OFT had taken the BA and Virgin Atlantic passenger fuel surcharges case and the US DOJ was leading the investigation into the global air cargo cartel.
Second, we explored the extradition laws between the United Kingdom and the United States. I was advised that as the law stands currently I could be extradited through a relatively simple legal process. I could fight the extradition slowly and expensively through the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights, but I was unlikely to win and failing would mean US Marshalls flying to the United Kingdom to escort me to America.
Finally, we looked at the possibility of defending my case in the United States. I was advised that the risk of losing was too high, as “knowledge of information” was sufficient to break US antitrust laws. Furthermore, I would have to self-surrender to the United States and the maximum sentence was 10 years with a US$1 million fine.
Eventually I decided that the best course of action was to co-operate with the investigation. I had a very gruelling day of interviews in Washington and then waited… and waited… for eight months-these investigations move very slowly-for the results. The plea agreement offer for my co-operation was an eight month prison sentence and a US$20,000 fine. My world fell apart.
The uncertainty, the dashed hope and the prospect of going to prison, in a foreign country, thousands of miles from my family and friends, was excruciating. There were many times when I didn’t think I would get through. I was very scared and my life hit a devastating low. I was in the newspapers in the United Kingdom and front page news in Air Cargo. Worst of all was telling my wife, my two children, my parents and my close friends that I was going to jail.
I was assigned to a Federal Prison Camp in Pensacola, Florida and told to arrive by midday on 7 January 2009. The stigma of going to prison and then living in a very alien environment was bad enough, but the separation from my family was unbearable. The only contact with them would be by phone, for 15 minutes, twice a week. For eight months.
I also worried constantly about what I would do next and how I could support my family; could I work as a senior executive again? Would I want to? It was then that I had the idea for training. I returned to the United Kingdom in 2009 and set about writing letters to EU and competition law partners in major law firms and to the General Counsels of major companies, especially those that had recent price-fixing cases. The response was very positive and it was clear that legal teams were looking for new and impactful ways to deliver their compliance training.
Although I now have a very fulfilling career working for myself, nothing will ever make up for the eight months of my family’s life that I lost. Companies and their brands can recover from the reputational damage done by financial and compliance investigations. For the individuals involved it is a totally different situation. Individuals have to go through the slow, traumatic and uncertain legal process, then lose their jobs, go to jail and live forever with the consequences.
It’s very easy to yawn your way through another meeting about the firm’s policies on fraud prevention and the whistleblowing process. It’s a lot harder to tell your family you’re leaving them to go to jail and that you will always have a criminal record. Take a moment to think about it.