FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

October 9, 2012

South America is Not a Country-Interview of Matt Ellis

Today we continue our interview series with last year’s New Comer of the Year-Matt Ellis, author of the FCPAméricas Blog.


1. Where did you grow up and what were your interests as a youngster?

I grew up in Dallas, TX. I was lucky to graduate from the best private school in the city, where I was on significant financial aid. I loved it and excelled. My senior year I was elected student body President, and tried hard to do more than just plan good parties. Texas made a lasting impression on me. The heavy influences of Mexico gave me a taste early on for Latin American culture. The state’s entrepreneurial spirit eventually empowered me to launch my own law practice.

 2. Where did you go to college and what experiences there led to your current profession?

I went far away to Dartmouth where, in a small town in New Hampshire, I was exposed to the world. My first-year roommate was a Sikh from India who had never stepped foot in the United States. I took courses in Latin American politics, studied Spanish in Barcelona and Art History in Italy, taught English in Switzerland, and interned in the East Wing of the White House, where I observed Bill Clinton, up close, interacting with foreign dignitaries. College made me want to see the world.

After graduating, I moved to Argentina where I planned to stay for three months. I wound up staying for three years. My goal was to learn Spanish fluently, at a professional level, and I had to immerse myself. I moved in with a group of young Argentine guys who didn’t speak English. I got a job at General Motors Argentina. Ninety percent of my work was in Spanish and 100% of my socializing. I had no choice but to become fluent — if not, I wouldn’t have a pay check or a social life. Then the President of GM Argentina persuaded me to study Portuguese as well. He knew that Brazil would be the next big thing. This was before the term “BRIC” existed. He was right. Today, Brazil is the source of a good amount of my work.

 3. After beginning your career in a large, multi-national law firm you went to the World Bank. Can you tell us why you moved over, what you did and how has it informed your compliance and ethics practice going forward?

Very few attorneys from the United States have the chance to work on anti-corruption matters at The World Bank’s Integrity Vice Presidency (INT). After law school at Georgetown, I was working at a major law firm with a leading FCPA practice. We were advising INT on the development of the World Bank’s Sanctions program, grappling with questions like: How does the Bank ensure that the funds it loans to the developing world actually make it to building the roads and bridges, purchasing the medicine, etc., and are not diverted into the pockets of corrupt government officials?  INT was staffed with a smart group of people from every corner of the world, and I hit it off with the team. When I received an offer to work as an investigator and litigation specialist, I seized it. I spent two years at the Bank, conducting internal investigations throughout Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

I took three vital lessons from my time at the World Bank. Each has informed my FCPA compliance work since then. First, contrary to the view that corruption is “cultural” or “accepted” by certain people, I learned that ethical business is an important concept wherever you are in the world. On the front lines, no matter the country or culture, rarely are citizens accepting when public officials use government positions for personal gain. Toleration should never be mistaken for endorsement. Second, the rapidly developing anti-corruption norms with which we work are having a profound effect on the ground throughout the globe. The more that corrupt actors are brought to justice, the more that individuals see universal business standards at work, and the more they are empowered themselves to push back. Third, an appreciation for cultural nuance is essential to compliance. When introducing World Bank procurement standards to a small, regional consulting firm in India, or vetting a sales agent in Brazil, practitioners have to account for context, language, and background to do the job effectively.

 4. Many people think that South America is a country. You seem to have different thoughts on the subject. What are some of the unique or specific challenges when working on compliance related issues in South America? Are they different if you represent an indigenous company rather than a US company with a South American affiliate?

Compliance in Latin America must respond to the local landscape to work. Corruption risks in the mountainous jungles of Colombia are different from those in the concrete jungles of Sao Paulo. While companies can usually count on the police in Chile, in Mexico the police are often the problem. To design an internal reporting program in Argentina that works, practitioners must understand the inherent skepticism that people there have for anonymous tips.

Cultural nuance is even more important when working on compliance for Latin America-based companies. Imagine a local company that has been built over the years where corruption is around every corner, and has now gone global. Education on compliance takes time and steady commitment. Buy-in is achieved person-by-person, unit-by-unit. With time, companies begin to see the value in adhering to international standards. Only when business leaders appreciate the stakes are they willing to engage in the wholesale reform and commitment of resources necessary for compliance to work. The learning curve is steep. But the trends of globalization are going in only one direction.

5. Why did you start your Blogsite, what did you hope to achieve from it and what will be your focus going forward?

I want FCPAméricas to serve as a bridge between two worlds. One world involves United States law that is currently driving anti-corruption compliance by creating powerful incentives. The other world is where the bribery usually occurs, a world of drastically different cultures, norms, languages, and histories. The blog’s aim is to try to connect the two.

My experiences interacting, living, working and attending school with people from around the world drive the blog’s direction. I relate my job as an FCPA lawyer to the jobs many of my graduate schoolmates now have in the foreign service, working in embassies all over the world, where they liaise with foreign officials and help U.S. companies working abroad navigate the waters. I perform a similar service. I help companies manage risks when doing business in far-off countries. I help them understand the rules of the global economy. Why is this important? In an age of globalization, the world of business opportunity has suddenly grown a lot bigger. At the same time, companies cannot do business like they used to. In the past, cross-border business could be done with a handshake, and the hand often had a $20 bill in it. Nowadays, multi-million dollar investments are made with the click of a button. But bribes can put people in jail. As a result, the challenge of global business no longer is about paying off the right person to get the job done. It is about ensuring that your company thrives while following applicable international rules. This means structuring compliance programs to be effective. This requires local know-how. I help companies bridge the gap.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2012

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