The Justice Department’s in-house compliance counsel, Hui Chen, has been going a little nuts on social media these days. Compliance officers may want to take note.
First, Chen began commenting publicly on Twitter several weeks ago, @HuiChenEthics. That unto itself is unusual; most staff-level government officials prefer to stay anonymous or stay off Twitter entirely. Not Chen. She has posted 22 tweets since May 2. And in the context of the bumbling, unprincipled messages coming from President Trump and his inner circle, more than a few of her tweets sound downright subversive:
Ask not how the administration can change our work; ask how our work can change the world, one thoughtful and courageous step at a time.
— Hui Chen (@HuiChenEthics) May 5, 2017
What do you do if you are troubled by your organization’s “tone from the top”, and feel you no longer believe in its mission? #Ethics
— Hui Chen (@HuiChenEthics) May 10, 2017
As a CCO, I always made sure to have a paper trail documenting improper influences in my work. #TrumpRussiaCoverUp
— Hui Chen (@HuiChenEthics) May 17, 2017
That last one was published May 17, one day after the New York Times reported that fired FBI director James Comey wrote a detailed memo about Trump pressuring Comey to cease his investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.
And the above tweets are only Chen’s written words. Below are her visual sendups of the Trump Administration:
Lunch time outside the White House. pic.twitter.com/S7MVEYHmLv
— Hui Chen (@HuiChenEthics) May 10, 2017
Latest artwork in DC – night time only! (Photo by Liz Gorman, as seen in the Washingtonian). pic.twitter.com/MlxGdJG8h2
— Hui Chen (@HuiChenEthics) May 16, 2017
Chen hasn’t restricted herself to Twitter, either. On LinkedIn she posted a column on May 14 complaining about “a common plague in the compliance space: a lack of precision and intellectual rigor.” The article took several compliance writers to task, saying that their critiques of companies like Wells Fargo and Target focused on ideas like trust and corporate culture, without enough quantifiable evidence to support their claims. Chen then tried to get her points to go viral by tacking on #PrecisionMatters as a hashtag.
And on May 18, Chen reposted a meme of herself, with “Free Hui” as the caption:
A creative colleague made this for me – LOL! pic.twitter.com/8hiNE5jxqi
— Hui Chen (@HuiChenEthics) May 18, 2017
By then, the Corporate Crime Reporter had taken notice of Chen’s statements, and asked her what this is all about. The poster, for example—does that mean Chen feels she’s being muzzled?
“I’m wondering what it means to,” she told the CCR. “It’s open to interpretation. I think I’m going to just leave it to people’s imagination.”
Well, since Chen is leaving it to us, let’s start imagining.
Position Yourself Wisely
My speculation is that Chen knows her position with the Justice Department will be eliminated next fiscal year, so she is polishing her reputation now to ensure she can get a lucrative private sector gig later. That’s the natural lifecycle of mid-level Justice Department lawyers, after all.
The Trump Administration will release its full fiscal 2018 budget on Tuesday, and the Justice Department is slated for a 3.8 percent cut. Those cuts have to come from somewhere. Chen’s position is a new one (she was hired in November 2015), and she isn’t a prosecutor per se. That makes her position an easy one to kill. Do I know that the compliance counsel job is facing the ax? No. But it wouldn’t be surprising.
What’s more, if positioning herself is what Chen is doing, her tweets are a shrewd way to do it. They suggest a commitment to good ethical conduct, and disapproval of the unethical Trump team. That resonates with the corporate ethics & compliance community, who largely believe Trump is an incompetent and unprincipled boob, even if they’re reticent to say so publicly. (You all say so to me privately, I can tell you that.)
Are Chen’s statements edgy, given her employer? You bet. But if her tweets push too far and Attorney General Jeff Sessions sacks her immediately, that makes Chen’s stock rise all the more as a compliance professional willing to speak truth to unprincipled power. If they don’t get her sacked, she’s still speaking truth to power, and collecting a paycheck to boot. Win-win.
Meanwhile, this #PrecisionMatters idea lets Chen position herself as contrarian, a somewhat “you’re all doing it wrong” voice that might catch the attention of chief compliance officers inundated with emails purporting to be best practice for the profession. Lots of those messages are imprecise, and lots of voices in this community could do better. (I, of course, am not one of them, because I’m awesome.)
Granted, Chen cites rising stock prices as evidence that Target and Wells Fargo haven’t been train wrecks. Any student of business knows stock price can be totally irrelevant to the disarray in a company; growth in contingency funds and meetings of the audit committee are much better metrics. And the #PrecisionMatters hashtag is already used by medical people talking about healthcare documentation, so we need to find another. But it’s the thought that counts.
I should stress that I have no problem with what Chen seems to be doing. Trump and his inner circle, including Sessions, are unprincipled. They do have questionable commitment to enforcing laws of corporate misconduct. Precision does matter, so if Chen wants everyone to keep on their toes, that’s not a bad thing. If all that also gets Chen mentioned as a possible compliance monitor or consultant or CCO—and it all definitely does—she comes up roses.
Chen isn’t playing fast and loose with her career at all; she’s cultivating it. She’ll make a superb compliance monitor for some lucky company in the future (ZTE Corp. would be a good place to start), and earn a heap more money than she is now. We all gotta make a living somehow.