Hui Chen, the Justice Department’s now-former compliance counsel who raised eyebrows with her social media jabs at the Trump Administration, finally spoke over the weekend, saying she left her job because “holding companies to standards that our current administration is not living up to was creating a cognitive dissonance that I could not overcome.”
Chen made her remarks in a 658-word post on LinkedIn published Sunday afternoon. She gave three reasons for leaving her compliance counsel job, which she officially quit on Friday despite a contract set to run until Sept. 30.
First, Chen could no longer stomach asking companies about the effectiveness of their compliance program and their commitment to good conduct, when the Trump Administration has so many problems and shortcomings itself on precisely those topics.
“To sit across the table from companies and question how committed they were to ethics and compliance felt not only hypocritical, but very much like shuffling the deck chair on the Titanic,” she wrote. “Those are conducts I would not tolerate seeing in a company, yet I worked under an administration that engaged in exactly that conduct. I wanted no more part in it.”
Second, Chen wanted more freedom to talk about her work at the Justice Department. Her bosses in the Criminal Division, however, kept tight controls on her public statements—which has always been a shame, because Chen did great work creating the Evaluations of Corporate Compliance Programs guidance published earlier this year. (I always thought the department should have sent Chen to every gathering of compliance officers she could find.)
“This inability to engage was particularly frustrating after the release of the Evaluations of Corporate Compliance document, as I watched almost everyone except me being able to talk about (and often misinterpreting) my work,” Chen said.
Ouch again, even though one presumes she does not mean me.
Third, Chen said she wants to work more directly to help elect political candidates “to restore the notions of integrity, decency, and intellect back into our government.” (Preach, sister!) Chen cannot undertake that level of political work without violating the Hatch Act, so she walked. Her critics, of course, will say her tweets already did violate the Hatch Act, and ignore the fundamental point about Trump’s tone.
Chen also praised her colleagues at the Fraud Section as sharp, dedicated professionals (amen); and promised that the compliance community will now see and hear her more often.
Lunch time outside the White House. pic.twitter.com/S7MVEYHmLv
— Hui Chen (@HuiChenEthics) May 10, 2017
The Importance of Speaking Truth
The compliance community owes Chen several debts of thanks. First, she did midwife the Evaluations of Corporate Compliance Programs guidance—the most comprehensive, specific set of guidance I’ve ever seen in this field. It did not break new ground, but rather pulled many islands of good insight together into one firmament that compliance officers can stand upon, as we all secretly wonder to ourselves, “OK, what should I be doing here?”
More important, Chen spoke aloud what so many compliance professionals know to be true: that the Trump Administration is riddled with ethical problems, starting with President Trump himself. Lecturing others about integrity, ethical conduct, and respect for due process gets mighty hard when everyone in the room sees the boss at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. blissfully disregarding those things.
In the corporate world, if a CEO under investigation for misconduct violations fired the in-house counsel investigating him, the board would have his scalp. We would all be attending our compliance industry conferences, lecturing ourselves about best practices, and saying that the compliance officer at that organization should take the brave step and resign.
Well, that’s what Chen did. She quit for more reasons than Trump firing James Comey, of course, but still: She put her money where all of us say our mouths should be. I’ve known a few other compliance officers over the years who’ve done the same, and it is never easy.
Might she leverage her departure into lucrative gigs in the future? Sure—and so what if she does? What matters when you take a principled stand are the principles. Chen stood up for integrity. These days, Washington needs as much of that as we can get.