As compliance professionals, we are constantly watching out for anything that may be indicative of a breach of policy, a failure to adhere to a procedure, or conduct that simply does not comply. In contrast, criminals have often paid professionals to look the other way or to actually keep an eye out for anything that may cause a problem to them, their associates, and their organization.
Last week, the Department of Justice in California charged Babak Broumand, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, with conspiracy to bribe a public official. Broumand is accused of taking bribes from an organized crime figure, and it all started with people on watch—or in Broumand’s case, a watch he was wearing.
It was a lawyer who was an associate of organized crime figures who saw Broumand in a Beverley Hills cigar lounge and noticed he was wearing a gold Rolex watch. I assure you this is not standard issue for any FBI agent. The unnamed lawyer advised it was the sight of the Rolex and Broumand’s obvious expensive tastes that he saw as “an opportunity to recruit.”
In exchange for tens of thousands of dollars, Broumand accessed secret law enforcement databases to ascertain whether any of the lawyer’s clients or associates were attracting interest from law enforcement. While no evidence has been revealed of investigations being compromised, the mere checking in the databases could have had serious security implications for ongoing cases, the protection of witnesses, and even the safety of undercover agents.
The watch is seen by many as a status symbol and proposes success, wealth, and as the lawyer identified, expense. It is not the first time watches have featured in serious criminal cases. The U.K. police once prosecuted a group of criminals using high-value watches to launder money. Previously, I contributed to an article within National Geographic called “Narco bling,” which told the story of drug cartel members commissioning jeweled watch faces and inlays depicting guns and cocoa leaves.
When I was at Wachovia Bank (now part of Wells Fargo), I filed suspicious activity reports in relation to a casa de cambio client with a Swiss Franc account from which multiple, high-value, round-figure payments were made to exclusive Swiss watch makers. The fact is, watches attract attention as well as value. In 2014, Graff produced the most expensive watch ever made. Pause for a moment and contemplate, what could be the value of such a watch? The answer is $55 million, and it sits neatly on someone’s wrist. Watches can be worth a lot of money, at the same time as being small, low-volume objects that transfer value and easily launder money.
Anti-corruption groups around the world regularly photograph public officials in order to identify the watch they may be wearing. The Chinese have used the same tactic to identify and prosecute corrupt officials. So watch out and look for one of the potential telltale signs of corruption: expensive tastes and expensive watches. Broumand will eventually stand trial, and it is reasonable to assume he will not be wearing a smile or a gold Rolex watch.