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One of the ringleaders works at your bank

Bill Coffin | May 15, 2017

For the politically active among us, it has been a long couple of months since last November. Take a look at any major social media platform and, unless you’ve taken steps to filter out all political discourse, you are likely to see an awful lot of politically driven chatter, even now. This is not likely to abate any time soon. I imagine it will continue until the midterm elections in 2018, and well beyond that. If ever we needed evidence that we are in a time of endless political conflict, well, look no further.

As an editor, I try to keep my opinion columns out of politics, for a variety of reasons. One, I just don’t think most people care to know how I, as the editor in chief of Compliance Week, feel about a particular political issue unless it pertains directly to our audience of compliance professionals. Two, any opinion I do venture will likely polarize our audience and, honestly, I am far more interested in discussing the things that unite us as a community than the things that divide us. Three, I have plenty of opportunities to vent my spleen about politics elsewhere; I certainly don’t need to bring my baggage here to Compliance Week.

Still, I recognize that I’m a semi-public figure, and I live by the precept that anything I say in my private life can and may one day be held against me professionally. That’s why I choose what I say in public very carefully and, if I have something really incendiary to get off my chest, I do it in private, amongst friends. Speak like my every word is appearing on the Times Square jumbotron, and I’ll probably never say anything I regret.

This is a fairly safe way to conduct oneself these days, but especially so for compliance officers, whose work increasingly is becoming visible, especially with regulators. As regulatory oversight itself becomes more politically driven, the politics of compliance professionals matters more. I bring this up because of a story circulating about how an AVP and assistant general counsel of a New York City-area bank recently resigned over a whole lot of unwanted visibility regarding her political involvement.

Saily Avelenda was an employee for Lakeland Bank when she helped to form NJ 11th for Change, a Super PAC with the stated aim of defeating her 11-time local Congressional representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, who is the new chair for the House Appropriations Committee. Like many representatives, Frelinghuysen is already starting to raise money for his re-election, and he sent out a letter to previous donors outlining the reasons why he feels it’s necessary to be supported for a 12th term. He called out those who are opposing him and, on one of the letters, added a personal note in the footer: “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” That particular letter went to Joseph O’Dowd, who sits on Lakeland’s board. In short order, Avelenda had to explain herself to her CEO and cited pressure involving her political activity as a reason for resigning shortly afterward.

Now, what Frelinghuysen did wasn’t wrong; he did not threaten Avelenda, nor did he write his note on official Congressional stationery. But it was awfully sketchy and surely crossed an ethical line. His campaign said the note was merely calling out publicly reported information, which is sort of true: Avelenda was named in a news story about the Super PAC. But the story didn’t identify her employer or her role; that appears to be a bit of opposition research done by Felinghuysen’s campaign. If you’re going to enter the arena, better make sure your sword is sharp and your armor is sound.

It was also disappointing to see Avelenda’s employer call her on the carpet for her political views. Lakeland later pointed out that its own code of ethics encourages employees to support the political process however they see fit. Just not too much, it would seem. Or, in a way that creates an awkwardness for folks on the board. If a code of ethics is to matter at all, times like this are when it can prove itself. All Lakeland appears to have done is prove that its own code is merely a string of words on paper without heft or meaning. Alas.

Elections are dirty business, but Frelinghuysen’s note is hardly any different from similar moves pulled by plenty of other politicians among the Republicans and Democrats alike. It happened during the Obama years, it happened in the Bush years before that, and so on. This is a regular thing. it just plays out a bit differently in a highly politicized age of endless internet outrage. It doesn’t make it any more defensible, but it does make it fairly predictable.

For compliance professionals, the lessons here are two-fold. One, as a matter of personal/professional risk management, unless your work is itself inherently political, keep your political views to yourself. And even when you do, if you are engaging in a particularly public manner, do a risk assessment on how that might possibly blow back against your work life, because eventually, it will. Two, keep in mind that as the roles of compliance professionals become more visible, so too will it become impossible to maintain that role and a highly visible political profile without the two conflicting in some way, shape, or form. It should not be that way. But it is. Just ask Saily Avelenda and Lakeland Bank.