By Brian Monroe
October 18, 2021
James “Jim” Dinkins has made a career out of fighting financial crime in all of its forms over more than 30 years – at the forefront of the intersection of national security, border security, organized crime, narco trafficking, global trade and terrorist financing.
His career is also an exercise in patience, persistence and disproving anyone who didn’t believe in him or give him a chance – in some cases, when one door shut, literally flying to another state in-person at a federal investigative agency to open another by sheer force of will.
From drug cartels in the 1980s, to terror groups after 9/11, he has learned, taught and led agents to follow the money at the U.S. Customs Service and later, spearheading the formation of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the nation’s second largest federal investigative department.
But Dinkins, now President of Thomson Reuters Special Services (TRSS), an independent subsidiary of news, information and technology heavyweight, Thomson Reuters, employs his analytical mindset and investigative skillset to better calculate, calibrate and mitigate fincrime compliance risks.
Through the lens of his experience, combined with deep and detailed analyses of internal and external transactional and risk data, intelligence collection and analysis and overlaying that with insider threats and exterior emerging and perennial vulnerabilities, like global trade and international banking blindspots.
Over his career, Dinkins has seen the evolution of a nascent financial crime compliance field, from the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986, that made laundering a federal crime, to the foundation of the modern compliance sector, the 2001 U.S.A. Patriot Act – forged in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks – to what many are calling the most significant update in the last 20 years: The U.S. Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA).
But that eventual long and storied story got off to a very inauspicious start.
“When I was in high school, the guidance counselor pulled my mom aside and told her I wouldn’t succeed in college so I should go into auto mechanics or find a trade school,” he said.
“Since I couldn’t find a job in the Motor City auto industry after graduating high school, I went to college. It was a blessing. I discovered I was interested in criminal justice and went from a failing high school student to graduating with a 3.7 GPA.”
Dinkins’ career in government service began in 1986 with the U.S. Customs Service, and in 1988 he became a U.S. Customs Special Agent investigating cross border criminal activity.
Following 9/11, he was named Chief of the Cornerstone and Financial investigation Programs at the newly founded Department of Homeland Security, where he led the development of international and domestic initiatives to combat vulnerabilities in the United States’ financial and trade sectors.
After that dark day, Dinkins realized that banks and law enforcement would have to work more closely together than they ever had before – an understanding that eventually helped him transition to a top fincrime compliance position at U.S. bank.
“On 9/11, I wanted to do what I could to hold those responsible accountable and prevent it from happening again,” he said. “And I knew that the government could not do this alone. It would require a partnership with corporate America. So I naturally gravitated to positions and opportunities where I could be part of the solution.”
In 2010, Jim led the formation of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), overseeing the agency’s global national security and public safety efforts and directing a budget of $2 billion USD, more than 9,000 employees, 200 field offices throughout the United States and 75 international locations in 48 countries.
Achieving those coveted posts, Dinkins said, came not from loudly championing his successes, but humbly mastering the responsibilities in his current position.
“I was promoted many times throughout my law enforcement career not because I was seeking those opportunities, but because people saw something in me I didn’t see in myself,” he said.
In fact, when he became a Special Agent in Charge (SAC), he didn’t apply for the role.
“After I decided not to apply for the role, I got a call saying: ‘Congrats! You’re the new SAC!’ I was never the kind of person always seeking to move up the chain, I just wanted to master the job at hand and was grateful to have the opportunity I had been given.”
That tenet is one of his secrets to success. One of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given him: “The best advice, and what’s benefitted me throughout my career, is just this: master the job and tasks that you’re given.”
“Don’t focus so much on the future that you fail to do a fantastic job with the opportunity you have already been given,” he said. “Be so great at your job that people around you will advocate for you. By doing so, other opportunities will present themselves. So master the role you’re given, and people will naturally want you to do more.”
Something also to consider: “And by the way, if you don’t manage the task at hand, you’re more likely to fail as you move up the ladder and move on to more complex responsibilities.”
That is a valuable lesson in a field as broad, deep and dynamic as financial crime compliance.
“Today, compliance keeps changing and evolving, and there are more complex solutions than ever to help mitigate risk,” Dinkins said. “The techniques I used 20 years ago are different than today. Just like leaders, everyone needs to learn and evolve and if you don’t, you’ll be left behind.”
While not in law enforcement anymore, he advocates that all counter-crime compliance teams remember they are partners, erstwhile allies in this fight, and their decisions, skills and knowledge matter.
“I often think many people serving in financial crimes compliance lose sight of the fact that they are playing a pivotal role in keeping our communities and nation safe,” he said. “It’s not a regulatory administrative task, it’s part of the ecosystem of preventing crime.”
Dinkins was kind enough to share some of his extensive and expansive knowledge and thought leadership in our latest ACFCS Member Spotlight: