For Jim Dinkins, president of Thomson Reuters Special Services, persistence, disproving doubters a hallmark of 30 years in federal law enforcement, compliance

The Skinny:

  • 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.
  • 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 risks – a vital asset with compliance programs commanding millions of dollars in resources and high-profile enforcement penalties soaring into the billions of dollars.
  • 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. 

By Brian Monroe
bmonroe@acfcs.org
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.

How?

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:

Who inspires you?

One of my first government bosses, Gloria Marshall, was an inspiring boss and leader.

She spent more than 55 years in the federal government, and the way she treated her employees inspired me. She earned the respect of her staff, and colleagues, which led to a high-functioning team.  

Many of her team, including me, went the extra mile for Gloria because we didn’t want to let her down – not because of fear punishment. I’ve always aspired to be that kind of leader.

What is one thing - industry-related or not - that you learned in the past month?

I found TikTok! I’d never had any social media accounts besides LinkedIn. I have two daughters who are in their early twenties, and they of course have TikTok.

I was on vacation and I downloaded it…and now I may have to delete it because it can consume hours at a time. You can really go down a TikTok rabbit hole!  

What is something about you that not many people know?

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.

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.

After graduating with my BA in Criminal Justice and becoming a special agent, all I aspired to be was a senior special agent.

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. 

In fact, when I became a Special Agent in Charge (SAC), I 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.

What do you do in your current role

I lead one of the most creative and innovative teams I’ve ever worked with. It’s amazing, I’ve never seen such a collection of smart people under one roof in my life.

And I am extremely proud to lead our mission-driven organization, that’s committed to making our world safer and more secure.

As president, I oversee the company’s teams lead by our CFO, CTO, general counsel, strategy, Analysis, HR, business development, innovation, and human rights crimes.  

What does your career trajectory in financial crime look like?

When I started as a special agent under Treasury in the 80s and early 90s, one of the biggest issues the national [law enforcement agencies] faced was Colombian cartels, and investigating cartel money laundering. 

When I ran an undercover money laundering operation, I learned about everything from trade-based money laundering to the black-market peso exchange.

My teachers in this case were the money brokers themselves, as they unwittingly explained the services they needed that we ultimately provided to them in an undercover capacity. 

During this time, I was very interested and found it very effective to follow the money and understand the transnational and financial aspects of the criminal organization.

They were very complex cases that led to the arrest and conviction of high-level cartel money launderers and leaders. 

Following 9/11, I applied these same investigative techniques to identify potential terrorist financing.

We started an operation designed to identify criminal organizations who were seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in our formal and informal banking systems to support terrorism and other criminal organizations.

The reality is almost all crimes are committed for financial gain, and that fact is important for disrupting and dismantling criminal organizations.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

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. 

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.

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.  

What would you say are the most important attributes for someone in your position to succeed?

Being a leader is really important. And sometimes it’s easy to become a manager and not a leader.

So, I would say it’s very important to be able to identify talent and surround yourself with great talent, and then empowers them to succeed.

A great leader is not afraid to fail and make mistakes but will own those mistakes and move on. And you also have to be willing to put in as much work as you want from your team, so lead from the front.

How has (compliance, investigations, etc.) changed and evolved during your career?

It’s all changed drastically. When I was an agent, if you were doing an investigation and you wanted to know who owned a piece of property, you had to go the clerk’s office and get the physical records, sometimes even pulling microfiche film.

Sometimes, we had to dig through suspects trash and dumpster dive to find old records and stray pieces of information.

Today, you can find out nearly all of that with a CLEAR search. Technology has changed, both on the investigative side and among criminal organizations as well.

So as technology drives opportunities for law enforcement, it also provides opportunities for criminals. The internet is a great example – it’s a great investigative tool, but it also offers a whole new dimension to buying and selling contraband.

9/11 also changed everything about law enforcement and compliance.

The Patriot Act required companies to be more vigilant about monitoring for financial crimes and conducting due diligence on things like knowing your customer when they open bank accounts.

9/11 showed the vulnerabilities of many systems and institutions.

Today, compliance keeps changing and evolving, and there are more complex solutions than ever to help mitigate risk. 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. 

What do you see as the key financial crime challenges in your role or in the sector overall?

When I was at US Bank, having spent an entire career investigating money laundering and then transitioning into an AML compliance position, one of the great challenges I found was the volume of activities financial services must monitor.

There are billions of transactions happening around the globe, and it’s so difficult to identify what’s really related to criminal activity. It’s a much more complex virtual world we live and bank in, and it’s so hard for an AML professional.

Finance, trade, travel and commerce are all global in nature now.

Monitoring these transactions in real time is an enormous challenge. I really have the utmost respect for the financial crimes professionals I worked with who were hard working, dedicated, and geniuses in their areas of expertise.

What motivated you to become a financial crime compliance professional?

Having spent years investigating the money laundering activities of criminal organizations, and seeing firsthand how criminals would seek to exploit the slightest vulnerability in our financial system to earn, move and store their illicit funds, I knew the power of financial crime expertise.

On 9/11, I wanted to do what I could to hold those responsible accountable and prevent it from happening again. 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.

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. It’s not a regulatory administrative task, it’s part of the ecosystem of preventing crime.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding part of my job is having a positive impact on our communities, national security, and public safety.

I also love having the opportunity to empower people and helping create an environment where people can follow their dreams and succeed in their own way.

Is there anything that surprised you about your current role?

TRSS has grown very rapidly, from a couple dozen employees to almost 250 located throughout the US and UK in 2021.

Our ability to grow while maintaining our sense of culture is amazing, because we’ve hired high-quality people who are serious about doing good. Losing the culture is our greatest risk as a fast-growing organization, and we’ve been able to overcome it.

We have been lucky to find and hire people who challenge us as a team and challenge us to serve our clients better. 

How did you get your first job in the field and what advice would you give other job seekers to help land their first position.

I was earning a criminal justice degree at the University of Detroit, where they actively sought internships and cooperative education opportunities for their students.

So they filled out and sent my application to be a co-op student to multiple federal agencies including the US Customs Service in Detroit.

I was lucky enough to get an interview and was initially turned down, but a few weeks later the US Customs, Office of Enforcement, in Washington DC contacted me again later when their selected candidate couldn’t take the role.

Later, I had to apply to become a U.S. Customs Special Agent. You had to apply at the local level and find an office that was interested and also had a vacancy. 

When I couldn’t get a commitment, I flew to San Francisco and Los Angeles, went into the office and convinced them that they needed to hire me. I was offered a position in both locations, but accepted the first office in San Francisco. Always go the extra mile!