Diplomat John Ashe of Antigua served as president of the UN General Assembly’s 68th session from September 2013 to September 2014. In October of last year, the DOJ indicted him for his alleged role in a $1.3 million bribery scandal.
Ashe, 61, died last week, five days before a scheduled status conference in federal district court in New York City.
The initial reports said the cause of death was a heart attack. But later reports said it was “traumatic asphyxia with laryngeal cartilage fractures” after dropping a barbell on his neck, according to the Westchester County Medical Examiner’s office.
When I first heard the news that Ashe had died, I thought about the stress of uncertainty in his life. He was facing a two count indictment on tax evasion charges, followed by guilty pleas of other conspirators.
The DOJ was reportedly contemplating a superseding indictment based on those guilty pleas.
Pressure was building.
Perhaps Ashe was also working on a plea deal that might have been set at the status hearing on June 27.
Meanwhile the court had to appoint an attorney for Ashe. His former lawyer hadn’t been paid and asked to be dismissed. The judge appointed a new lawyer under the Criminal Justice Act.
How much stress can a man withstand?
I’ll never forget the call when my lawyer told me I was the target of DOJ investigation. He and I agreed that we would accept the DOJ’s offer to proffer (give evidence with limited-use immunity). From the start, I knew I was in serious trouble and I wasn’t thinking about taking my case to a jury. As I shared at the time with counsel, “Let’s not debate their offer. We’re going in.”
Our first meeting with the DOJ wouldn’t happen until months after that initial call. During those months, I had no idea what to expect. My daily work then was to prepare for the first proffer session, and to focus on specific items my lawyer said the DOJ would want to hear about, starting with my own criminal conduct. But that wasn’t the hard part. The waiting and uncertainty were the hard part. The stress of uncertainty was enormous.
I worried about questions that no defense counsel could answer. What would follow from that initial meeting? What potential consequences was I facing? What would happen to my family? When you enter the criminal justice system, even as a cooperator, you cede much of your own will and fate to others. It’s a crucible you can’t possibly prepare for, even if you’re there because of a self-inflicted calamity.
I coped with the stress — probably like John Ashe — by focusing on exercise. For me it was running. I completed the first of three marathons within eighteen months. Long distance running forced me to concentrate on something other than the uncertainty about my liberty.
I walked into prison having finished over ten marathons, and, I believed, in good health. But when I came home from prison fourteen months later, I couldn’t even walk on a treadmill due to chest pain. Initial tests were inconclusive. Then I got a call from my cardiologist. “What are you doing next week?” He scheduled me for a heart procedure to repair a coronary artery blockage that was life threatening.
Later I would ask my doctor if my heart problems were related to my incarceration. He said that would be hard to determine but he was certain that stress was a contributing factor.
(I also left prison with MRSA — a type of staph bacteria that’s resistant to most antibiotics. It thrives in communal living and can be fatal. The most common symptom is a deep open sore. Fortunately my MRSA was treatable and responded to antibiotics when I returned home and could see a specialist. But it required my being quarantined when I was in the hospital for the heart procedure.)
The impact of a criminal investigation, indictment, or incarceration on health, family, and well-being should never be discounted or ignored. I encourage anyone facing what I did to think long term about mental and physical well-being. For yourself and your loved ones.
It’s a long haul — a marathon, so to speak — as John Ashe’s sad death reminds us.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the Ashe family.
Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics for 2015. He consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. He can be contacted by email here and on twitter @richardbistrong. He’ll be a speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.