Jonathan Poling is one of the leading voices in sanctions and trade compliance. He has a wealth of experience as a federal prosecutor in the counter-espionage division of the Department of Justice, where he prosecuted spies, arms dealers, and people doing business illegally in sanctioned countries. Jonathan is currently a partner at Akin Gump. He chats with Tom Fox and Stephen Martin about his work at the DOJ, and other important trade compliance issues, including how he thinks the work of the DOJ will change under the Biden administration.

Working at the DOJ

When Jonathan joined the Department of Justice, the National Security Division was still new, having been established after 9-11 “to consolidate the different national security sections of the Department of Justice and facilitate the exchanging of intelligence with the intelligence community.” Jonathan explains that there were gaps in the economic sanctions that he and his colleagues focused on and helped to close. “Those seeds have since blossomed into a lot of new tactics,” he says. Stephen asks him what he expects from the Biden administration. He first responds with what he expects to stay the same, including an emphasis on foreign influence, particularly in China. What he expects to change, he says, is that things in the DOJ will “return to normal order”. 

Tom asks what Merrick Garland can do to rebuild the morale of the prosecutors working at the DOJ. Jonathan remarks that the first thing is to slow down. In recent times, there has been a rush to prosecution, and it’s understandable that the public wants to see cases tried as soon as possible. However, there’s a reason things take a while, Jonathan says. “It’s a serious thing to charge somebody. You want to go through the evidence gathering. You want to make sure you have your i’s dotted and your t’s crossed.” He emphasizes that the Attorney General should focus on setting the priorities of the agency: his able prosecutors know the job well and can perform their duties in the courtroom. He also shares why not every case that can be prosecuted should be.

Navigating Trade Compliance

“What we’re doing  [at Akin Gump] is trying to help our clients navigate a complicated regulatory space that is still very antiquated and doesn’t always fit their businesses,” Jonathan says. Companies trying to trade legally in sanctioned countries like Iran find it difficult to understand and navigate the regulations. “If they violate the regs – even technically – it can result in significant penalties to the company,” Jonathan points out. He is happy that sanctions are becoming more targeted so that companies can better understand what they can and can’t do.

World Bank Monitor & the Future of Trade with China

Tom asks Jonathan about his work as a World Bank monitor. He describes the role and his experience and comments, “There are a lot of lessons to be learned from that program… that probably could be employed to other monitorships around the world.” 

With regard to trading with China, Jonathan comments that we’re witnessing a change of approach. Very soon, he says, how compliance is done in Chinese companies must change: “There is going to need to be a sea change in terms of how compliance is done in Chinese companies.” 


Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP