Talking Export Compliance

University Export Compliance Learnings

September 2019

Meet Thomas Porro

Export Control Compliance Manager at the University of Massachusetts Lowell

Traliance:  You had significant prior experience in government roles going into your position as Export Control Officer at UMass Lowell.  How has that shaped your perspective or approach in carrying out your responsibilities as the Export Control Officer?  

Tom:  When evaluating an export control issue, I always try to use my prior experience to view whatever actions or policies I am contemplating from the side of an investigator or other government officials who might take a look at them in the future.  The scenario I give to myself and others is: “Would I (you) be comfortable testifying in court about the decision?”. I assume everything will be viewed in a light least favorable to us, so always want to be able to confidently defend the action or policy.  While that can seem like a negative or worst-case scenario approach and tends to put us on the conservative side of the compliance spectrum, it also helps to both avoid problems and mitigate any problems that might arise.

Traliance:  The University went through an enforcement case in 2013 related to EAR99 items being inadvertently shipped to an Entity List party in Pakistan.  As you well know, the result was a deferred fine that seemed to be a warning of sorts. With so much activity this year about changes in restricted parties lists and Huawei, the community has heightened awareness around restricted parties…especially universities that are on the BIS Entity List.  Can you share a couple key “lessons learned” for the University from that experience? 

Tom:  Screening is key.  As you mentioned, the item UMass Lowell (UML) shipped was EAR99, and could go to Pakistan without a problem.  However, like most Entity List members, even EAR99 commodities required a BIS license for shipment to SUPARCO (the Entity List member in this case).  Most of UML’s exports are still EAR99, but EVERY export gets restricted party screening before it goes out. As I inform people, something as simple as a UML t-shirt could cause a problem if it goes to the wrong place.  And even though our screening software keeps track of prior screens, and notifies us if a person or entity which we’ve previously screened is subsequently added to a restricted list, physical exports is the one area where I screen every time, even if we’ve shipped to the location dozens of times.  I always want to have a record of a “fresh”, and contemporaneous, screening to file with every export.

As an aside, while no institution wants an enforcement case against them, and it was costly in both time and funds, the experience helped solidify upper management’s support for the export compliance program.  The benefits of this extended well beyond just the management of physical exports and continue to this day.

Traliance:  There are multiple aspects that universities must consider when shipping an item internationally.  Compliance needs include knowing the proper export classification number and determining licensing requirements, screening for restricted parties, and submitting AES filings.  Given the decentralized nature of university campuses and shipping, creating a cohesive, yet practical, international shipping process is a major challenge for many universities.  Can you tell us about the journey you took to create the current shipping process at UML? How do you get your arms around international shipping?

Tom:  It begins with having written policies.  We are very lucky at UML to have solid support for the export control program from campus leadership.  So, we incorporated into our export control policies that ALL international shipments, including (non-routine) mail, must be cleared by my office prior to going out.  Then the word of this policy must be spread across campus, which is where training comes in. I take every opportunity I can get to speak to faculty and staff about export controls at UML, and always mention the need to clear international shipments.  And finally, I routinely work with our central shipping and mail departments to ensure they know to stop any shipment that doesn’t have written clearance from my office.

“It begins with having written policies…we incorporated into our export control policies that ALL international shipments, including (non-routine) mail, must be cleared by my office prior to going out.”

While I encourage all departments to use our central shipping office, some offices or departments still prefer to use their own Fed-Ex accounts.  That is allowed, however, the same clearance requirements apply, as does the requirement to provide me with copies of the shipping documents. Also, our Procurement office encourages departments to affiliate any individual FedEx accounts they might have with the Master UML account, citing the cost savings it will bring them.  This has the added benefit of giving me the ability to audit those accounts to ensure all shipments were cleared in advance.

Traliance:  Looking at your website, I see that you leverage department meetings and offer individual training. Many university export control leaders struggle with getting the attention of their faculty.  What can you tell us about your approach to training?

Tom:  I won’t say that it’s not a struggle at UML either.  All faculty are pressed for time, and I never want compliance to be seen as another meeting they have to sit through.  That is why I try to get some block of time, no matter small, in existing meetings to get my message across. A few minutes is all I really need to convey the key points.  Accordingly, I don’t cite regulations (which just make people’s eyes gloss over anyway), and only use terms such as “ITAR” and “USML” so that when people see them in RFPs or other documents, they know “Oh, I should let Tom know about this one.”  I focus on the “operational” side of export controls – what activities on campus trigger them – rather than on the controls themselves. I want the audience to know that if they are going to travel internationally, host a foreign visitor, ship something out of the country, etc…, they need to make sure I know about it.  I don’t try to teach export regulations. It’s MY job to worry about if an item is on a control list, or if a deemed export license is needed. All I need from them is to bring the matter to my attention. The only exception to this is for faculty and staff who work on export-controlled projects, who receive an in-depth briefing on the controls and regulations that apply to their project (including the penalties that can apply for any violations!).

I also tailor the training to the audience.  While I’m always sure to cover the basics, I try to make the topics as relevant as possible to the group in front of me.  That not only ensures the correct areas are covered but helps keep the audience interested. For example, Engineering faculty pay attention when I talk about the controls that can come with Department of Defense contracts because that’s a major source of their funding.  On the other hand, folks in my shipping department care about embargoed countries and restricted entities…something they see and hear about regularly in the course of their job.

Traliance:  International travel is another sticking point for many institutions.  In many cases, universities struggle with implementing travel notification or registration requirements for faculty and other researchers.  How do you handle that at UMass Lowell?

Tom:  The policy at UML is that all travel must be approved in advance to be eligible for reimbursement.  While this is a Finance office policy, it obviously has implications for compliance, and although it is not always adhered to (again, training is key), it certainly provides an incentive for travelers to submit their travel authorization requests in advance.  When I first started at UML, only travel to “Group D and E” countries was reviewed by the Compliance Office. This caused extra work and confusion on the part of the traveler and/or department staff, who had to look up the country groups, and then route the travel forms to my office when those countries were involved. (We had one form that had to be completed for all travel, and then an additional form to be completed for international travel.)  I made the decision (and policy change) that I would just review ALL international travel. This both ensured I would see travel to other countries which could be a problem. It also helped streamline the process, making it easier on the travelers and departments, increasing the odds that the forms would reach my desk prior to the traveler’s departure. The drawback is there are times of the year where I spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing international travel, most of which is very low risk.  However, as I say here about all areas of export compliance, I’d rather be shown a hundred things that aren’t an issue than to miss the one that is.

Luckily, a couple of years ago we switched to an electronic travel registration system.  This not only greatly improved the efficiency of the process, but also provided a searchable central registry of travelers, including emergency contact information.  (Prior to this, I was the only one on campus who had a reliable list of international travelers. There were several times where I was contacted late at night by senior management to find out if we currently had travelers in a certain location where a terrorist event or natural disaster had just occurred.)  While there are still times of the year where I can spend a good part of my day doing travel reviews, given the rapid growth of UML since I’ve been here, I’m not sure a full review program would still be feasible had we remained using paper forms.

Who We AreTrade Compliance Services

Traliance provides export controls consulting services for research universities and technology companies. Our focus is on the implementation of practical solutions that drive robust export controls compliance. Our services are based on a unique blend of knowledge in U.S. export controls regulations, scientific research, and business process improvement methodologies. We bring valuable experience from working with universities, non-profits, and companies of all size that span a range of industries and sectors (including satellites, drones, aerospace, advanced materials, chemicals, underwater, medical, and SaaS.)