The 49-year-old is the employee who sparked a five-year investigation in which telecommunications company ZTE was exposed for violating U.S. sanctions on selling U.S. goods to Iran. He told the FBI about the illegal operations of the Chinese company that sold surveillance technology. The following month, he began writing his book and providing legal advice and contract work, mostly for tech companies. Since then, he has built his own small practice and continues to help companies collaborate more effectively with their legal departments. He also launched a podcast called The Truth Champion, available on Spotify, Apple, and Google. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees to defend himself, money Yablon said he would never get back. It hired at least five lawyers: a whistleblower lawyer, a labour lawyer, a criminal defence lawyer, and civil and commercial lawyers. He used every part of his savings, borrowed from family and friends, and sold everything he could in the garage sale to pay the bills. Yablon said ZTE refused to provide him with a lawyer, so he filed an unsuccessful lawsuit with ZTE`s insurance company, Chubb. He then sued ZTE for lack of legal representation.
He and the company settled that lawsuit, though Yablon said he could not discuss the details because of confidentiality provisions. The verdict came on March 22, the final day of ZTE`s suspended sentence for illegally supplying U.S. technology to Iran and North Korea. Yablon`s lawyer at the time, Steve Kardell, said Yablon should have disclosed confidential information about the lawyer, which he could not do at the time without violating government ethics. Kardell helped Yablon negotiate a plan to exit ZTE. In March 2017, ZTE pleaded guilty and agreed to pay up to $1.2 billion for violating U.S. laws restricting the sale of U.S. technology to Iran. It was the highest sentence the Justice Department had won in an export control or sanctions case.
And that effectively bankrupted ZTE in the US. Yablon thought he was clear, he said. He felt that he had done the right thing for his country, and he was able to move forward, knowing that the truth would come out through the FBI. That was until the affidavit was made public. The Smoking Gun website was the first to report the affidavit in 2012, and a reporter contacted it for comment. In 2015, he joined Moroch Holdings Inc., a Dallas-based marketing and communications agency, as General Counsel, where he worked until April 2018. Plano`s lawyer has received death threats from mobile phone numbers registered under his former employer. His wife was chased by a yellow taxi from the 1960s. Men in black suits sat at dinner in the same restaurant as her.
He spoke to his wife outside their home while the sprinklers ran noisily. For now, Yablon said he will continue his consulting work and focus on promoting his book. He has scheduled a launch event on April 5 at the Barnes & Noble at the Prestonwood Center. “I feel like I`m in a better place now — I know I`m in a better place now and much happier,” Yablon said. What he did cost ZTE more than $1 billion in fines in 2017 and pushed the company into a tariff dispute between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. As part of a plea agreement with the U.S. government, ZTE was again allowed to buy U.S. parts for its smartphones and telecommunications networks. But he also had to clean up his board and senior management. Trump agreed to revive the company after the fine and a management overhaul to ensure the tech giant would not violate U.S. sanctions on Iran and North Korea. At the time, Trump said ZTE was “part of a broader trade deal” being negotiated with China.
Yablon recounts his version of events in a book entitled Standing Up To China: How a Whistleblower Risked Everything for His Country. It is out this month by Dallas-based Brown Books Publishing Group. U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade has ruled that Chinese telecommunications equipment maker ZTE Corp. could end its five-year suspended sentence following a 2017 guilty plea. He was not eligible for the government`s lucrative whistleblower program, he said, because he did not share his information with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The company`s $19 billion-a-year shares are listed on stock exchanges in China and Hong Kong. The FBI offered to put him and his wife, Donna, in a witness protection program. The couple, now divorced, refused.
“Then the big article comes out and [ZTE] realizes, `We have big problems,`” Yablon said. “I arrested one of the lawyers and asked him, `Why are you so worried about how they got it? We should not be concerned about that. Our concern is what we are going to do about it. And she said something that struck me between my eyes: `Because now we can`t hide anything.` Those three years at ZTE “just made me see things in a different light,” Yablon said. “I realized I no longer needed to be general counsel. I achieved that goal. Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. I got what I wanted, and I paid a high price. Siri Nelson, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, said the situation happens “far too often” when whistleblowers speak directly to law enforcement or the media.
The Center works with the SEC to issue guidelines that protect whistleblowers who speak to the media and trigger a successful investigation. When the U.S. Commerce Department served a subpoena on ZTE in 2012, the documents were handed over to ZTE USA with Yablon as general counsel, he said. When ZTE refused to cooperate, the agent began pressuring Yablon. “You have to live your life,” Yablon said. “I thought, `I`m just going to give it a shot.`” These are just some of the curiosities Yablon has encountered in his life as a whistleblower. He listed the details, from the players on the program to how he came across the information during his first few months on the job. He asked FBI agents to make forensic copies of the files on his work laptop.
Yablon left the meetings after providing information for a sealed and confidential 32-page affidavit from the FBI. Yablon began working at ZTE`s North American headquarters in Richardson in 2011 as the company`s senior advisor. He considered it a dream job, a role he held for just over three years. Prior to that, he was deputy general counsel at Huawei, another Chinese tech company banned by the United States.