[This post is part of a periodic series regarding "old" FCPA enforcement actions]
In 1986 the SEC brought this civil injunctive action against Ashland Oil, Inc. (a Kentucky based oil refining company) and its Chairman and CEO Orin Atkins for engaging in conduct in violation of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.
The complaint began by noting that in 1975, prior to the passage of the FCPA, the defendants consented to final judgments of permanent injunction enjoining them from using corporate funds “for unlawful political contributions or other similar unlawful purposes.” As noted in “The Story of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” Ashland Oil’s payments to Albert Bernard Bongo, the President of Gabon, were among a group of payments that drew Congressional attention to the foreign corporate payments problem and motivated Congress to pass the FCPA in 1977.
The 1986 Ashland Oil enforcement action is thus notable as the first instance of an “FCPA” repeat “offender.”
As highlighted in more detail below, the enforcement action is also notable for the following reasons: (i) the thing of value consisted of buying a “foreign official’s” interest in a largely worthless mine); (ii) the conduct at issue lead to an FCPA-related civil suit in which two terminated company employees were awarded $70 million in damages; and (iii) there was controversy both as to the DOJ’s and SEC’s handling of the conduct at issue.
In the 1986 action, the SEC alleged that Ashland Oil and Atkins “paid $25 million in principal plus approximately $4 million in interest, and by virtue of the acquisition of an interest in Midlands Chrome [a largely worthless Zimbabwe mine owned by the "foreign official" and his family], gave something of value to James Landon [a British national seconded (detailed) to the government of Oman who served as a special adviser to the Sultan of Oman on Omani intelligence and security matters] … for the purpose of inducing Landon to use his influence with the government of Oman … in order to assist Ashland in obtaining and retaining business with the government of Oman … namely certain business related to crude oil.”
According to the complaint, Atkins was told that Midlands Chrome “could be purchased from persons who could be sympathetic to Ashland’s desire to become a purchaser of crude oil from Oman.” Even though a company lawyer advised that the transaction raised issues under the FCPA, the SEC alleged that the “board of directors of Ashland held a meeting at which Atkins presented for the Board’s approval the acquisition of Midland Chrome.” According to the complaint, Atkins viewed the acquisition as a “high risk project” but one that had “potential of being more than offset by a potential crude oil contract …”. According to the complaint, initial board meeting minutes show that Atkins said “the corporation was interested [in the Midlands Chrome acquisition] for the reason that it might thereby be enabled to obtain a contract to purchase crude oil from Oman” but that “this statement was deleted from the final version of the minutes at Atkins’ direction.”
Based on the above core conduct, in a detailed 35 page complaint, the SEC alleged three substantive FCPA anti-bribery violations.
Atkins resigned as chairman of Ashland in 1981 after an internal investigation into a number of questionable foreign payments. According to media reports, when the 1986 matter was resolved Atkins issued a statement which read as follows. “Although it would be my personal preference to litigate this matter, I have agreed to settle this action so that the company can put this lingering dispute behind it, and because to contest this matter would have involved disproportionate trouble and expense.” For more on the life of Orin Atkins, see here and here.
In media reports, Richard Murphy, an SEC enforcement lawyer, said the Ashland case was significant because it demonstrated that the SEC will go beyond the traditional “cash cases” and scrutinize more complicated transactions to determine if they represent violations.
In 1995, Ashland Oil changed its name to Ashland Inc.
In an interesting side note, former Ashland employees Bill McKay and Harry Williams sued the company for breach of contract and wrongful discharge, asserting that Ashland’s pattern of corrupt practices amounted to a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law. McKay alleged that he was terminated because he refused to take part in any bribery schemes and that he refused in subsequent investigations to hide Ashland’s conduct from officials at the IRS and SEC. According to a 1989 ABA Journal report, “Williams had not been asked to take part in any foreign payments, but he’d become sympathetic to McKay’s efforts to change Ashland’s policy.” According to the report, Williams “made an anonymous phone call to the SEC and spoke freely about Ashland’s recent actions abroad.” A jury returned a verdict of approximately $70 million. According to the ABA report, McKay was awarded over $44.5 million, and the rest was apportioned to Williams. According to the report, Ashland threatened to appeal and the parties settled for $25 million.
Set forth below, in pertinent part, is an interesting article published in the Washington Post on July 10, 1988. about the DOJ’s and SEC’s handling of the conduct at issue.
“Lawyers for two former executives who won a $ 69.5 million award from Ashland Oil Co. contend that their victory shows the Securities and Exchange Commission pulled its punches in handling charges of overseas bribery and other illegal conduct by Ashland. The two former vice presidents had said in wrongful-dismissal lawsuits and in SEC testimony that Ashland paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to foreign officials to get scarce crude oil and then tried to cover up the illegal conduct. They said they lost their jobs after refusing to participate in conspiracies, perjury and other crimes. Last month, a U.S. District Court jury in Covington, Ky., awarded Bill E. McKay $ 44.6 million and Harry D. Williams $ 24.9 million after a 35-day trial. The jury said the liability should be shared by Ashland; its former chairman and chief executive, Orin E. Atkins; John R. Hall, who succeeded Atkins in 1981, and Richard W. Spears, senior vice president for human resources and law.”
“The SEC filed a much narrower civil lawsuit in July 1986 charging that Ashland and Atkins had bribed an official of Oman to get oil from the sultanate. The suit was filed in tandem with a consent decree, a final court judgment in which Ashland and Atkins neither admitted nor denied past violations while agreeing to face criminal penalties for future ones.”
“The jury and the SEC each had essentially the same evidence of possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) of 1977. The gap between the jury’s verdict and the SEC action shows that the SEC dealt with the matter too lightly, according to John R. McCall and Kenneth M. Robinson, the lawyers for McKay and Williams. ‘I can understand how counsel for McKay and Williams are proud of their achievement, and they certainly have the right to crow about it,’ said SEC enforcement chief Gary G. Lynch. ‘But any criticism of the commission’s investigation, or of the results that we achieved, is simply unwarranted.’”
“Punitive damages accounted for only $ 3 million of the awards to McKay and Williams. Compensatory damages were tripled — to $66.5 million — for conspiring to violate, and for violating, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. RICO makes it unlawful for any person associated with an enterprise affecting commerce to lead or to join in ‘conduct of [the] enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity.’ The jury found that the three individual defendants had all conducted or participated in ‘a pattern of racketeering activity’ principally through multiple violations of the FCPA antibribery section and of a law prohibiting travel for the purpose of violating the section.”
“The SEC’s 1986 lawsuit, which followed months of negotiations with Ashland’s law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, named only one person paid by the oil company, James T.W. (Tim) Landon of Oman, as a foreign government official under the FCPA’s antibribery provisions. The complaint also alleged only one bribe, described by Ashland as a $ 25 million investment in a Landon-controlled chromium mine in Rhodesia. But the jury found that Ashland, ‘with corrupt intent to bribe,’ had made payments to three figures it said were foreign officials under the FCPA: Landon and Yehia Omar of Oman, and Hassan Y. Yassin of Saudi Arabia (who also has operated a consulting firm in McLean). With the same corrupt intent, the jury said, Ashland had made payments to a fourth recipient, Sadiq Attia, ‘knowing or having reason to know that’ all or a portion of the money — $ 17 million — ‘would be used to bribe a government official of Abu Dhabi.’”
“The SEC complaint and consent decree did not mention Yehia Omar or cite any Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia payments. Last December, SEC Chairman David S. Ruder told Senate Banking Committee Chairman William Proxmire (D-Wis.) that the Division of Enforcement ‘concluded that the evidence was … insufficient to support further charges of violations’ of the FCPA. In an interview after the jury verdict, Lynch said ‘there was not sufficient evidence that we felt comfortable we could prevail’ if charges were brought based on Ashland payments to Omar. ‘Even before we sat down to negotiate, we had decided privately to exclude Omar, Abu Dhabi, and Saudi Arabia from the consent decree. ‘It was clear to us that the Landon transaction was the strongest, because we believed we could establish that Landon was a government official at the time the chrome transaction occurred.’ Lynch said. He called a multiple-count complaint unnecessary. ‘We were suing for injunctive relief,’ and ‘we could get it with Landon,’ he said. ‘There was no need to push and take on a litigation risk in a case that was much less certain.’ He extended this argument to the omission of the Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia cases.”
“But lawyers McCall and Robinson disagreed. ‘The finest judicial scrutiny our American judicial system can provide has now determined that the earlier government efforts were incomplete,’ McCall said. It’s ‘ridiculous’ for the SEC to claim the evidence was insufficient to convince a jury that bribery far beyond that which it alleged hadn’t occurred, he said.”
“Lynch also defended the SEC’s decision not to ask a federal court to find Ashland and Atkins had violated a 1975 consent decree and to hold them in criminal contempt. ‘We did have a concern about meeting the higher burden of proof in order to prove criminal contempt,’ Lynch said. [...] One difficulty in going the criminal route was that ‘the major thrust’ of the 1975 decrees involved unlawful political contributions, and ‘these were foreign bribes,’ Lynch said.”
“But the lawyers for McKay and Williams dismissed this explanation. They pointed out that the 1975 consent decrees prohibited false or fictitious bookkeeping entries, and said the $ 25 million Oman item that the SEC called a bribe, as well as the Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia payments, all were recorded by Ashland as ordinary outlays. ‘It was like shooting ducks in a barrel,’ Robinson said. ‘There was no answer that any Ashland official could give on the stand to explain the fraud that was in the documents that they wrote. And how the SEC could miss that is beyond description.’ ‘The SEC should have seen it. These were indictable offenses … I don’t see the evidence that the SEC even slapped Ashland’s wrist. They just closed the book by executing another consent decree — a promise to pay, which is all that it is.’”
“Arthur F. Mathews, who was an SEC deputy enforcement chief in 1969, said in an interview that ‘in the horse-trading for not litigating,’ Cravath, Swaine ’got the staff to strike Yehia Omar … If I had to guess, they did not include Yehia Omar in their action because they thought it was a toss-up whether you could prove it, and they gave it up in the bargain.’”
“McCall said the SEC staff may well have done all it could have, particularly in light of the Reagan administration’s apparent reluctance to enforce the FCPA’s antibribery provisions.’ The SEC commissioners, for example, voted 3 to 2 to reject the division’s initial recommendation for a lawsuit that named only Landon as the recipient of a bribe. Only after the division reargued its case did the commission reverse itself, allowing Lynch to file the lawsuit. Lynch said the SEC disregarded a report by an outside counsel who concluded that the Oman transactions had not violated the FCPA or the 1975 consent decree. Williams and McKay had challenged the independence of the outsider, Pittsburgh attorney Charles J. Queenan. Queenan is a friend of Cravath, Swaine presiding partner and Ashland director Samuel C. Butler, who submitted the report to the SEC as the work of an independent counsel. ‘We did not accept the conclusion that it was an ‘independent counsel’ report,” Lynch said. The SEC staff ‘did our own very thorough investigation of the matter,’ he said. ‘It is clear that if we had accepted the Queenan report’s findings, we would not have filed an action.”
“Sen. Proxmire, who monitors FCPA enforcement, also has raised questions about the Justice Department’s role in the Ashland case. The department had full access to the SEC’s files from the start of the SEC staff investigation in May 1983. Last October, after a Washington Post series on Ashland’s payments to overseas consultants, Proxmire asked the department if it had investigated the matter and if ‘it has concluded that violations of the FCPA have taken place.’ If the conclusion was that there’d been no violations, ‘I would like an explanation of the rationale underlying such a judgment,’ Proxmire said. ‘If the department has not investigated these allegations, I request that you do so and let me know the results.’ Assistant Attorney General John R. Bolton said on Jan. 20 that he would respond when he received a report from the fraud section of the Criminal Division. On June 20, Proxmire, having heard nothing more for six months, sent Attorney General Edwin Meese III a news story on the jury verdict in Kentucky and asked ‘whether the Department of Justice will now initiate a criminal action.’ If not, Proxmire said he wanted to know why. A department spokesman said a response is being prepared.”