Archive for the ‘Internal Controls’ Category

Avon Resolves Long-Standing FCPA Scrutiny By Agreeing To $135 Million Settlement

Friday, December 19th, 2014

AvonEarlier this week, the DOJ and SEC announced resolution of Avon’s long-standing FCPA scrutiny in China.  The conduct at issue took place between 2004 and 2008 and Avon disclosed the conduct to the enforcement agencies in 2008.

In short, the DOJ and SEC alleged that Avon’s indirect subsidiary (Avon China) provided approximately $8 million in things of value, including gifts, cash, and non-business travel, meals and entertainment, which it gave to Chinese officials in order to obtain and retain business benefits for Avon China.  Avon resolved FCPA books and records and internal controls charges related to this conduct.

Consistent with Avon’s prior disclosure, the aggregate settlement amount was $135 million.  While not a top-ten Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action, the settlement is the third-largest ever against a U.S. company.

The enforcement action included:

  • a DOJ component (a criminal information against Avon China resolved via a plea agreement and a criminal information against Avon Products resolved via a deferred prosecution agreement with an aggregate fine amount of $67.6 million); and
  • an SEC component (a civil complaint against Avon Products which it agreed to resolve without admitting or denying the allegations through payment of $67.4 million).

This post summarizes the approximately 175 pages of resolution documents.  Because all of the resolution documents have substantial overlap, the core allegations are highlighted in connection with the Avon China criminal information, yet repeated in the other resolution documents as well.

DOJ

Avon China Information

Avon Products (China) Co. Ltd. (“Avon China”) is described as an indirect subsidiary of Avon incorporated in China.  According to the information, Avon China and its affiliates manufactured and sold beauty and healthcare products through direct sales, as well as through “beauty boutiques” that were independently owned and operated.  The information states that in addition to independent sales representatives, Avon China had between 1,000 and 2,000 employees.  According to the information, Avon China’s books, records and accounts were consolidated into Avon’s books and records and reported by Avon in its financial statements.

Under the heading “The Chinese Regulatory Regime for Direct Selling” the information states:

“In or around 1998, the Chinese government outlawed direct selling in China for all companies.  In or around 2001, as a condition of its entry into the World Trade Organization, China agreed to lift its ban on direct selling.  In or around 2005, in order to test its planned regulations for direct selling, the Chinese government decided to issue one company a temporary license to conduct direct sales (the ‘test license.’). In or around March 2005, the Chinese government awarded the test license to Avon China, the defendant.  In or around late 2005, China lifted its ban on direct selling and allowed companies to apply for licenses to conduct direct sales.  Under China’s newly promulgated direct selling regulations, to conduct direct sales, a company was required to obtain a national direct selling license and approvals from each province and municipality in which it sought to conduct direct sales.  In order to obtain a license, a company was required to satisfy a number of conditions, including, in pertinent part, having a ‘good business reputation’ and a record that demonstrated no material violations of Chinese law for the preceding five years.  In or around February 2006, Avon China, the defendant, obtained its national direct selling license.  Between in or around February 2006 and in or around July 2006, Avon China, the defendant, obtained all of its provincial and municipal approvals to conduct direct selling.”

According to the information, Avon China created and maintained a Corporate Affairs Group whose duties included maintaining “guanxi (good relationships) with government officials and lobbying those officials on behalf of Avon China.”

Under the heading, “Overview of the Scheme to Falsify Books and Records,” the information states that from 2004 to 2008, Avon China, and Avon, acting through certain executives and employees, together with others, conspired to falsify Avon China’s and, thereby ultimately, Avon’s books and records in order to disguise the things of value Avon China executives and employees provided to government officials in China.

Specifically, the information alleges that from 2004 to 2008 Avon China “acting through certain executives and employees, disguised on its books and records over $8 million in things of value, including gifts, cash, and non-business travel, meals and entertainment, which it gave to Chinese officials in order to obtain and retain business benefits for Avon China.

The information alleges that:

Avon China “falsely and misleadingly described the nature and purpose of certain transactions on Avon China’s books and records, in part, because they believed that Chinese government officials did not want a paper trail reflecting their acceptance of money, gifts, travel, entertainment and other things of value from Avon China executives and employees.  The executives and employees also knew that, contrary to how the expenses were being described in Avon China’s books and records, the expenses were not incurred for legitimate business purposes.”

According to the information:

“Avon executives and employees, including high-level executives, attorneys, and internal auditors, learned that executives and employees of Avon China, the defendant, had in the past routinely provided things of value to Chinese government officials and failed to properly document it.  Instead of ensuring the practice was halted, disciplining the culpable individuals, and implementing appropriate controls at Avon and Avon China to address the problem, the Avon executives and employees, in conjunction with Avon China executives and employees, took steps to conceal the significant concerns raised about the accuracy of Avon China’s books and records and its practice of giving things of value to government officials.  These Avon and Avon China executives and employees, knowing that Avon China’s books and records would continue to be inaccurate if steps were not taken to correct Avon China’s executives and employees’ conduct, failed to take steps to correct such actions, despite knowing that Avon China’s books and records were consolidated into Avon’s books and records.”

The information then alleges various categories of payments.

Under the heading “gifts for government officials,” the information details designer wallets, bags, or watches “to obtain benefits from government officials, such as obtaining and retaining the direct selling license and requisite provincial and local approvals, avoiding fines, avoiding negative media reports, obtaining favorable judicial treatment, and obtaining government approval to sell nutritional supplements and healthcare apparel products, via direct selling, that did not meet or had yet to meet government standards.  According to the information, Avon China executives and employees, at various times, falsely or misleadingly described the gifts, including describing them as employee travel and entertainment, samples or public relations business entertainment.” Specific gifts mentioned include a $890 gift or entertainment expense, a $960 gift purchased from Louis Vuitton, a $800 Gucci Bag, and a $460 gift from Louis Vuitton.

Regarding avoiding negative media reports, the information alleges that a leading government-owned newspaper intended to run a story about Avon China improperly recruiting sales associates and that this article could cause Avon China to lose its direct selling license.  According to the information, “in order to convince the newspaper not to run the article … an Avon China employee caused Avon China to pay approximately $77,500 to become a “sponsor” of the paper at the request of a government official at the paper who was in charge of determining whether the potential article would run and who may have received a commission on monies received from sponsors.”

Under the heading “meals and entertainment,” the information alleges that Avon China “routinely entertained government officials in order to obtain the same business benefits highlighted above.  According to the information, executives and employees of Avon China, “intentionally concealed these improper meal and entertainment expenses in Avon China’s books and records by (1) intentionally omitting reference to the participation of government officials in order to conceal their participation, using descriptions like business entertainment, public relation entertainment, or no description at all; or (2) revealing the participation of government officials but intentionally describing the event inaccurately by omitting the identity or number of officials, the cost of the event, or the true purpose of the event.”

Under the heading “travel for government officials,” the information alleges that executives and employees of Avon China caused Avon China to “pay for travel expenses for government officials, and sometimes their families” in order to obtain the same improper business benefits highlighted above.  According to the information, “to conceal the true nature of these expenses, these executives and employees intentionally omitted from or concealed in Avon China’s records the name of the government officials, the fact that the travelers were government officials or relatives of government officials, and, at times, the number of travelers.”  The information also alleges that executives and employees of Avon China “intentionally falsified in Avon China’s books and records the purpose of the travel, which often was for personal, not legitimate business, purposes.  For example, the information alleges that certain personal trips for government officials (and occasionally their spouses and children) were described as “study trips” or “site visits” when the officials were instead sightseeing or taking a beach vacation.”  Specifically, the information alleges, among other trips, that Avon China paid for six officials from the Guandong Food and Drug Administration to travel to Avon’s headquarters in New York City and its research and development facility in upstate New York for a “site visit/study visit.” According to the information, the “officials never visited Avon’s headquarters, only spent one morning at Avon’s research and development facility, and spent the rest of the 18-day trip sightseeing and being entertained by an Avon China employee in New York, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Philadelphia, Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Washington D.C.

Under the heading “cash for government officials,” the information alleges that “executives and employees of Avon China, gave cash to government officials in order to obtain benefits for Avon China and falsified Avon China’s records to conceal the true recipient of and purpose for the money.”  According to the information, “these employees accomplished this by submitting for reimbursement meal or entertainment receipts given to them by government officials and falsely claiming that the receipts reflected employee business expenses.  In truth, the employees had no such expenses, and the receipts were used to obtain cash to make payments to government officials.  The information also alleges other instances in which executives and employees of Avon China “gave cash to government officials in order to obtain business benefits for Avon China and falsely reported the payments as fine payments.”  In other instances, the information alleges that Avon China executives and employees “made payments to organizations designated by government officials.”

The information also contains a separate section regarding payments to Consulting Company A that was retained by Avon China “purportedly” to provide various services to Avon China.  The information alleges that these services “were memorialized in a scant two-page contract” and that Avon China “did not conduct any due diligence of Consulting Company A, nor did they require Consulting Company A to comply with Avon’s Code of Conduct (in particular, the provisions related to payments to government officials), even though Consulting Company A was retained specifically to interact with government officials on behalf of Avon China.”  The information alleges that executives and employees of Avon China caused Avon China to pay Consulting Company A additional monies for purportedly legitimate, though ambiguously described, services even though an Avon China executive knew Consulting Company A’s invoices were often false, and no Avon China executives or employees knew of any legitimate services being provided by Consulting Company A.

Based on the above conduct, Avon China was charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s books and records provisions.

The information also contains a separate section titled “Discovery of the Falsification and Cover-Up.”  In pertinent part, the information alleges:

  • In 2005, a senior audit manager in Avon’s internal audit group reported to Avon’s Compliance Committee, that executives and employees of Avon China were not maintaining proper records of entertainment for government officials and that an Avon China executive had explained that the practice was intentional because information regarding that entertainment was “quite sensitive.”
  • In 2005, Avon’s internal auditors audited the Corporate Affairs Group’s travel and entertainment and discretionary expenses and issued a draft report.
  • The Draft Audit Report, which was reviewed by various Avon executives and Avon attorneys, contained conclusions regarding the Corporate Affairs Group’s expenses including: (1) high value gifts and meals were offered to government officials on an ongoing basis; (2) the majority of the expenses related to gifts, meals, sponsorships, and travel of substantial monetary value for Chinese government officials to maintain relationships with the officials; (3) a third party consultant was paid a substantial sum of money to interact with the government but was not contractually required to follow the FCPA, was not actively monitored by Avon China, and was paid for vague and unknown services; and (4) the payments, and the lack of accurate, detailed records, may violate the FCPA and other anti-corruption laws.
  • The management team of Avon China “insisted that the internal audit team remove the discussion of providing things of value to government officials and potential FCPA violations from the Draft Audit Report.
  • Certain Avon executives agreed with executives of Avon China to delete the discussion of the Corporate Affairs Group’s conduct from the Draft Audit Report.  An Avon Executive then directed the internal audit team to either (1) retrieve every copy of the Draft Audit Report and destroy them or (2) instruct the individuals who possessed copies of the Draft Audit Report to destroy them.
  • Avon executives did not instruct any executives or employees of Avon China to stop the conduct identified in the Draft Audit Report, put in place controls to prevent the conduct or ensure the accuracy of Avon China’s books and records.
  • In 2006, Avon’s internal auditors again reviewed the Corporate Affairs Group’s travel and entertainment and discretionary expenses and found that Corporate Affairs Group executive and employees were continuing their practice of giving things of value to government officials.  Notwithstanding learning that the conduct was continuing and that the books and records of Avon China were still being falsified, no Avon or Avon China executives or employees took steps to stop or prevent the conduct from recurring, and Avon China executives and employees continued operating in the same improper manner.
  • In 2007, an Avon executive reported to the Avon Compliance Committee that the matter reported in 2005 regarding potential FCPA violations by executives and employees of Avon China had been closed as “unsubstantiated” even though the executive and others knew of Avon China’s previous – and continuing – practice of giving things of value to government officials and the ongoing failure of Avon China’s books and records to reflect accurately and fairly the nature and purpose of the transactions.
  • From 2004 to 2008, Avon China executives signed false management representation letters to Avon China’s external auditor stating that Avon China’s books and records were fair and accurate.

Avon China Plea Agreement

According to the plea agreement, the advisory Sentencing Guidelines fine range was $73.9 million to $147.9 million.  Pursuant to the plea agreement, Avon China agreed to pay a criminal fine in the amount of $67.6 million.

In the plea agreement, Avon China waived all defenses based on the statute of limitations.

Avon Products Information

The information is based on the same core conduct alleged in the Avon China information.

Under the heading “Avon’s Internal Controls,” the information alleges, in pertinent part, as follows.

“Although Avon … and certain of its subsidiaries had policies in place relating to the review and approval of employee expenses, it lacked adequate controls to ensure compliance with those policies and thus, in practice, employee expenses were not adequately vetted to ensure that they were reasonable, bona fide, or properly documented.

Avon … lacked sufficient controls to ensure the integrity of its internal audit process, particularly with regard to its review of allegations of and testing for improper payments made to foreign government officials.  Avon’s internal audit group also failed to devote adequate funding, staffing, and resources to Avon China.

Avon … did not have adequate internal accounting and financial controls designed to detect and prevent, among other things, corruption-related violations, including FCPA violations.  In particular, after senior Avon executives … learned of specific corruption issues in China related to the provision of cash, meals, gifts, travel, and entertainment to government officials, Avon failed to take the necessary steps to implement appropriate controls to address such issues and prevent such risks in the future.

Avon … had an inadequate compliance program.  In fact, Avon did not have a dedicated compliance officer or compliance personnel.  Avon’s compliance program was particularly weak with regard to risks associated with foreign bribery.  For example, even though Avon operated in over 100 countries, including many countries with high corruption risks, Avon did not have a specific anti-corruption policy, nor did it provide any stand alone FCPA-related training.  Moreover, although Avon had a code of conduct that covered all of its employees and its subsidiaries’ employees, which, among other things, prohibited paying bribes, many employees of Avon and its subsidiaries were unaware of its existence.

Avon .. did not conduct corruption-related due diligence on appropriate third parties or have effective controls for the meaningful approval of third parties.  Avon also did not require adequate documentation supporting the retention of payments to third parties.

Avon … did not undertake periodic risk assessments of its compliance program and lacked proper oversight of gifts, travel, and entertainment expenditures.  Avon’s failure to maintain an adequate compliance program significantly contributed to the company’s failure to prevent the misconduct in China.”

Based on the core conduct and the specific allegations detailed above, Avon was charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s books and records provisions as well as one count of violating the FCPA’s internal controls provisions for knowingly failing to implement a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurance of various aspects of its business as required by the provisions.

Avon Products DPA

Pursuant to the three year DPA, Avon admitted, accepted and acknowledged that it was responsible for the conduct alleged in the information.

Under the heading “Relevant Considerations,” the factors the DOJ considered in resolving the action were:

“(a) the Company’s cooperation, which included conducting an extensive internal investigation in China and other relevant countries; voluntarily making U.S. and foreign employees available for interviews; collecting, analyzing, translating, and organizing voluminous evidence and information for the Department; (b) the Company’s voluntary disclosure of its employees’ and its subsidiary’s employees’ misconduct to the Department, which came relatively soon after the Company received a whistleblower letter alleging misconduct but years after certain senior executives of the Company had learned of and sought to hide the misconduct in China; (c) the Company’s extensive remediation, including terminating the employment of individuals responsible for the misconduct, enhancing its compliance program and internal controls, and significantly increasing the resources available for compliance and internal audit; (d) the Company’s commitment to continue to enhance its compliance program and internal controls, including ensuring that its compliance program satisfies the minimum elements [set forth in the DPA]; and (e) the Company’s agreement to continue to cooperate with the Department …”

The DPA also states:

“The Department also considered that the Company, taking into account its own business interests, expended considerable resources on a company wide review of and enhancements to its compliance program and internal controls.  While the Company’s efforts in this regard were taken without Department request or guidance, and at times caused unintended delays in the progress of the Department’s narrower investigations, the Department recognizes that the Company’s efforts resulted in important compliance and internal controls improvements.”

Based on the conduct at issue, the DPA sets forth an advisory Sentencing Guidelines range of $84.6 million to $169.1 million.  The DPA sets forth a criminal fine amount of $67.6 million and the above-mentioned Avon China criminal fine was deducted from this amount.

Pursuant to the DPA, Avon agreed to retain an independent compliance monitor for an 18 month term and agreed to various periodic reporting obligations to the DOJ.

The DPA contains a standard “muzzle clause” in which it (or those associated with it) agreed not to make any public statements contradicting its acceptance of responsibility under the DPA.

In this release, Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell stated:

“Companies that cook their books to hide improper payments will face criminal penalties, as Avon China’s guilty plea demonstrates. Public companies that discover bribes paid to foreign officials, fail to stop them, and cover them up do so at their own peril.”

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York stated:

“For years in China it was ‘Avon calling,’ as Avon bestowed millions of dollars in gifts and other things on Chinese government officials in return for business benefits. Avon China was in the door-to-door influence-peddling business, and for years its corporate parent, rather than putting an end to the practice, conspired to cover it up.  Avon has now agreed to adopt rigorous internal controls and to the appointment of a monitor to ensure that reforms are instituted and maintained.”

Assistant Director in Charge Andrew G. McCabe of the FBI’s Washington Field Office stated:

“When corporations knowingly engage in bribery in order to obtain and retain contracts, it disrupts the level playing field to which all businesses are entitled. Companies who attempt to advance their businesses through foreign bribery should be on notice.  The FBI, with our law enforcement partners, is continuing to push this unacceptable practice out of the business playbook by investigating companies who ignore the law.”

SEC

Based on the same core conduct alleged in the DOJ actions, in this civil complaint the SEC charged Avon with violating the FCPA’s books and records and internal controls provisions.  In summary, the SEC’s complaint states:

“This matter concerns violations by A von Products, Inc. (“A von”) of the corporate record keeping and internal controls provisions of the federal securities laws. [...] . From 2004 through the third quarter of 2008, Avon’s books and records failed to accurately and fairly reflect payments by Avon Products (China) Co., Ltd. (“Avon Products China”) to Chinese government officials. Avon Products China provided cash and things of value, including gifts, travel, and entertainment, to various Chinese government officials, including government officials responsible for awarding a test license, and subsequently a direct sales business license, that would allow a company to utilize direct door-to-door selling in China. Avon Products China  was, in fact, awarded a test license and, then, the first official direct selling business license in China. Avon Products China also adopted an internal “no penalty policy” and provided cash and things of value to Chinese government officials to avoid fines and other penalties in order to maintain an ostensibly pristine corporate image. Avon Products China also paid a third-party consultant for purportedly legitimate interactions with government officials, even though Avon Products China management knew the consultant’s invoices were often false and could not point to legitimate services provided by the consultant. At times , payments were made to suppress negative news in state-owned media and to obtain competitor information. In addition, Avon Products China provided cash to government officials on behalf of other Avon subsidiaries in China. Avon Products China falsified its books and records so as to conceal the cash and things of value provided to government officials.  Near the end of 2005, an Avon internal audit team reported potential issues concerning things of value provided to Chinese government officials. Nevertheless, remedial measures sufficient to address the issues were not implemented at Avon Products China. Similar issues related to Avon Products China were raised at the end of 2006. Again, responsive remedial measures were not implemented. The books and records at A von Products China were consolidated into the books and records of Avon. Avon thus violated [the books and records provisions] by failing to make and keep books, records , and accounts, which, in reasonable detail , accurately and fairly reflected the transactions and disposition of assets of the issuer. By failing to ensure that it maintained adequate internal controls sufficient to record the nature and purpose of payments, or to prevent improper payments, to government  officials, Avon failed to devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that its transactions and the disposition of its assets were recorded correctly, accurately, and in accordance with authorization of management. Avon thereby violated [the internal controls provisions]. Finally, in May 2008, Avon began a review of its compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), the U.S . legislation that, among other things, prohibits payments to foreign government officials to obtain or retain business. As a result of its review, the company instituted extensive, related reforms.”

In certain respects, the SEC’s complaint contains additional details regarding certain of the alleged conduct such as:

  • Certain of the Chinese “foreign officials” are alleged to be individuals associated with the Ministry of Commerce (“MOFCOM”) and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (“AIC”).
  • Regarding the Draft Audit Report, “Avon’s Legal Department took the position that conclusions about potential FCPA violations fell within the purview of Legal, and not Internal Audit.”
  • Regarding Avon’s initial investigation of the matter, Avon engaged a “major law firm” but “in mid-December 2005, sent the law firm a short e-mail stating that the company had ”moved on” from the issues and asking for an estimate of the fees incurred.”
  • “In May 2008 , the Avon Products China Corporate Affairs executive who had been terminated wrote to Avon’ s Chief Executive Officer alleging improper payments to Chinese government officials over several years in the form of meals, entertainment, travel, sponsorship of cultural events, gifts of art, and cash. The letter was forwarded to A von’s Legal Department and, in tum, to the audit committee of Avon’s board of directors. The audit committee commenced an internal investigation into the allegations and, in October 2008, Avon informed the Commission and the Department of Justice.”
  • As to various things of value: (i) “The majority of these payments were for meals and entertainment expenses under $200 per occurrence, without indication as to who attended the meal/entertainment or the business purpose of the expense.” (ii) a “Pearl River cruise for 200 State and Regional AIC officials during a conference of officials with responsibility for the oversight of Avon Products China’s direct selling business license.”; (iii) “corporate boxes at the China Open tennis tournament, given to AIC and other government officials in 2004 and 2005 “to thank them for their support.” During these years, Avon Products China was a corporate sponsor of the tournament and received the tickets as part of that sponsorship . Avon Products China also provided government officials with gifts that included Louis Vuitton merchandise, Gucci bags, and Tiffany pens.” (iv) “$23,000 for travel and expenses for government journalists to attend the ceremony at which Avon Products China launched its direct selling test;” (v) “Avon Products China’s employees also made payments to government officials for conferences, and related meals, gifts, and entertainment, in 150 instances aggregating $143,000. Records for these expenses do not indicate who attended the conferences, or the business purpose of the expenses. Approximately $15,000 of this amount was for expenses related to government journalists’ attendance at an Avon Products China media event.”

As noted in this SEC release:

“Avon, which neither admitted nor denied the allegations, agreed to pay disgorgement of $52,850,000 in benefits resulting from the alleged misconduct plus prejudgment interest of $14,515,013.13 for a total of more than $67.36 million.  In the parallel criminal matter, Avon entities agreed to pay $67,648,000 in penalties.  Avon also is required to retain an independent compliance monitor to review its FCPA compliance program for a period of 18 months, followed by an 18-month period of self-reporting on its compliance efforts.  Avon would be permanently enjoined from violating the books and records and internal controls provisions of the federal securities laws.  In reaching the proposed settlement, which is subject to court approval, the SEC considered Avon’s cooperation and significant remedial measures.”

In the release, Scott Friestad (Associate Director in the SEC’s Enforcement Division) stated:

“Avon’s subsidiary in China paid millions of dollars to government officials to obtain a direct selling license and gain an edge over their competitors, and the company reaped substantial financial benefits as a result. Avon missed an opportunity to correct potential FCPA problems at its subsidiary, resulting in years of additional misconduct that could have been avoided.”

In this release, Sheri McCoy (CEO of Avon Products, Inc.) stated: ”We are pleased to have reached agreements with the DOJ and the SEC.”

Avon was represented by Evan Chesler and Benjamin Gruenstein of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

Are We Carelessly Inviting Corrupt Behavior?

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Today’s post is from Dr. Roger Miles.  Dr. Miles (PhD, Risk) is Behavioral Risk Lead at Thomson Reuters and he develops human factor analyses for Conduct Risk governance and compliance solutions.  His academic research focus is the “what actually happens” gap between designed systems and enacted human behavior.

*****

Are We Carelessly Inviting Corrupt Behavior?

By Dr Roger Miles

As regulators wrestle to assert new controls over corruption (and of course various other abuses), we’re reminded that the wider history of regulation resembles a trail littered with the carcasses of well-intended initiatives that failed.  Regulatory controls tend to fail because the people who design them often ignore how real people respond in practice, often contrarily, to having a control imposed on them.

A function of effective risk leadership in senior management – including compliance officers – should therefore be to pause to consider human aspects of control failures.  Where are the human-factor hazards brewing?  Do we know enough about these to keep ahead of them and head off problems early?

One way to overtake this hazard is to familiarize oneself with “dark side” research among people who game the rules (my special research interest as it happens).  This insight will rapidly rid us of the faulty assumption that rulebooks (whether in the context of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or otherwise) describe, or prescribe, what actually happens in organizations.  The reality of what actually happens is always something different, usually that the rulebook doesn’t foresee.  Once we make a habit of questioning the gap between what the rulebook says should be happening, and our observations of how people behave in reality, we become better both at spotting the early signs of “creative compliance” and at preventing all kinds of troublesome behavior.  A few examples make the point:

What Groups Do…

Formal demands (including the top-down introduction of rules and sanctions) often provoke ‘informal groups’ of work colleagues to respond in unorthodox local ways that create conditions for the control to fail later on.  The alert manager will watch for signs that ‘game-playing’ is becoming accepted as normal behavior, such as meaningless box-ticking (in response to quality control questionnaires); and filtering of inconvenient incident reports.  Also be alert for the many ways of massaging statistical reports, such as cherry-picking only the most favorable test results, re-basing of a reporting index, or redefining the thing that we’re reporting on.  Informal groups also like to ridicule anyone who dissents from their view of “how we do things here” – even (perhaps especially) when this contradicts what the rules require.  For the FCPA compliance leader, therefore, the first question should always be “who’s really in charge in this organization?”

What Individuals Do…

At a personal level, gaming responses include ‘presenteeism’ (physically turning up for work but leaving your motivation at the front door) and seeking to shift onto others any blame for failures.  Watch for early warning signs such as a person disengaging from routine involvement in work activities, disowning their own presence in management processes, or ignoring the legitimate authority of others.  Consistent with informal groups’ “how we do things”, individual rule-gamers will be active at making alternative sense of how rules apply (or don’t apply) locally to them.  They will be adept at coping, workarounds, and writing creative reports.  Alternatively they may retreat into fatalism, rationalizing that “it’s OK not to care because either nothing will change if I do, or I’ll only be labelled a trouble maker”.

In the Organization’s Structure

Sometimes we inadvertently design an organization to encourage rule-gaming responses.  To prevent this effect we need to become more skilled at spotting these preconditions for bad behavior, and design them out.  The preconditions include:

  • Lack of any coherent challenge from outsiders (advocacy groups, regulators, government)
  • A regulator who depends on regulatees for information (“enforced self-regulation”)
  • No apparent penalties for delay in responding to a question
  • Risk-taking uncoupled from consequence, with short-term rewards
  • Little required interaction with shareholders or other funding sources
  • The full Board meets only rarely; executive committees hand-picked by the Chairman
  • Power concentrated narrowly with CEO, Chairman, or Head of Sales
  • Penalties for non-compliance reported as a “normal friction cost of business”
  • An except reporting (whistleblowing) procedure exists but gets no explicit support from managers – it may          even be the  target of jokes

There is a large and expanding research field examining the gaps between control systems as designed and “what actually happens” when real people are told to use the controls.  A new approach to regulatory design intended to deal with this in the FCPA context and otherwise, behavioral regulation, is still in its infancy.  We should watch for developments.

Stung By The Sting – Smith & Wesson Resolves FCPA Scrutiny That Originated With The Africa Sting

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

In January 2010 when highlighting the manufactured Africa Sting enforcement action, I predicted that the public company employing one of the defendants was likely going to be the subject of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act scrutiny not only based on the alleged conduct in the Africa Sting case, but also other conduct as well because the indicted individual was the “Vice President−Sales, International & U.S. Law Enforcement” for the company.  That company, it soon was learned, was Smith & Wesson and indeed in July 2010 Smith & Wesson disclosed its FCPA scrutiny (see here).

In an instructive example of a dynamic I highlight in my recent article “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Ripples” (that is every instance of FCPA scrutiny has a point of entry – in other words, a set of facts that give rise to the scrutiny in the first place – and this point of entry is often the beginning of a long and expensive journey for the company under scrutiny as the company – to answer the frequently asked “where else” question and to demonstrate its cooperation – will conduct a world-wide review of its operations), yesterday the SEC announced this administrative FCPA enforcement action against Smith & Wesson.

The conduct has nothing to do with the manufactured (and failed) Africa Sting case, but does involve Smith & Wesson’s former Vice President of International Sales and another individual referred to as the Regional Director of International Sales.  The SEC states in summary fashion as follows.

“This matter concerns violations of the anti-bribery,books and records and internal controls provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) by Smith & Wesson. The violations took place from 2007 through early 2010, when a senior employee and other employees and representatives of Smith & Wesson made, authorized, and offered to make improper payments  and/or to provide gifts to foreign officials in an attempt to win contracts to sell firearm products to foreign military and law enforcement departments. During this period, Smith & Wesson’s international business was in its developing stages and accounted for approximately 10% of the company’s revenues. Smith & Wesson’s employees and representatives engaged in a systemic pattern of making, authorizing and offering bribes while seeking to expand the company’s overseas business.

The bribe payments were inaccurately recorded in Smith & Wesson’s books and records as legitimate sales commissions or other business expenses. Despite its push to make sales in new and high risk markets overseas, Smith & Wesson failed to establish an appropriate compliance program or devise and maintain an adequate system of internal accounting controls, which allowed the repeated improper offers and payments to continue undetected for years.”

According to the SEC:

“Smith & Wesson does not have any international subsidiaries and conducts its international business directly and through brokering agents. Much of Smith & Wesson’s international business involves the sale of firearms to foreign law enforcement and  military departments.  [...] From 2007 through early 2010, as Smith & Wesson sought to break into international markets and increase sales, certain of the company’s employees and representatives engaged in a pervasive practice of making, authorizing and offering improper payments to foreign government officials as a means of obtaining or retaining international business. Although only one of the contracts was fulfilled before the unlawful activity was identified, company employees made or authorized the making of improper payments in connection with multiple ongoing or contemplated international sales.”

The SEC’s order contains factual allegations regarding the following countries: Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Nepal and Bangladesh.

As to Pakistan, the SEC order states:

“In 2008, for example, Smith & Wesson retained a third-party agent in Pakistan to assist the company in obtaining a deal to sell firearms to a Pakistani police department. Even after the agent notified the company that he would be providing guns valued in excess of $11,000 to Pakistani police officials in order to obtain the deal, and that he would be making additional cash payments to the officials, the company authorized the agent to proceed with the deal. Smith & Wesson’s Vice President of International Sales and its Regional Director of International Sales authorized the sale of the guns to the agent to be used as improper gifts and authorized payment of the commissions to the agent, while knowing or consciously disregarding the fact that the agent would be providing the guns and part of his commissions to Pakistani officials as an inducement for them to award the tender to the company. Smith & Wesson ultimately sold 548 pistols to the Pakistani police for $210,980 and profited from the corrupt deal in the amount of $107,852.”

As to Indonesia, the SEC order states:

“In 2009, Smith & Wesson attempted to win a contract to sell firearms to a Indonesian police department by making improper payments to its third party agent in Indonesia, who indicated that part of the payment would be provided to the Indonesian police officials under the guise of legitimate firearm lab testing costs. On several occasions, Smith & Wesson’s third-party agent indicated that the Indonesian police expected Smith & Wesson to pay them additional amounts above the actual cost of testing the guns as an inducement to enter the contract. The agent later notified Smith & Wesson’s Regional Director of International Sales that the price of “testing” the guns had risen further. Smith & Wesson’s Vice President of International Sales and its Regional Director of International Sales authorized and made the inflated payment, but a deal was never consummated.”

As to Turkey, Nepal and Bangladesh, the SEC order states:

Similarly, Smith &Wesson made improper payments in 2009 to its third party agent in Turkey, who indicated that part of the payments would be provided to Turkish officials in an attempt to secure two deals in Turkey for sale of handcuffs to Turkish police and firearms to the Turkish military. Neither of these interactions resulted in the shipment of products, as Smith & Wesson was unsuccessful bidding for the first deal, while the latter deal was ultimately canceled. Similarly, Smith & Wesson authorized improper payments to third party agents who indicated that parts of these payments would be provided to foreign officials in Nepal and Bangladesh in unsuccessful attempts to secure sales contracts in those countries. Although these contemplated deals in Nepal and Bangladesh were never consummated in each case, the company had obtained or attempted to obtain the contract by using third party agents as a conduit for improper payments to government officials.”

The SEC’s order then states:

“Despite making it a high priority to grow sales in new and high risk markets overseas, the company failed to design and implement a system of internal controls or an appropriate FCPA compliance program reasonably designed to address the increased risks of its new business model. The company did not perform any anti-corruption risk assessment and conducted virtually no due diligence of its third-party agents regardless of the perceived level of corruption in the country in which Smith & Wesson was seeking to do business. Smith & Wesson  failed to devise adequate policies and procedures for commission payments, the use of samples for test and evaluation, gifts, and commission advances. The Vice President of International Sales had almost complete authority to conduct the company’s international business, including the sole ability to approve most commissions. Smith & Wesson’s FCPA policies and procedures, and its FCPA-related training and supervision also were inadequate. As a result of these compliance and internal controls failures, Smith & Wesson’s Vice President of International Sales and the Regional Director of International Sales were able to cause the company to pay and/or authorize improper payments in numerous countries around the globe for a period of several years.”

Under the headline “Remedial Measures,” the SEC order states:

“Smith & Wesson took prompt action to remediate its immediate FCPA issues, including: conducting an internal investigation, terminating its entire international sales staff; terminating pending international sales transactions; and re-evaluating the markets in which it sought international sales. In addition, Smith & Wesson implemented a series of significant measures to improve its internal controls and compliance processes, including: implementing new internal audit procedures to identify FCPA issues; creating more robust controls on payments, gifts, and other transactions in connection with international business activity; enhancing its FCPA compliance policies and procedures; and creating a Business Ethics and Compliance Committee.”

Based on the above findings, the SEC found that Smith & Wesson violated the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions, books and records provisions and internal controls provisions.  As to the later, the SEC order states:

“Smith & Wesson failed to devise and maintain sufficient internal controls with respect to its international sales operations. While the company had a basic corporate policy prohibiting the payment of bribes, it failed to implement a reasonable system of controls to effectuate that policy. For example, Smith & Wesson failed to devise adequate policies and procedures with regard to commission payments, the use of samples for test and evaluation, gifts, and commission advances. Further, Smith & Wesson’s FCPA policies and procedures, and its FCPA-related training and supervision were inadequate.”

As highlighted in the SEC’s order, Smith & Wesson agreed to “report to the Commission staff on the status of [its] remediation and implementation of compliance measures at six-month to twelve-month intervals during a two-year term.” In addition, Smith & Wesson agreed to conduct an initial review – and two follow-up reviews – “setting forth a complete description of its remediation efforts to date, its proposals reasonably designed to improve the policies and procedures of Respondent for ensuring compliance with the FCPA and other applicable anticorruption laws, and the parameters of the subsequent reviews.”

In the SEC order, Smith & Wesson was ordered to cease and desist from future FCPA violations and agreed to pay $2,034,892 …  including $107,852 in disgorgement, $21,040 in prejudgment interest, and a civil monetary penalty of $1,906,000.”  In resolving its FCPA scrutiny, Smith & Wesson did not admit nor deny the SEC’s findings.

In this SEC release, Kara Brockmeyer (Chief of the SEC’s FCPA Unit) stated:

“This is a wake-up call for small and medium-size businesses that want to enter into high-risk markets and expand their international sales. When a company makes the strategic decision to sell its products overseas, it must ensure that the right internal controls are in place and operating.”

In this release, Smith & Wesson President and CEO James Debney stated:

“We are pleased to have concluded this matter with the SECand believe that the settlement we have agreed upon is in the best interests of Smith & Wesson and its shareholders.  Today’s announcement brings to conclusion a legacy issue for our company that commenced more than four years ago, and we are pleased to now finally put this matter behind us.”

John Pappalardo (Greenberg Traurig) represented Smith & Wesson.

Smith & Wesson’s stock price was down approximately .7% on the day of the SEC’s announcement of the enforcement action.

FCPA Compliance And The Important Role Of Gatekeepers

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

To best manage and minimize Foreign Corrupt Practices Act risk, it is important that a business organization not view FCPA compliance as strictly a legal function, but rather a function best achieved holistically throughout the organization.  This requires business managers, including finance and audit professionals in particular, to have the skill-set to recognize FCPA risk.

It is clear from recent FCPA enforcement actions that the enforcement agencies, and the SEC in particular, expect much from business managers when it comes to FCPA compliance including the ability of these gatekeepers to spot FCPA issues and display a high degree of intellectual curiosity as to many company transactions and expenditures.  (See enforcement actions here, here and here).

This free video (created in collaboration with Emtrain with whom I’ve created a global anti-bribery and corruption training course) has been created to help business organizations best mitigate FCPA risk.  Feel free to share the video with clients, in-house counsel and other compliance professionals, and business managers within your organization.

The First FCPA Enforcement Action Against A Foreign Issuer, Plus An Interesting Issue

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

[This post is part of a periodic series regarding "old" FCPA enforcement actions]

In 1996, the SEC brought this civil complaint against Montedison, an Italian corporation with headquarters in Milan that had interests in the agro-industry, chemical, energy and engineering sectors.  The enforcement action was principally a financial fraud case as the SEC alleged that the company committed “financial fraud by falsifying documents to inflate artificially the company’s financial statements.”  (See here for the SEC’s release).

However, the enforcement action also included allegations that Montedison violated the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions based on allegations that the company concealed “hundreds of million of dollars of payments that, among other things, were used to bribe politicians in Italy and other persons.”

As described in the SEC’s complaint, Montedison wanted to enter into a joint venture with an Italian state energy agency and “determined to secure political backing” to change the terms of the underlying joint venture agreement as well as overturn a judge’s decision that had the effect of making the proposed transaction more difficult.  According to the complaint, “Montedison determined that to achieve these ends, the company would need to pay extensive bribes.”

The complaint then states:

“In an attempt to do so, Montedison management entered into an arrangement with a Rome real estate developer (the “Developer”), who was developing real estate complexes in Rome for Montedison at that time.  Under their agreement, Montedison, directly or through companies it controlled, effected numerous real estate purchases and sales at artificially high prices.  The artificial prices had the effect of transferring hundreds of million of dollars to the Developer.  On information and belief, the Developer used this money to bribe politicians in Italy and other persons on Montedison’s behalf.”

For example, the complaint alleges that Montedison, through a wholly-owned subsidiary, overpaid the Developer approximately $95 million and agreed to pay an additional $123 million “for properties that were either owned by, or had connections to, various politicians.

As noted in the SEC’s complaint, “despite these efforts, Montedison’s management was ultimately unsuccessful” in its bribery scheme.

According to the complaint:

“The fraudulent conduct … continued undetected for several years because of a seriously deficient internal control environment at Montedison.  In fact, Montedison’s internal controls were so deficient that, according to Montedison, neither the company itself, nor its auditors, have been able to reconstruct previously what occurred and who was responsible.”

The Montedison enforcement action was the first SEC Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action against a foreign issuer and was based on the company having American Depository Receipts ADRs listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Montedison did not immediately resolve the SEC’s complaint as is the norm today.  Rather, the 1996 complaint was resolved in 2001.   As noted in the SEC’s release Montedison was ordered to pay a civil penalty of $300,000 and resolved the enforcement action without admitting nor denying liability for the allegations in the complaint.  According to the release, “the fraudulent conduct was disclosed only after new management was appointed when Montedison disclosed it was unable to service its bank debt.  Virtually all of the former senior management at Montedison responsible for the fraud were convicted by Italian criminal authorities and were sued by the company.”

The release notes as follows.

“Montedison was acquired by Compart, S.p.A., in late 2000 and its ADRs were delisted. Compart then changed its name to Montedison. No securities of Compart are listed for sale by U.S. stock exchanges. Compart, which agreed to the settlement on behalf of the former Montedison, was not a defendant in the Commission’s complaint.”

In original source media reports, Paul Gerlach (SEC Associate Enforcement Director at the time) stated:

“The case’s message is if you are a foreign company wanting to trade stock here, you are going to have to adhere to the same reporting, accounting and internal control standards followed by U.S. companies.”

Of interest, a 1996 Washington Post article about the enforcement action noted:

“The commission has been locked in debate with the NYSE for years over whether foreign companies that raise money from U.S. investors should be held to the same reporting standards as U.S. companies. SEC officials have argued that loosening the standards would hurt U.S. investors. The exchange has responded that overly stringent rules will discourage foreign companies from raising capital in the United States and erode the preeminent position of U.S. securities markets.”

Why, despite the SEC’s allegations, was Montedison not charged with FCPA anti-bribery violations?  Jurisdictional issues aside, according to a knowledgeable source at the SEC at the time, there was a belief that there were no “foreign” officials involved because Montedison, an Italian company, allegedly bribed Italian officials.

It’s an interesting question.

Does the “foreign” in official mean as it relates to the specific company at issue or as to the U.S.?

I believe that the legislative history supports the later, but will also add that Congress likely never understood that it was legislating as to foreign issuers when the FCPA was passed in 1977 because there were few foreign issuers.  Today, there are approximately 1,000 foreign issuers.  (See here and here).

In most FCPA enforcement actions against foreign issuers (Siemens, Daimler, Total, Technip, Alcatel-Lucent, etc.) the question is not relevant as, for example, German or French officials were not among the officials allegedly bribed.