Archive for the ‘Internal Controls’ Category

HP Enforcement Action – Where To Begin?

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Where to begin?

That is the question when analyzing last week’s $108 million Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action against HP and related entities.  (See here).

Should the title of this post have been “The FCPA’s Free-For-All Continues”?

Should the title have been “HP = Hocus Pocus” (as in look what the enforcement agencies pulled out their hats this time)?

Should the title have been “Warning In-House and Compliance Professionals:  This Post Will Induce Mental Anguish”?

Unable to arrive at the best specific title for this post, I simply picked the generic “Where to Begin?”

In short, if the HP enforcement action does not leave you troubled as to various aspects of FCPA enforcement you: (i) may not be well-versed in actual FCPA legal authority; (ii) don’t care about the rule of law; or (iii) somehow derive satisfaction from government required transfers of shareholder money to the U.S. treasury regardless of theory.

Least there be any misunderstanding, let me begin this post by stating that the enforcement actions against HP Poland, HP Russia and HP Mexico allege bad conduct by certain individuals –  a “small fraction of HP’s global workforce” to use the exact words of the DOJ. As to that “small fraction,” those individuals should be held accountable for their actions by relevant law enforcement authorities.

However, as to the actual defendants charged in the enforcement actions – HP Russia, HP Poland and HP Mexico in the DOJ actions – and HP in the SEC administrative proceeding – there are actual legal elements that must be met and there is also prior enforcement agency guidance that ought to be followed.  The entire credibility and legitimacy of the DOJ and SEC’s FCPA enforcement programs depend on these two basics points.

For instance, in what is believed to be an FCPA first, the DOJ charged two non-issuers (HP-Russia and HP-Poland) with substantive violations of the FCPA’s books and records and internal controls provisions – provisions which only apply to issuers.   This is concerning in and of itself.

Yet the resulting landscape from the HP enforcement action is of more concern and it should induce mental anguish for many for the following reasons.

Issuers have an obligation under the FCPA to “devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that,” among other things, transactions are executed in accordance with management’s general or specific authorization.  Failure to adopt such internal controls is a violation of law.

Conversely, and here is where the “hocus pocus” part comes in, if an issuer does adopt such internal controls and a “small fraction” of employees at certain foreign subsidiaries engage in covert means to willfully circumvent those internal controls, well, that is a violation of law as well in the eyes of the enforcement agencies.

The DOJ’s and SEC’s own allegations paint a picture of HP establishing, particularly given the time periods relevant to the enforcement actions, a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances as to the conduct at issue. yet being a victim of the willful and deceptive conduct of a “small fraction” of employees who designed covert means to circumvent HP’s internal controls.

For instance, as to HP Poland, the criminal information alleges, in pertinent part as to the relevant time period (2006 to 2010):

“At all times relevant to this Information, HP policies prohibited corruption, self-dealing, and other misconduct.  HP’s Standards of Business Conduct (“SBC”) in effect during the relevant time period specified company rules and regulations governing legal and ethical practices, preparation of accurate books and records, contracting, and approvals and engagements of third parties.  The SBC applied to all HP Co. business divisions and subsidiaries, including HP Poland.  HP Poland employees, including HP Poland Executive, received mandatory SBC training annually, among other training.”

“The SBC manuals specifically referenced the FCPA, and prohibited, among other items, bribes, corrupt practices, ‘side letter,’ ‘off-the-books’ arrangements,’ and ‘other express or implied agreements outside standard HP contracting processes.’  The SBC manuals in effect during this period further instructed employees of HP that they were not to ‘commit [the relevant HP business] to undertake any performance, payment or other obligation unless [the employee was] authorized under the appropriate HP [business] delegation of authority policies,’ and further required accurate accounting records and proper finance practices.”

Notwithstanding these controls, the information alleges that an HP Poland Executive caused falsification of HP’s books and records and circumvented HP existing internal controls.  Among other things, the information alleges that the gifts to the Polish Official ”violated HP internal controls relating to gift-giving, and were not properly reflected in HP’s books and records.”  The information alleges that the HP Poland Executive ”willfully circumvented HP’s internal controls, and falsified corporate books and records relied on by HP’s officers and external auditors to authorize transactions and prepare HP’s consolidated financial statements.”  The information alleges that HP Poland Executive devised covert means – such as communicating through anonymous e-mail accounts and prepaid mobile telephones – in connection with his bribery scheme.  The information even alleges that the HP Poland Executive and the Polish Official drove around in vehicles in “remote locations” and “would type messages in a text file, passing the computer between themselves.” According to the information, “communications were made in this fashion to avoid possible audio recording of the discussions by hidden devices, and to circumvent HP’s internal controls.”

Nevertheless, the DOJ alleges:

“Although HP had certain anti-corruption policies and controls in place during the relevant time period, those policies and controls were not adequate to prevent the conduct described herein and were insufficiently implemented at HP Poland.”

As discussed in this prior post, what is the source for this dramatic conclusory allegation?  Nothing more than ipse dixit and subjective say-so.

The same holds true for the DOJ’s allegations concerning HP Mexico.  The non-prosecution agreement contains the same two substantive allegations concerning HP’s internal controls set forth above relevant to HP Poland, plus the following as to the relevant time period (2006 to 2009):

“HP’s policies permitted legitimate commission payments to channel partners.  These policies required that the recipient of commissions enter into a written channel partner contract with an addendum permitting the payment of commissions be pre-approved, subjected to due diligence, and registered in HP’s partner system.  HP Mexico’s policy also required channel partner commissions to follow an approval matrix, with commissions exceeding a particular percentage of the transaction’s total volume regarding additional approvals.”

Notwithstanding these controls, the information alleges that certain HP Mexico sales managers on one deal deceived HP.  The NPA states:

“[The Consultant at issue] was not an approved HP Mexico channel partner and had not entered into a written channel partner agreement as required by HP’s internal controls and policies.  In circumvention of these internal controls and policies, HP Mexico executives pursuing the BTO Deal arranged for another entity (“Intermediary”), which was already an approved HP Mexico channel partner, to join in the transaction.  HP Mexico’s sales managers arranged for the Intermediary to receive commissions from HP Mexico and then pass those monies along to Consultant, after deducting a portion as a fee. Although Intermediary played no role in negotiating the BTO Deal, HP Mexico executives recorded Intermediary as the deal partner in its internal tracking system.”

“By arranging payments to be made through the Intermediary to Consultant, HP Mexico was able to circumvent HP’s policies requiring pre-approval of channel partners and written agreement for third-party payments.  HP Mexico further circumvented HP’s controls by failing to identify the role of Intermediary in the BTO Deal …  In addition, HP Mexico’s books and records falsely reflected that the Intermediary was the deal partner and principal recipient of the commission on the BTO Deal, which ultimately caused certain HP books and records to be falsified.”

Nevertheless, the DOJ alleges:

“Although HP had certain anti-corruption policies and controls in place during the relevant period, those policies and controls were not adequate to prevent the conduct described herein and were insufficiently implemented at HP Mexico.  This allowed HP Mexico to circumvent HP’s internal accounting controls and falsify its books and records as described herein.”

What is the source for this dramatic conclusory allegation?  Nothing more than ipse dixit and subjective say-so.

The same holds true for the DOJ’s allegations concerning HP Russia.  The information contains the same two substantive allegations concerning HP’s internal controls set forth above relevant to HP Poland and HP Mexico, plus the following as to the relevant time period (2000 to 2007).

“HP’s policies placed restrictions and due diligence requirements on contracts with third parties, including ‘HP customers, channel partners, suppliers, other business partners or outside parties.’  They required credit checks and approvals for certain third parties, and required the preparation of ‘Subcontractor Qualification Worksheets’ and ‘Pre-Bid Risk Identification & Assessment Questionnaires’ that related to qualifications and financial capabilities of certain third parties.  Among other due diligence requirements, the policies required telephonic interview of certain third parties regarding experience, references, checks to determine whether the third party had the capacity and geographic coverage for the project, and an overall evaluation of doubts, reservations, and ‘risks/weaknesses’ of the third party.”

“HP’s Solution Opportunity Approval and Review (‘SOAR’) process applies to all service-related projects valued at greater than $500,000 anywhere in the world, including Russia.  Among other things, the SOAR process was designed to provide HP’s senior company management visibility into pricing, discounts, and profit margins for transactions.  It required review of relationships with third parties, including scope of work, contract terms, qualifications, and necessity of services.  Business, legal, finance, credit, tax, and other units participated in the SOAR review.  No services-related transaction greater than $500,000 could proceed without SOAR approval.”

“Pursuant to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, HP management was required to certify the accuracy of HP’s financial statements and the adequacy of its related internal controls to develop those statements.  In supporting these certifications, HP executive management required senior and regional management of HP’s business units to sign sub-certifications certifying that HP’s financial statements were accurate and that their internal controls provided assurances that transactions were properly authorized and recorded, and assets were safeguarded from improper use.”

Notwithstanding these controls, the information alleges that five HP Russia employees deceived HP.  For instance, the information specifically alleges that the individuals created a secret slush fund and to “execute and hide the scheme … willfully circumvented existing internal controls, and falsified corporate books and records relied upon by HP officers and external auditors to authorize the transaction and prepare HP’s consolidated financial statements.”

According to the information, the slush fund “was concealed in the project’s financials” and “HP Russia maintained two sets of project pricing records:  off-the-books versions, known only to the conspirators, which identified slush fund recipients, and sanitized versions of the same documents which were provided to HP credit, finance, and legal officers outside of HP Russia.”

According to the information, “one example of an off-the-books document was an encrypted, password-protected spreadsheet” which contained different information than the “on-the-books version.”  According to the information, a Pricing Worksheet “provided to management outside of HP Russia omit[ed] all references to the slush fund payments, instead inflating hardware prices to create margin for the payments.”

In addition, the information alleges “concealment of [the] slush fund during SOAR Review.”  According to the information, “in early August 2003, HP management in Europe pressed HP Russia to begin the SOAR process for the GPO contract so that it could be executed.  In circumvention of company policy, however, HP Russia Executive 1 had already [signed the relevant contract and executed it] with no authorization and no power of attorney.”

According to the information, “the HP credit officer assigned to the SOAR review initially denied credit approval to proceed with the contract …”.  The information then alleges that the HP Russia Manager provided false information to the HP Credit Officer. The information further alleges that when the HP Credit Officer asked other questions regarding the relevant transaction, the HP Russia Manager provided other false information.

Regarding an actual SOAR meeting in 2003, the information alleges that the day before this meeting, the HP Russia Manager emailed relevant management with false information and thereafter provided additional false information to the HP Credit Officer in connection with relevant transaction.

According to the information, when it came time for the HP Russia Executive to certify the accuracy of the company’s financial statements and adequacy of internal controls pursuant to SOX, the HP Russia Executive falsely certified the requested information and that such certification was relied upon by other HP managers.

According to the information, members of the Russian conspiracy ”structured bribe payments to individuals associated with [the Russian government] through a “off-the-books contract” and specifically alleges as follows:

“In circumvention of HP internal controls, including third party due diligence requirements and prohibitions against ‘side letters,’ ‘off-the-books’ arrangements, or other express or implied agreements outside standard HP contracting process,’ HP Russia never disclosed the existence of the [off-the-books contract] to internal or external auditors or management outside of HP Russia, and conduct no due diligence of [the relevant entity]“

The information alleges that the purpose of the conspiracy was to “conceal[] and disguise[] the payments by falsifying HP Russia’s and HP’s books and records; and evading and failing to implement internal controls meant to detect and deter such payments.”  Specifically, the information alleges:

“HP Russia, through its executives and employees, together with others, knowingly and deliberately failed to implement internal accounting controls and circumvented existing internal accounting controls designed to detect and prevent such improper conduct.  HP Russia entered into off-the-books contracts, maintained two sets of accounting records, failed to conduct appropriate due diligence of third parties, concealed the existence of third-party relationship from HP management, executed contracts without authorization, and made misrepresentations to HP audit, compliance, credit and legal officers.”

Among other things, the information alleges that HP Russia employees  ”avoided controls over third-party vendors and off-the-books contracts,” “created and used certain mechanisms for making and concealing payments to third parties,” and “secretly executed certain contracts without proper authority.”

Nevertheless, the DOJ alleges:

“While the SBC prohibited corrupt payments, required due diligence of third-parties, and included other control requirements to maintain accountability for assets, the policies were not adequate to detect and prevent the misconduct described herein, and in practice certain HP business divisions and subsidiaries failed to implement and enforce the policies consistently, and on occasion circumvented or disregard the policies entirely.”

What is the source for this dramatic conclusory allegation?  Nothing more than ipse dixit and subjective say-so.

Unlike the DOJ enforcement actions (in which HP was not an actual defendant but merely guaranteed payment of fine and penalty amounts and had compliance obligations imposed upon it), in the SEC’s enforcement action HP is the sole defendant (technically a respondent since the enforcement action was an administrative proceeding not subjected to one ounce of judicial scrutiny).  The SEC’s action is based on the same HP Poland, HP Russia, and HP Mexico conduct alleged in the DOJ enforcement actions.

Prior to the stating the SEC’s conclusory statement as it relates to HP itself, it is useful to review the DOJ’s allegations HP-specific allegations because there is little logical consistency between those allegations and the SEC’s conclusory statement.

Again, the DOJ alleged that HP:

  • Had existing FCPA and related policies and procedures in place and that all relevant employees received training on the policies;
  • Had existing policies and procedures in place related to commission payments to channel partners, due diligence of channel partners, and other tracking policies regarding channel partners;
  • Had an existing approval process in place that applied to all service-related projects valued at greater than $500,000 anywhere in the world and as part of that process HP managers questioned relevant subsidiary employees at questionable information;
  • Had an existing SOX certification and sub-certification process in place as relevant to the referenced subsidiaries.

Yet, and here comes the “hocus pocus” moment, the SEC states against the backdrop of the same covert means, concealment, and misrepresentations and deception alleged in the DOJ actions that:

“[A]lthough HP had certain anti-corruption policies and controls in place during the relevant time period, those policies and controls were insufficiently implemented on the regional or country level.  Further, HP failed to devise and maintain an adequate system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurance that (i) access to assets was permitted only in accordance with management’s authorization; (2) transactions were recorded as necessary to maintain accountability of assets; and (3) transactions were executed in accordance with management’s authorization.”

It is difficult to reconcile the SEC’s HP allegations against actual legal authority in that the internal-controls provisions are specifically qualified through concepts of reasonableness and good faith.  The only judicial decision to directly address the substance of the internal-controls provisions states, in pertinent part, as follows:

“It does not appear that either the SEC or Congress, which adopted the SEC’s recommendations, intended that the statute should require that each affected issuer install a fail-safe accounting control system at all costs.”

In addition, various courts have held—in the context of civil derivative actions in which shareholders seek to hold company directors liable for breach of fiduciary duties due to the company’s alleged FCPA violations— that just because improper conduct allegedly occurred somewhere within a corporate hierarchy does not mean that internal controls must have been deficient.

The SEC’s allegations against HP are further difficult to reconcile with SEC guidance concerning the internal controls provisions. This guidance states, among other things:

“Inherent in this concept [of reasonableness] is a toleration of deviations from the absolute.”

“The test of a company’s internal control system is not whether occasional failings can occur. Those will happen in the most ideally managed company.”

The critical point in assessing an issuer’s internal controls is at the time of the alleged conduct and whether – at that time – the issuer had internal controls sufficient to provide various reasonable assurances.   In other words, the critical point is not 5 or 10 years later and the issue is not – with the benefit of perfect hindsight – whether the issuer could have done more.

Further problematic in the SEC’s enforcement action against HP is that it is yet another example of “non-charged bribery disgorgment” and among the most vocal critics of this SEC theory is a former high-ranking SEC enforcement attorney (see here).

Whether the proper title should have been “The FCPA’s Free-For-All Continues,” “HP = Hocus Pocus” or how the HP enforcement action, with reason, should induce mental anguish among many, there is much to analyze and critique in the DOJ’s and SEC’s enforcement actions against HP and related entities.

The same applies to much recent FCPA enforcement activity.

To recap, since December 2013 the FCPA enforcement agencies have extracted approximately $546 million against risk averse corporations:

  • (i) based on enforcement agency allegations that the parent company issuer was a victim of deceptive conduct and actions by a “small fraction” of its global workforce;
  • (ii) based on enforcement agency allegations that the corporate entities were victims of a corrupt Ukraine government that refused to pay VAT refunds that the companies were legitimately owed (see here); and
  • (iii) in a case concerning alleged conduct (approximately 10 to 15 years ago) by a consultant who was criminally charged by another law enforcement agency, put the law enforcement agency to its burden of proof at trial, and the law enforcement agency dismissed the case because there was no ”realistic prospect of conviction” (see here).

Ipse Dixit

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

This post last week highlighted the recent activity in SEC v. Mark Jackson & James Ruehlen (a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action scheduled for trial this summer).  As noted in the post, among other things, the SEC is seeking to exclude various defense expert witnesses on a variety of issues including internal controls issues.

If you read the SEC’s motions (see here – condensed into one document) you will see that a primary basis for exclusion is the SEC’s argument that the experts are merely offering their own naked ipse dixit.

I must confess – arcane latin phrases not being in my strike zone – I had to look up the meaning of ipse dixit.

Ipse Dixit – Latin for He himself said it – an unsupported statement that rests solely on the authority of the individual who makes it.

The term ipse dixit appears approximately 30 times in the SEC’s motions – and related to it – is the SEC’s argument that the experts’ internal controls opinions should be excluded because the experts fail to define certain terms and/or there is no discernible methodology underlying their opinions.

For instance, in seeking to exclude Alan Bell (CPA – regarding, among other things, internal controls) the SEC states:

“Bell could not define what constitutes a “circumvention” of an internal control.”

“Bell concedes that there are no written standards to evaluate what constitutes, in his view, a “circumvention” of an internal control.”

“Bell’s opinions are not the product of a reliable methodology applied to the facts of this case. In fact, Bell employed no methodology at all; instead, his opinions are “based on [his] 40 years of experience.”

In seeking to exclude Gary Goolsby (CPA – regarding, among other things, internal controls issues) the SEC states:

“There is also no discernible methodology underlying his opinion on Jackson’s purported reliance [on Noble's internal controls], other than Goolsby’s own naked ipse dixit. Goolsby’s methodology reduces to the proposition that “I know what I’m looking at.” Yet, in deposition, he could not explain what his opinion means, as a practical matter, with reference to the conduct at issue in this case. Goolsby’s testimony thus confirms what is apparent from his report – his factual findings are based on nothing more than his subjective say-so.”

In seeking to exclude Lowell Brown (regarding various FCPA compliance issues) the SEC states:

“There is no discernible analysis or methodology underlying Brown’s opinion as to Jackson’s purported reliance, other than Brown’s own naked ipse dixit – a manifestly improper basis for expert testimony.”

In seeking to exclude Professor Ronald Gilson (regarding, among other things, internal controls issues) the SEC states:

“There is no genuine methodology here, other than Gilson’s own ipse dixit based on his subjective interpretation of the evidence

In the final analysis, Gilson is an advocate for the defense who proffers nothing but his ipse dixit in the place of rigorous analytical connection between his deficient methodology (reading deposition transcripts and exhibits) and his expert conclusion (the inference that if Ruehlen told others at Noble what he was doing, he lacked the corrupt intent to violate the FCPA, as opposed to simply colluding to bribe foreign officials).”

The irony of course is that while attacking the defendants’ experts for their own ipse dixit, many of the SEC’s FCPA internal controls enforcement theories are nothing more than ipse dixit.

For instance, as noted in this prior post, the SEC alleged that Oracle violated the FCPA’s internal control provisions. The only allegations against Oracle itself is that it failed to audit distributor margins against end user prices and that it failed to audit third party payments made by distributors.  The SEC did not allege any red flags to suggest why Oracle should have done this.  Thus, how did Oracle violate the FCPA’s internal controls provisions?  What was the methodology the SEC used?

Ipse dixit.

Indeed, in a pointed critique of the SEC’s Oracle enforcement theory, the former Assistant Chief of the DOJ’s FCPA unit stated:

“Oracle is the latest example of the SEC’s expansive enforcement of the FCPA’s internal controls provision, and it potentially paints a bleak picture—one in which the provision is essentially enforced as a strict liability statute that means whatever the SEC says it means (after the fact).”  (See here for the prior post).

In many SEC FCPA enforcement actions, the SEC merely makes conclusory statements for why the company allegedly violated the FCPA’s internal controls provisions.  For instance, in the Philips enforcement action (see here for the prior post) the SEC states:

“Philips failed to devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that transactions were properly recorded by Philips in its books and records. Philips also failed to implement an FCPA compliance and training program commensurate with the extent of its international operations. Accordingly, Philips violated [the internal control provisions].”

Source?  Methodology?

Ipse dixit.

As noted in my recent article “Why You Should Be Alarmed by the ADM FCPA Enforcement Action” one reason, among others, why you should be alarmed by the action is because of the “failure to prevent” standard invoked by the SEC for why ADM violated the FCPA’s internal controls provisions.  As noted in the article, this standard  does not even exist in the FCPA and is inconsistent with actual legal authority.  (See here for the previous post regarding SEC v. World-Wide Coin – the only judicial decision to directly address the FCPA’s internal controls provisions).

Moreover, as noted in the article, the “failure to prevent standard” is inconsistent with SEC guidance relevant to the internal-controls provisions.  (See also this prior post).  The SEC’s most extensive guidance on the internal controls provisions states, in pertinent part, as follows:

“The Act does not mandate any particular kind of internal controls system. The test is whether a system, taken as a whole, reasonably meets the statute’s specified objectives. ‘‘Reasonableness,’’ a familiar legal concept, depends on an evaluation of all the facts and circumstances.

Private sector decisions implementing these statutory objectives are business decisions. And, reasonable business decisions should be afforded deference. This means that the issuer need not always select the best or the most effective control measure. However, the one selected must be reasonable under all the circumstances.

Inherent in this concept [of reasonableness] is a toleration of deviations from the absolute. One measure of the reasonableness of a system relates to whether the expected benefits from improving it would be significantly greater than the anticipated costs of doing so. Thousands of dollars ordinarily should not be spent conserving hundreds. Further, not every procedure which may be individually cost-justifiable need be implemented; the Act allows a range of reasonable judgments.

The test of a company’s internal control system is not whether occasional failings can occur. Those will happen in the most ideally managed company. But, an adequate system of internal controls means that, when such breaches do arise, they will be isolated rather than systemic, and they will be subject to a reasonable likelihood of being uncovered in a timely manner and then remedied promptly.”

What is the source for the “failure to prevent” standard in ADM?  What is the methodology?

Ipse dixit.

In short, while attacking the defendants’ experts for their lack of defined methodology regarding internal controls issues, the SEC itself has long recognized that the FCPA’s internal controls lack a defined methodology.

As noted in this post, in a 2013 speech SEC Chair Mary Jo White reminded us why trials are important.  Among other things, White stated that “trials allow for more thoughtful and nuanced interpretations of the law in a way that settlements and summary judgments cannot.”

The SEC’s enforcement action against Jackson and Ruehlen represents an extremely rare instance in which the SEC is being forced to articulate its FCPA positions in the context of an adversary proceeding.

The SEC’s motions seeking to exclude defendants’ experts – while primarily based on ipse dixit – reminds us that a large portion of the SEC’s (and DOJ’s) FCPA enforcement program is nothing more than ipse dixit – and subjective say so.

Much Activity In SEC Enforcement Action Against Jackson & Ruehlen

Monday, March 31st, 2014

If you enjoy reading pleadings in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement actions, then your week is already off to a great start as there is much to read.

In advance of a scheduled July 9th trial in SEC v. Mark Jackson & James Ruehlen (an enforcement action filed in the S.D. of Tex. in February 2012 and highlighted in last Friday’s post), both parties filed numerous motions last Friday.

The SEC filed: (1) a motion for partial summary judgment on the inapplicability of the facilitating payment exception, and (2) a motion for a determination of foreign law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1.  The SEC also filed 5 motions seeking to exclude defendants’ expert witnesses.  Both Jackson and Ruehlen filed separate motions for summary judgment as well as 3 motions seeking to exclude the SEC’s expert witnesses.

This post provides an overview of the motions.

SEC Motion for a Determination of Foreign Law

In pertinent part, the SEC states as follows:

“Questions of Nigerian law pervade this bribery case for two reasons. First, findings on threshold questions of Nigerian law are necessary for the jury to determine whether Defendants induced foreign officials “to do or omit to do any act in violation of the lawful duty of such foreign official[s]” in violation of Section 30A of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”), an element of the SEC’s bribery claims. 15 U.S.C. §78dd-1(a)(3)(A)(ii) (emphasis added).  Questions of Nigerian law are also necessary to determine whether the payments at issue in this case fit within the narrow “facilitating payment” exception under the
Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (the “FCPA”).

These questions of Nigerian law include: (i) whether the grant of a Temporary Import Permit (“TIP”) – a concession that allows an importer to avoid the payment of import duties – was discretionary; (ii) what was the permissible duration of a TIP and whether and to what extent a TIP may be extended; and (iii) whether Nigerian customs officials could lawfully accept payments to approve a TIP based on false paperwork showing that Noble’s rigs in Nigeria had been exported and re-imported, when the rigs in fact had never moved out of Nigerian waters. These questions of Nigerian law are, like questions of U.S. law, questions of law for the Court to decide, and each defines the scope of Nigerian customs officials’ “lawful duty” in connection with granting the TIPs and TIP extensions at issue in this case.

Second, rulings on these issues of Nigerian law are necessary in light of the Defendants’ purported expert evidence. Defendants intend to introduce expert evidence asserting that, among other things, the payment of bribes to civil servants in Nigeria “is common – and even expected”; the submission of falsified documents to Nigerian governmental agencies is “satisfactory” or “acceptable” from the Nigerian government’s perspective; that laws governing the issuance of temporary import permits are not laws but “internal rules or policies”; and that compliance with Nigerian law is unclear. Thus, the Defendants’ experts intend to opine directly or indirectly on what is allegedly “permissible” in Nigeria notwithstanding clear and undisputed provisions of Nigerian law to the contrary. Because foreign law is for the Court, not the jury, these issues of Nigerian law should be resolved by the Court.”

SEC Motion Regarding  Inapplicability of Facilitating Payment Exception

As noted in this prior post, in December 2012 Judge Ellison concluded, in what was believed to be an issue of first impression, that the SEC must bear the burden of negating the facilitation payments exception.

In its motion, the SEC states as follows.

“The SEC seeks partial summary judgment on the limited question of whether the payments to Nigerian government officials that Defendants authorized to secure Temporary Import Permits (“TIPs”) and TIP extensions fit within the narrow “facilitating payment” exception under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (the “FCPA”).

The SEC alleges that the Defendants violated the anti-bribery and accounting provisions of the FCPA by authorizing the payment of bribes on behalf of their employer – Noble Corporation – to Nigerian government officials to influence or induce these officials to grant Noble TIPs and TIP extensions. These TIPs allowed Noble to avoid paying import duties on oil drilling rigs that it operated in Nigeria. Because TIPs provide only a temporary exemption from import duties, at the expiration of a TIP and its allowable extension, Noble had an obligation to either pay the import duties due on the drilling rigs or export them out of Nigeria. Using bribes and other means, Defendants secured serial TIPs and TIP extensions, which enabled Noble to keep its rigs operating continuously in Nigeria well beyond the time period allowed under Nigerian law.

The FCPA broadly prohibits corrupt payments to foreign officials to influence any official act or induce any official to violate a lawful duty. See 15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1(a). But there is a narrow exception to that broad prohibition: Under subsection 78dd-1(b), the FCPA permits certain “facilitating or expediting payments” made “to expedite or to secure the performance of a routine governmental action.” 15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1(b). This so-called facilitating payment exception does not apply in this case, as a matter of law.

Summary judgment is appropriate for three reasons:

First, the law of decision is clear and binding. This Court previously held that payments to government officials for discretionary or illegal TIPs and TIP extensions are not permissible facilitating payments.

Second, the applicable foreign law is clear and undisputed. As demonstrated in the SEC’s Motion for a Determination of Foreign Law Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1 (“Rule 44.1 Motion”), the relevant provisions of Nigerian law are clear and undisputed. First, under Nigerian law, customs officials have discretion to grant or deny TIPs and TIP extensions; these TIPs and extensions are a discretionary exemption from import duties, not an entitlement. Second, Nigerian law prohibits both the use of false paperwork to secure TIPs and payments to government officials to secure TIPs and TIP extensions. Third, Nigerian law provides that an initial TIP may not exceed twelve months and may only be extended once for up to an additional twelve months. These provisions of Nigerian law are clear and undisputed, and must be determined as a matter of law by the Court.

Third, the material facts are not in genuine dispute. The payments to Nigerian government officials at issue in this case were themselves illegal in Nigeria and were authorized to obtain import duty exemptions that were (i) discretionary and (ii) in certain cases, illegal under Nigerian law. Specifically, each of the payments to Nigerian government officials at issue was authorized in connection with obtaining a valuable and discretionary government benefit – i.e., import duty exemptions for Noble’s rigs. Certain of the payments were made to obtain TIPs on false pretenses, in violation of Nigerian law. And, some of the payments were authorized to obtain TIP extensions that exceeded the number and duration of TIP extensions allowed under Nigerian law.

For these reasons, the SEC respectfully requests that the Court grant its motion for partial summary judgment that the facilitating payment exception is not applicable in this case.”

SEC Expert Motions

In addition to the above motions, the SEC also filed 5 motions seeking to exclude defendants’ experts:  (1) Alan Bell (CPA – regarding internal controls and books and records issues); (2) Gary Goolsby (CPA – regarding corporate governance and internal controls issues; (3) John Campbell (former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria – regarding Nigeria specific issues; (4) Professor Ronald Gilson (regarding various corporate governance and internal controls issues); and (5) H. Lowell Brown (regarding various FCPA compliance issues).

Jackson’s Motion for Summary Judgment

The motion, signed by David Krakoff (BuckeySandler) , states as follows.

“This case is entirely about Mr. Jackson’s state of mind: Did he act “corruptly” in violation of the FCPA when he approved certain payments to Nigerian customs officials? In denying the Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss, the Court held that an act is done corruptly when it is “done with an evil motive or wrongful purpose of influencing a foreign official to misuse his position.”  It is the SEC’s burden to prove that “Defendants acted corruptly.”

The SEC failed to come close to carrying that burden. Put simply, discovery revealed only one thing: Undisputed evidence that Mr. Jackson acted with the “good faith” belief that Noble’s payments facilitated getting temporary import permits and extensions to which Noble was entitled.  But as the Court observed regarding permit extensions, to establish corrupt intent the SEC must show “that Defendants knew they were not entitled to extensions as a matter of right upon satisfying certain basic threshold requirements.”

Mr. Jackson was repeatedly advised by Noble management that Noble was entitled to those permits and extensions. He was advised by management and PricewaterhouseCoopers that as long as the rigs had contracts to drill oil for the benefit of the Nigerian government, the rigs could stay in the country to perform those contracts. He was advised and observed that legal and audit experts were reviewing Noble’s FCPA compliance and, specifically, compliance in its Nigerian operations. And he was advised that Noble’s Nigerian lawyer had counseled that the use of the so-called “paper process,” where rigs obtained new permits without leaving the country, was legal in Nigeria.

The SEC has no evidence to prove Mr. Jackson’s state of mind was anything different. Despite many promises in the SEC’s pleadings, promises proved false by discovery, there was no evidence that Mr. Jackson believed Nigerian officials had discretion to deny Noble these permits and extensions. There was no evidence that he knew the “paper process” was illegal in Nigeria, so that any payments related to it had to be corrupt. And there was no evidence that he misled anyone – not the Audit Committee, not auditors, not anyone – about any of Noble’s facilitating payments. Instead, what he knew was that Noble’s legal counsel and internal auditors did not question the propriety of payments to Nigerian customs officials. No reasonable jury could conclude that Mark Jackson acted with the state of mind requisite for a violation of the FCPA. The SEC has not met its burden and the Court should grant summary judgment on all claims.”

Ruehlen’s Motion for Summary Judgment

The motion, signed by Nicola Hanna and Joseph Warin (Gibson Dunn), states as follows.

“The Complaint portrays Jim Ruehlen as a “rogue” employee who, shortly after being promoted to the first management-level position of his career, embarked on an intricate scheme to bribe Nigerian officials to obtain illegal temporary import permits for Noble’s rigs; routinely flouted company policy; ignored directions from Noble’s Audit Committee; and concealed illicit payments in Noble’s books and records. At the motion to dismiss stage, the Court was required to accept those allegations as true. Since then, 15 months of discovery have laid bare the utter falsity of the SEC’s narrative.

The undisputed evidence establishes that Mr. Ruehlen—a diligent and hardworking operations employee with an impeccable reputation for honesty and integrity—at all times acted  in good faith and under the close supervision of Noble’s most senior executives. At no point did he attempt to conceal any conduct or circumvent controls or company processes. To the contrary, it was Mr. Ruehlen who in 2004 first reported Noble’s use of the so-called “paper process”—the central focus of the SEC’s claims in this matter. And it was Mr. Ruehlen who received approval for every one of the payments at issue from Noble’s senior management, executives who had access to experts to assess the nature and propriety of those payments. It is undisputed that none of those executives or experts ever raised concerns to Mr. Ruehlen about the payments. The evidence also shows that Mr. Ruehlen, who had no accounting or legal training, had no role in determining how the payments—which were well known within Noble’s corporate hierarchy—were recorded in Noble’s books. And to compound the irony of the SEC’s charges against Mr. Ruehlen, it was Mr. Ruehlen who independently raised new concerns regarding the temporary import process in early 2007, prompting Noble’s internal investigation and voluntary disclosure to the U.S. government.

Notwithstanding this evidence—much of which was known to the SEC well before it filed this action—the SEC charged Mr. Ruehlen with violating the FCPA’s books and records and internal accounting control provisions (collectively, the “accounting provisions”) “under every stretched legal theory imaginable.” Purportedly to “streamline the presentation of evidence to the jury,” the SEC—on the eve of summary judgment—voluntarily dismissed two of those claims (that Mr. Ruehlen failed to “implement” a system of internal accounting controls and aided and abetted Noble’s alleged failure to “devise and maintain” such a system). But the SEC’s remaining FCPA accounting provision claims fail for the same reasons as the claims it now tacitly admits lacked merit—Mr. Ruehlen simply had no responsibility for or authority over the accounting function at Noble, and had no role in determining how the payments at issue were recorded. Moreover, the SEC failed to develop any evidence during discovery to support the numerous—and illogical—ways that Mr. Ruehlen allegedly “circumvented” Noble’s system of internal accounting controls. The Court should grant summary judgment on these claims in light of the undisputed evidence.

The Court should also grant summary judgment on the SEC’s claims for violations of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions. Whether the SEC can prove these claims turns entirely on Mr. Ruehlen’s state of mind—i.e., whether he acted “corruptly.” The undisputed evidence shows that Mr. Ruehlen, like many others within the company, believed in good faith that the payments were to secure or expedite temporary import permits to which Noble was entitled.”

In addition to the above motions, the defendants also jointly filed 3 motions seeking to exclude SEC experts:  (1) Jeffrey Harfenist (CPA – as to various internal controls issues); (2) Wayne Kelley (as to various customs and practices in the oil and gas industry); and (3) Kofo Olugbesan (a former official of the Nigerian Customs Service).

FCPA Readings

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

If your idea of a good time is cuddling up with an entire law journal volume devoted to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, then this post is for you.

Even if that is not your idea of a good time, if you are the least bit interested in the FCPA and its evolution, then you owe it to yourself to get your hands on the Fall 1982 edition of the Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce, a symposium volume titled “The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act:  Domestic and International Implications.”

This post previously highlighted the speech by Richard Shine (Chief, Multinational Fraud Branch, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice – the name given to the DOJ’s then de facto FCPA Unit) in the volume.

This recent post highlighted the speech by Frederick Wade (Chief Counsel, SEC Enforcement Division) in the volume.

The remainder of this post highlights notable aspects of other articles found in the Fall 1982 edition of the Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce.

In “An Overview of the FCPA,” Wallace Timmeny (the former Deputy Director, SEC Division of Enforcement and at the time a lawyer in private practice) rightly identified the foreign policy concerns which motivated Congress to pass the FCPA:

“Concerns were expressed that our government was faced with foreign policy determinations and decisions made by American corporations.  In other words, some of our corporations were affecting foreign policy and there was also the overriding concern that the whole idea of foreign payments or corruption in business was really putting an arrow in the bow of the countries that oppose our system.”

For more on this primary motivation of Congress in enacting the FCPA, and how the FCPA was thus not a purely altruistic act, see my article “The Story of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

In “An Examination of the Accounting Provisions of the FCPA,” Lloyd Feller (the former Associate Director of the SEC’s Division of Market Regulation and at the time a lawyer in private practice) nicely touched upon the FCPA’s books and records and internal controls provisions and how they created much controversy at the time.

“Let me try to put into context the controversy surrounding the accounting provisions.  First, it is important to understand that the accounting provisions are part of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and apply to all issuers which register securities with the SEC.  The provisions apply to all such issuers, whether or not they do business overseas.  The Act, as it is applied through the accounting provisions, has absolutely nothing to do with foreign corrupt practices; it has to do with accounting, including the maintenance of books and records, and the establishment and maintenance of a system of internal accounting controls.”

“I think it is important to start with the understanding of how the Act was presented to the corporate community at the time it was passed, because the context in which the words were used and the purpose for which the accounting provisions were intended create the great controversy.  It is important to understand that people who never heard of the bribery of foreign officials woke up one day and found that an Act had just been passed which applied to them in very significant ways.  This was an Act which they had never heard of, had never thought involved them, had never paid any attention to, and had never understood.  They listened to the lawyers and accountants explain it to them and still did not understand.”

In “The SEC Interpretative and Enforcement Program Under the FCPA,” John Sweeny (former Assistant General Counsel of the SEC and at the time a lawyer in private practice) rightly noted:

“The SEC did not actively support the bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that they have any interest in prohibiting bribery per se.”

Sweeny also nicely touched upon a prosecutorial common law issue that remains today.

“The corporate community cannot sit back and wait to see how the law develops.  Because it makes sound business sense to comply with federal regulatory authorities without a public clamor, corporations must confirm their activity in ways which the agency requires.  To do otherwise would mean that the corporations would be risking substantial litigation expenses and adverse publicity.”

In ”International Aspects of the Control of Illicit Payments,” Professor Seymour Rubin assessed the then current state of the FCPA.

“The course of events in this particular area has been long, but it has not yielded much in the way of result.  Whether the FCPA has yielded a great deal in the way of results, I leave to all of you who have considered the matter.  Certainly it has yielded much in the way of instruction to people in various corporations.  I am somewhat impressed by the amount of paper which has been produced on this subject.  It reminds me again of the old saying to the effect that when the weight of the paper equals the weight of the airplane, the airplane will fly.”

Professor Rubin also rightly identified bribery and corruption as a trade issue and particularly how Senate Resolution 265 sponsored by Senator Ribicoff during the FCPA’s legislative debate was the most promising way to deal with the bribery and corruption problem.  For more on Senate Resolution 265, see the Story of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (pgs. 982-984).

“[Senator Ribicoff's proposal - Senate Resolution 265] was more realistic than some of the other proposals.  In particular, Senator Ribicoff argued that bribes, as well as similar practices, represent distortions of proper trade practices.  Under this premise, the members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would be the appropriate group to consider the question of illicit payments and bribes that distort the fair competition desirable in the field of international trade.  In other words, just as dumping and subsidization distort normal competition, so too does the practice of making illicit payments.  This premise served as the basis upon which the issue was to be presented at the GATT conference.  But when a special trade representative presented Senator Ribicoff’s proposal before the GATT conference, he was greeted with polite silence.  The GATT, in 1979, concluded a multilateral trade negotiation.  Among other things, this multilateral trade negotiation dealt with trade-distorting practices such as nontariff barriers, the question of government procurement, dumping codes, and the anti-subsidy or subsidies and countervailing duties.  It would seem that the multilateral trade negotiation would have been a legitimate arena in which to discuss the subject, as being one more example of a trade distortion which ought to be regulated.”

“I think if one were to rexamine the idea presented in Senate Resolution 265 and adopt this in the area of trade, one would be addressing the problem of illicit payments in more meaningful and significant terms.  When a large contract is lost by an American corporation because somebody else paid a bribe, a trade distortion results.  Clearly, if one were really serious about achieving a meaningful agreement in the area of international control of illicit payments, the peg on which to hang it would be trade policy and not morality.”

In “The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act:  Implications for the Private Practitioner,” Robert Primoff (a lawyer in private practice) called the FCPA a “prosecutor’s paradise” and observed:

“The target is always guilty of the violation.  The government has the option of deciding whether or not to prosecute.  For practitioners, however, the situation is intolerable.  We must be able to advise our clients as to whether their conduct violates the law, not whether this year’s crop of administrators is likely to enforce a particular alleged violation.  That would produce, in effect, a government of men and women rather than a government of law.”

If the Fall 1982 edition of the Syracuse Journal of International Law and Commerce does not completely fill your FCPA belly, you might also want to check out Volume 18, Number 2 of the Northwestern Journal of International Business (Winter 1998).

It is a symposium edition titled “A Review of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act on Its Twentieth Anniversary:  Its Application, Defense and International Aftermath.“  The articles are rather pedestrian, but Stanley Sporkin’s (the former Director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division during Congress’s consideration and deliberation of the FCPA) article “The Worldwide Banning of Schmiergeld:  A Look at the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act On Its Twenieth Birthday” is worth a read as he provides a first-person account of the origins of the FCPA. [In case you are wondering Schmiergeld is the German word for bribe].

See here for a prior post detailing articles in a 2012 symposium edition of the Ohio State Law Journal “The FCPA At Thirty-Five and Its Impact on Global Business.”

Former Assistant Chief Of The DOJ’s FCPA Unit Blasts Aspects Of SEC FCPA Enforcement

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

This post has a similar theme to this prior post.  The theme is – all one has to do is wait for former DOJ and SEC FCPA enforcement officials to blast various aspects of the current FCPA enforcement climate.

Touching upon the same issues I first highlighted in this August 2012 post titled “The Dilution of FCPA Enforcement Has Reached a New Level With the SEC’s Enforcement Action Against Oracle,” as well as prior posts here, here and here, a former Assistant Chief of the DOJ’s FCPA Unit (William Stuckwisch - currently a partner at Kirkland & Ellis) blasts certain aspects of SEC FCPA enforcement in this recent article published in Criminal Justice.

The article begins:

“Imagine the following scenario: You have guided your client, a publicly traded company, through the long and winding process that is a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) internal investigation. Afterward, or increasingly more often simultaneously, you then lead your client through presentation of the results of the investigation to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (collectively, “government”). Ultimately, neither the internal investigation nor the government’s investigation finds any improper payment (or offers of payments) to any foreign official, or any other knowing misconduct. As a result, the government cannot pursue substantive FCPA antibribery charges against your client, and the DOJ cannot pursue any other FCPA-related criminal charges. Just when you begin to savor this significant success, you are ripped back to reality, as the SEC informs you that, nevertheless, your client faces civil enforcement under the FCPA’s internal controls provision and demands a significant penalty.  Unfortunately, this scenario is not a hypothetical for the FCPA Bar to deliberate at conferences and include as footnotes in memoranda addressing real-world client issues. Instead, it mirrors the facts publicly alleged in the SEC’s August 2012 enforcement action against Oracle Corporation, a case considered by many FCPA practitioners to be a stunning result.  [...]  In Oracle, the SEC faulted the US parent corporation for not auditing local distributors hired by its Indian subsidiary, without alleging that the distributors (or anyone else) had made any improper payment to any foreign government official.  Oracle is the latest example of the SEC’s expansive enforcement of the FCPA’s internal controls provision, and it potentially paints a bleak picture—one in which the provision is essentially enforced as a strict liability statute that means whatever the SEC says it means (after the fact).”

Elsewhere, Stuckwisch, the lead author of the article, notes:

“[G]iven the highly subjective nature of the internal controls provisions, companies will continue to feel at the SEC’s mercy once it opens an FCPA investigation, even if no improper payments (or offers of payments) are ever found.”  [...]  In our view, the true lesson of Oracle is not that this particular type of internal control is required, but rather that the internal controls provision is so broad, and the statutory standard of reasonable assurances so subjective, that the SEC has an almost unfettered ability to insist on a settlement, including a civil penalty, at the conclusion of virtually any FCPA investigation. Companies may be willing to enter into such settlements—particularly because, in the absence of a parallel DOJ action, they need not make any factual admissions (due to the “neither admit nor deny” nature of SEC settlements in such circumstances), and the cost of a settlement is often lower than continuing investigative and representative costs. But such settlements can have severe, unintended consequences. Perhaps most significantly, these settlements can lead other companies to misdirect their scarce compliance resources.”

Stuckwisch’s final observation is of course spot-on and generally restates the thesis from my 2010 article “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement.