Some reading material to keep you occupied and engaged over the three-day holiday weekend.
This recent Wall Street Journal article is about China’s recent antitrust crackdown, but the same could perhaps be said about China’s recent corruption crackdown against foreign multinationals doing business in China.
“The fact that regulators are going after allegedly dubious practices by multinationals isn’t what bothers trade officials at Western embassies in Beijing, even if they suspect that the probes sometimes have the effect of strengthening Chinese state-owned competitors.
What concerns them the most is the heavy-handed way that investigations are being pursued—and highly charged media coverage that makes for a troubling atmosphere for Western companies.
Foreign executives have learned two early lessons from the antitrust probes. First, the law provides little refuge. The message that the National Development and Reform Commission, the government agency that sets pricing rules, delivers in private to multinationals at the outset of a price-fixing investigation is not to bring in their foreign lawyers, according to numerous accounts by foreign executives, diplomats and lawyers themselves.
The second lesson is connected to the first: Resistance is futile. There’s scant need for lawyers when companies face a choice of either bowing to demands for quick remedies or becoming involved in a protracted wrangle with regulators in what is still a state-dominated economy. In almost every antitrust case launched so far, foreign companies have capitulated without a fight.
Voluntary price cuts of up to 20% are the norm, accompanied by board-level expressions of remorse and promises to do better.
And these cuts are offered at the very outset of investigations—and, sometimes, to get ahead of them. Chrysler described its abrupt decision to slash car-part prices as a “proactive response” to the price-fixing probe as it got under way. These price-fixing investigations have been accompanied by heated nationalistic rhetoric in the state media with antiforeign overtones. Taking down multinationals a peg plays well among the large sections of the public that view them as arrogant.”
The always informative Debevoise & Plimption FCPA Update is particularly stellar this month. It contains articles about the recent Wal-Mart – investor dispute in the Delaware Supreme Court as well as the recent settlement in SEC v. Jackson & Ruehlen.
Wal-Mart Delaware Action
The Wal-Mart Delaware action remains in my mind much to do about little at least as to the monumental corporate governance issues some had hoped for.
Nevertheless, the FCPA Update makes several valid points about the decision.
“In the wake of Wal-Mart, stockholders in future cases are likely to raise questions about the ways in which investigations have been conducted to see whether those questions also provide a “colorable basis” for seeking a broad range of investigative records. Companies that conduct investigations, therefore, will want to structure the investigation from the outset in a way that limits the ability of shareholders to assert that it was done improperly or otherwise may give rise to any legitimate shareholder concern. This, in turn, will place a premium on early decisions about who should conduct the review, who should supervise the review and the scope of the inquiry. Those decisions, which are generally made before any review has been conducted and based upon limited information, are sure to get close scrutiny from stockholders and should be undertaken with the utmost deliberation and care.”
SEC v. Jackson & Ruehlen
This previous post highlighted the recent settlement in SEC v. Jackson & Ruehlen and noted that the SEC, a law enforcement agency with merely a civil burden of proof, was never able to carry its burden and this was among other reasons why the SEC’s case against Jackson and Ruehlen failed – and yes – this is the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the settlement.
The FCPA Update states:
“In the realm of FCPA enforcement, where the vast majority of cases are settled before the filing and litigation of formal charges, it is often hard to compare the outcomes of early and eve-of-trial or post-trial settlements in any meaningful way. The Noble case, however, provides a rare opportunity to engage in such a comparison, not only because it was litigated by the SEC farther than almost any other FCPA case has been, but also because it involved both pre-and post-litigation settlements for individual defendants based on charges arising out of the same series of events.
In February 2012, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) charged three executives of Noble Corporation with violating various provisions of the FCPA and related laws in the course of their interactions with public officials in Nigeria’s energy sector. One of these defendants, Thomas O’Rourke, promptly settled with the SEC, accepting permanent injunctions against future violations as to every count on which he was charged, and agreeing to pay a $35,000 civil penalty.
The remaining individual defendants, Mark Jackson and James Ruehlen, decided to litigate. On July 2, 2014 – less than a week before trial was to start and after more than two years of litigation – the SEC settled with these two defendants. Although Jackson and Ruehlen agreed to be enjoined from future violations of the books and records provision of the FCPA, the settlements in their matters were notable in that the vast majority of the charges in the initial complaint, including the bribery charges, were conspicuously absent from the settlements, and no monetary penalties were imposed.
Although the Noble case offers just one data point, the outcomes for the three defendants raise important questions about both the difficulties of litigating these types of cases for the SEC and the potential advantages of declining pre-trial settlement for would-be defendants. In addition, the SEC’s litigation strategy in these cases highlights some possible problems with the expansive interpretation of the FCPA that the SEC and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) have advanced in recent FCPA cases. These problems, highlighted in the District Court’s refusal to accept the SEC’s interpretation on certain key issues, such as the scope of the facilitation payments exception, as well as the concrete impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Gabelli decision (133 S. Ct. 1216 (2013)) in gutting large portions of the SEC’s claims for penalty relief, will doubtless affect future litigation, as well as the “market” for SEC (and in certain respects, DOJ) settlements for years to come. But at the same time, the SEC’s losses on these key issues, which drove the favorable settlements with Jackson and Ruehlen, could well incentivize the SEC to dig deeper, and earlier, for the evidence needed to sustain its burdens in FCPA matters.”
The Economist states – in a general article not specific to the FCPA – that “the [U.S.] legal system has become an extortion racket.” According to the article,
“[J]ustice should not be based on extortion behind closed doors. The increasing criminalisation of corporate behaviour in America is bad for the rule of law and for capitalism. [...] Perhaps the most destructive part of it all is the secrecy and opacity. The public never finds out the full facts of the case, nor discovers which specific people—with souls and bodies—were to blame. Since the cases never go to court, precedent is not established, so it is unclear what exactly is illegal. That enables future shakedowns, but hurts the rule of law and imposes enormous costs.”
In the FCPA context, see here for my 2010 article “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement.”
A good weekend to all.