Archive for the ‘SBM Offshore’ Category

Friday Roundup

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Scrutiny alerts and updates, an FCPA fumble, checking in with the SFO, and for the reading stack.  It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Scrutiny Alerts and Updates

Cobalt International Energy

Cobalt has been under FCPA scrutiny since 2011 for its alleged business relationships in Angola.  (See here and here for prior posts).

In this recent SEC filing, the company states:

“As previously disclosed, the Company is currently subject to a formal order of investigation issued in 2011 by the SEC related to its operations in Angola.  [...] In connection with such investigation, on the evening of August 4, 2014, the Company received a “Wells Notice” from the Staff of the SEC stating that the Staff has made a preliminary determination to recommend that the SEC institute an enforcement action against the Company, alleging violations of certain federal securities laws. In connection with the contemplated action, the Staff may recommend that the SEC seek remedies that could include an injunction, a cease-and-desist order, disgorgement, pre-judgment interest and civil money penalties. The Wells Notice is neither a formal allegation nor a finding of wrongdoing. It allows the Company the opportunity to provide its reasons of law, policy or fact as to why the proposed enforcement action should not be filed and to address the issues raised by the Staff before any decision is made by the SEC on whether to authorize the commencement of an enforcement proceeding. The Company intends to respond to the Wells Notice in the form of a “Wells Submission” in due course.

The Company has fully cooperated with the SEC in this matter and intends to continue to do so. The Company has conducted an extensive investigation into these allegations and the receipt of the Wells Notice does not change the Company’s belief that its activities in Angola have complied with all laws, including the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Company is unable to predict the outcome of the SEC’s investigation or any action that the SEC may decide to pursue.”

Rare are so-called Wells Notices in the FCPA context for the simple reason that few issuers actually publicly push back against the SEC.  However, this is the second instance in the past four months of the SEC sending an issuer a Wells notice in connection with an FCPA inquiry. (See here for the prior post regarding Qualcomm).

As highlighted by the below excerpts, the Wells notice was a hot topic during Cobalt’s most recent quarterly earnings call.  The below excerpts also capture the candid statements of Cobalt’s CEO concerning the SEC’s position.

Joseph Bryant - Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Before we get into the Q&A, let me say a few words about our 8-K disclosure from earlier this morning. As it noted, last evening, less than 24 hours ago, we received a Wells Notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission related to the investigation the agency has been conducting relating to Cobalt’s operations in Angola and the allegations of Angolan government official ownership of Nazaki Oil and Gas, one of the other working interest owners in Blocks 9 and 21 offshore Angola. In the notice, the staff of the SEC stated that it had made a preliminary and, in our view erroneous, determination to recommend that the SEC move forward with an enforcement action against the company. I think it’s important to point out that the Wells Notice is neither a formal allegation nor a finding of wrongdoing. It merely allows Cobalt the opportunity to provide its reasons of law, policy and fact as to why the proposed enforcement action should not be filed before any enforcement decision is made by the SEC. As you know, we have fully cooperated with the SEC and the investigation since it began nearly 3.5 years ago. And we will continue to do so. In the same vein, we will, of course, take this opportunity and respond to the SEC as part of the Wells process. But let me be very clear. This Wells Notice does nothing to change our prior conclusion that our activity in Angola have fully complied with all laws, including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and Cobalt continues to strongly refute any allegation of any wrongdoing.”

[...]

Evan Calio – Morgan Stanley, Research Division

I appreciate your comments on the Wells Notice and underlying FCPA claims. Is there any — can you comment if there’s any potential collateral effect in a negative outcome scenario, meaning other than a potential fine? Could it affect your career or anything in your leases?

Bryant

Well, good question, Evan. We obviously disagree with the staff’s position in the Wells Notice and we’ll respond to the notice in due course. As we’ve stated repeatedly over the past several years, Cobalt has and always will conduct all aspects of our business to the highest ethical standards and in full compliance with all laws and regulations in all jurisdictions, not just Angola, where we operate. This is the case of all of our Angolan operations. We fully plan and expect to pursue the exploration, appraisal and development of all of our Angolan assets, including Cameia development in a timely manner as we’ve previously discussed. And that’s about all I can say, Evan.

Calio

Okay, that’s great. And do you have a hearing date on the Wells Notice? Or is that — just not at this time?

Bryant

No. There’s a process, but to be honest, it’s just like some other things, it can just wander on.

[...]

Joseph Allman - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

So just back to the Wells Notice for a few minutes, John. Are you planning on taking a reserve? I assume it’s not estimable at this point if there is any fine, so I assume the answer is no. And then just — could you just describe the next steps a little bit? I think you guys have to write a response. If I’m not mistaken, you’ve got about 2 weeks to file that response. Is that correct? Could you just give us some more details on that?

John Wilkerson – Chief Financial Officer, Principal Accounting Officer and Executive Vice President

We are not planning on taking a reserve.

Bryant

And yes, there is a formal process that we respond to. Our view of the facts — and of course, we know the facts incredibly well since we’ve been investigating this for a very long time, and so we will submit our facts to the SEC here in the next several weeks.

[...]

Edward Westlake – Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Let’s then get into the Wells Notice as well. So I mean, my understanding, which may be incorrect, of the FCPA is that one aspect of it is doing due diligence, which is the standard of reasonable inquiries, and then the other aspect of it is if some exchange took place in order to get access to the block. It seems from the outside to me that perhaps some disagreements with you and the SEC on how much due diligence was needed could be a civil sort of issue whereas if there was some exchange, that seem to me would be more criminal. So I’m just trying to get a sense of what it is that the SEC, if you know, disagree with you on in terms of their assessment as to why they’d want to go towards an enforcement.

Bryant

Well, the way the process works is it’s somewhat opaque, to be honest with you, on one side, but it’s fully transparent on our side. So we know all the facts, we know them very well. And I’ve said many times that we built Cobalt the right way from day 1 before we ever considered leases in Angola. All of our FCPA, all of our compliance, all of our due diligence systems were built into the company from day 1. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday and neither did any of these guys around the table. We know all about FCPA and we weren’t about to wander into anything there unknowingly. So all I can say for sure is we know what we’ve done. We know what compliance is required. We’ve gone above and beyond that and we’ll stand firm on our actions.

Westlake

Okay. And all of the due diligence which I’ve done also suggests that your staff has done a very good job in terms of doing their due diligence. But maybe a different way of asking the question, do you think it’s just the level of due diligence which the SEC disagree with you on? Or do you think that there has been some exchange? I understand that Nazaki is a full paying member of the consortium, in fact, was imposed on you rather than something that you chose. But I’m just trying to get some understanding as to what it is you think they disagree with you on.

Bryant

Ed, I appreciate your probing nature, but I really can’t answer that. Again, what I can tell you is, again, we understand the requirements. We understand the law, we understand compliance, we understand due diligence. And we have gone above and beyond in every case. And we sit here today confident in our position, and I cannot and will not speculate on what the SEC’s views are.

Westlake

Okay. And then have there been any inquiries from the DOJ?

Bryant

We have — at every step of the last 3.5 years, we have managed both the SEC and the DOJ simultaneously to make sure that both of those federal agencies are fully up to speed on what we’ve done and what we know about. So I would say constant communication with both agencies has been a routine over the past 3 years.

[...]

Westlake

Right. And maybe just a follow-up on the Wells Notice. Will we ever see the actual SEC letter? Is that a public domain or is it private in terms of their allegations, when eventually they make them.

Bryant

It’s currently private, and we’ll — I hope we’re demonstrating how transparent we are. When we know something, we’ll tell you. And when we have something we can release, we’ll release it. That’s about all really I can say about it.

Westlake

I mean, it would be helpful, I think, for investors to see what the allegation specifics are to be able to make a judgment call but, obviously, I leave that up to you.

Bryant

Got it.

[...]

Al Stanton – RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Research Division

[J]ust back to the Wells notice. Can I ask whether the letters are addressed to the company or do they actually name specific individuals?

Bryant

The company.

Staying with Cobalt-related issues, Global Witness recently issued this press release stating:

“BP and its partners including Houston-based Cobalt have contributed US$175 million over the past two-and-a-half years to fund a project in Angola known as the Sonangol Research and Technology Center (SRTC), with another US$175 million due to be paid by January 2016. Global Witness asked BP and Cobalt to provide any information that confirms the SRTC exists. The companies did not provide this information in their responses. BP stated that Sonangol, Angola’s state-owned oil company, “has informed BP that the SRTC is still in planning stage.” Cobalt said they “monitor the progress of our social contributions in Angola, including the Research and Technology Center” but did not provide any further information about the project. Global Witness asked Sonangol for information to confirm the existence of the SRTC, but the company did not respond. We commissioned interviews with well-placed industry insiders, but none of them could confirm that the SRTC exists.  Global Witness is calling on the Angolan authorities to disclose where this money has gone.”

SBM Offshore

The company has been under FCPA (and related scrutiny) since 2012 concerning allegations primarily in Equatorial Guinea and Angola and disclosed in this press release as follows.

“As previously disclosed in various press releases, SBM Offshore voluntarily reported in April 2012 an internal investigation into potentially improper sales practices involving third parties to the relevant authorities, and has since been in dialogue with these authorities. SBM Offshore is discussing a potential settlement of the issues arising from the investigation. While these discussions are ongoing, it is sufficiently clear that a resolution of the issues will have a financial component, and consequently SBM Offshore has recorded a non-recurring charge of US$240 million in the first half of 2014, reflecting the information currently available to the Company. Until the matter is concluded, SBM Offshore cannot provide further details regarding a possible resolution of the issues arising from the investigation, and no assurance can be given that a settlement will actually be reached. As always, the Company will inform the market as soon as further information can be provided.”

FCPA Fumble

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) is not the first member of Congress to fumble an FCPA issue, just the latest.  As noted in this Radio Free Europe article:

“A U.S. senator has asked federal authorities to investigate whether a powerful Russian media mogul seen as the mastermind behind the Kremlin-funded RT network used dirty money to purchase pricey California real estate.   U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Mikhail Lesin, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former press minister, violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or laundered money by acquiring multimillion-dollar homes in the Los Angeles area.”  [See here for Senator Wicker's letter to the DOJ].

Dear Senator Wicker, alleged “foreign officials” are not subject to the FCPA.  See U.S. v. Castle, 925 F.2d 831 (5th Cir. 1991).

Checking In With the SFO

The U.K. Serious Fraud Office recently announced the following sentences of individuals in connection with the Innospec prosecution.

Dennis Kerrison, 69, of Chertsey, Surrey, was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Paul Jennings, 57, of Neston, Cheshire, was sentenced to 2 years in prison. Miltiades Papachristos, 51 of Thessaloniki, Greece, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. David Turner, 59, of Newmarket, Suffolk, was sentenced to a 16 month suspended sentence with 300 hours unpaid work

Mr Kerrison and Dr Papachristos were convicted of conspiracy to commit corruption in June 2014 in relation to Indonesia only. Mr Jennings pleaded guilty in June 2012 to two charges of conspiracy to commit corruption and in July 2012 to a further charge of conspiracy to commit corruption in relation to Indonesia and Iraq. Dr Turner pleaded guilty to three charges of conspiracy to commit corruption in January 2012 in relation to Indonesia and Iraq.

Further information on the guilty verdict delivered in the trial of Mr Kerrison and Dr Papachristos can be found here, while information on the guilty pleas entered into by Dr Turner and Mr Jennings can be found here and here.

Upon sentencing the defendants, HHJ Goymer said:

“Corruption in this company was endemic, institutionalised and ingrained… but despite being a separate legal entity it is not an automated machine; decisions are made by human minds.

“None of these defendants would consider themselves in the same category as common criminals who commit crimes of dishonesty or violence….. but the real harm lies in the effect on public life, the effect on community and in particular with this corruption, its effect on the environment.  If a company registered or based in the UK engages in bribery of foreign officials it tarnishes the reputation of this country in the international arena.”

Concerning the sentencing of Dr Turner, the Judge also said:

“It is necessary to give encouragement to those involved in serious crime to cooperate with authorities.  You [Dr Turner] very narrowly indeed escaped going to prison.”

David Green CB QC, Director of the SFO said:

“This successful conclusion to a long-running investigation demonstrates the SFO’s ability and determination to bring corporate criminals to justice.”

Innospec itself pleaded guilty in March 2010 to bribing state officials in Indonesia and was fined $12.7 million in England with additional penalties being imposed in the USA.

Dr Turner was also ordered to pay £10,000 towards prosecution costs and Mr Jennings was ordered to pay £5000 towards these costs.  Dr Turner and Mr Jennings have already been subject to disgorgement of benefit by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.  The matter of costs for Mr Kerrison and Dr Papachristos has been adjourned pending the hearing of confiscation proceedings against them.”

For more on the sentences, see here from thebriberyact.com.

Reading Stack

Professor Stephen Bainbridge knows Delaware corporate law and related corporate governance issues as well as anyone.  In regards to the Wal-Mart Delaware action (see here for the prior post noting that despite the hype, the decision was much to do about little), Professor Bainbridge writes:

“There’s been a fair bit of blawgosphere chatter about [the Wal-Mart Delaware action].”  [...]  Personally, it just doesn’t seem that big a deal. Somebody want to explain to me why I should care more?”

Spot-on.

*****

Sometimes a suitable proxy for potential red flags may be whether, upon reading a certain set of facts and circumstances, one becomes dizzy.  This recent New York Times article regarding former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair may make you dizzy.

*****

A good weekend to all.

Friday Roundup

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Contorted, interesting, deserving?, scrutiny alerts and updates, and for the reading stack.  It’s all here in the Friday Roundup.

Contorted

One of the most contorted words in the FCPA vocabulary is “declination” (see here among other posts).

This K&L Gates report contains a useful summary of DOJ and SEC comments at a recent conference.  It states:

“Mr. Knox [DOJ Criminal Division Fraud Section Chief] stated that companies continue to request specific information regarding the Department’s declinations, but that it is the Department’s long-standing practice not to publish details of declinations without a company’s permission, which is rarely given.  According to Mr. Knox, however, over the last two years, the Department has declined to prosecute dozens of cases.  Notably, Mr. Knox stated that, aside from finding no evidence of criminal conduct, the Department may issue a declination when a case involves an isolated incident, the company had a strong compliance program, and the problem was remediated.”

Newsflash.

If the DOJ does not find evidence of criminal conduct and therefore does not bring a case, this is not a “declination,” it is what the law commands.

On the topic of voluntary disclosure, the K&L Gates report states:

“Mr. Cain [SEC FCPA Unit Deputy Chief] started by stating “there is no perfect compliance program;” therefore, companies will always have some “background issues” which need to be addressed, especially as business and risk profiles change.  Mr. Cain does not expect companies to disclose these “normative” problems; however, companies should disclose “significant problems.”  These “significant problems” are the types of issues which may end up being enforcement actions if the SEC learns of them through means other than self-disclosure.”

“Mr. Knox took the position that it would be “very reckless and foolish” for him “to try and draw a line between matters which should be self-disclosed and matters which shouldn’t.”  In making the decision of whether to self-disclose, he advised companies and counsel to apply “common sense” and ask whether this is “something that [the Department] would be interested in hearing about?”  According to Mr. Knox, if the answer to that question is “yes,” then the Department would “probably want [a company] to self-disclose it.”  Nonetheless, there are instances which are not worthy of self-disclosure because the conduct is “minor” and “isolated” or the allegation of wrongdoing is “much too vague.”  Mr. Knox advised companies to “be thoughtful” when making disclosure decisions and carefully document any decision not to disclose.”

If the above leaves you scratching your head, join the club.

Interesting

My article “Why You Should Be Alarmed by the ADM FCPA Enforcement Action” highlights how ADM and its shareholders were victims of a corrupt Ukrainian government in that the government refused to give ADM something even the DOJ and SEC acknowledged ADM was owed – VAT refunds.  Among other things, the article discusses how VAT refund refusals were well-known and frequently criticized prior to the ADM enforcement action in late 2013.

Fast forward to the present day and VAT refund refusals remain a problem in Ukraine.  Recently the International Monetary Fund issued this release concerning a potential aid package for Ukraine.  Among the conditions is that Ukraine  adopt “reforms to strengthen governance, enhance transparency, and improve the business climate” such as taking “measures to facilitate VAT refunds to businesses.”

Deserving?

Earlier this week, the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) released this statement

“Kellogg Brown & Root LLC, Technip S.A. and JGC Corp. agree to pay the equivalent of US $17 million in financial penalties as part of Negotiated Resolution Agreements with the African Development Bank following admission of corrupt practices by affiliated companies in relation to the award of services contracts for liquefied natural gas production plants on Bonny Island, Nigeria, from 1995 until 2004.”

The Director of the AfDB’s Integrity and Anti-Corruption Department stated:

“This settlement demonstrates a strong commitment from the African Development Bank to ensure that development funds are used for their intended purpose.  At the same time, it is a clear signal to multinational companies that corrupt practices in Bank-financed projects will be aggressively investigated and severely sanctioned. These ground-breaking Negotiated Resolution Agreements substantially advance the Bank’s anti-corruption and governance agenda, a strategic priority of our institution.”

Pardon me for interrupting this feel good moment (i.e. a corporation paying money to a development bank), but why is AfDB deserving of any money from the companies?  As noted here, AfDB’s role in the Bonny Island project was relatively minor as numerous banks provided financing in connection with the project.  Moreover, as noted here, the AfDB “invested in the oil and gas sector through a USD 100 million loan to NLNG [Nigeria LNG Limited] to finance the expansion of a gas liquefaction plant located on Bonny Island.”

As alleged in the U.S. Bonny Island FCPA enforcement actions, the above-mentioned companies allegedly made corrupt payments to, among others, NLNG officials.  And for this, the specific companies paid $579 million (KBR, et al), $338 million Technip, and $219 million (JGC).

Why is the bank that loaned money to NLNG deserving of anything?  Is there any evidence to suggest that the $100 million given to NLNG was not used for its “intended purpose” of building the Bonny Island project?

Scrutiny Alerts and Updates

SBM Offshore, Sweett Group, Citigroup, Cisco, and Societe Generale.

SBM Offshore

The Netherlands-based company (with ADRs traded in the U.S. that provides floating production solutions to the offshore energy industry) has been under FCPA scrutiny for approximately two years.  It recently issued this statement which states, in summary, as follows.

“SBM Offshore presents the findings of its internal investigation, which it started in the first quarter of 2012, as the investigators have completed their investigative activities. The investigation, which was carried out by independent external counsel and forensic accountants, focused on the use of agents over the period 2007 through 2011. In summary, the main findings are:

  • The Company paid approximately US$200 million in commissions to agents during that period of which the majority relate to three countries: US$18.8 million to Equatorial Guinea, US$22.7 million to Angola and US$139.1 million to Brazil;
  • In respect of Angola and Equatorial Guinea there is some evidence that payments may have been made directly or indirectly to government officials;
  • In respect of Brazil there were certain red flags but the investigation did not find any credible evidence that the Company or the Company’s agent made improper payments to government officials (including state company employees). Rather, the agent provided substantial and legitimate services in a market which is by far the largest for the Company;
  • The Company voluntarily reported its internal investigation to the Dutch Openbaar Ministerie and the US Department of Justice in April 2012. It is presently discussing the disclosure of its definitive findings with the Openbaar Ministerie, whilst simultaneously continuing its engagement with the US Department of Justice. New information could surface in the context of the review by these authorities or otherwise which has not come up in the internal investigation to date;
  • At this time, the Company is still not in a position to estimate the ultimate consequences, financial or otherwise, if any, of that review;
  • Since its appointment in the course of 2012 the Company’s new Management Board has taken extensive remedial measures in respect of people, procedures, compliance programs and organization in order to prevent any potential violations of applicable anti-corruption laws and regulations. Both it and the Company’s Supervisory Board remain committed to the Company conducting its business activities in an honest, ethical, respectful and professional manner.”

The SBM Offshore release contains a detailed description of the scope and methodology of its review, as well as remedial measures the company has undertaken.  For this reason, the full release is an instructive read.

Sweett Group

As noted in this prior post, in June 2013 Sweett Group Ltd. (a U.K. based construction company) was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article titled “Inside U.S. Firm’s Bribery Probe.” The focus of the article concerned the construction of a hospital in Morocco and allegations that the company would get the contract if money was paid to “an official inside the United Arab Emirates President’s personal foundation, which was funding the project.”

Earlier this week, the company issued this release which stated:

“[T]here have been further discussions with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in the UK and initial discussions with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in the USA.  The Group is cooperating with both bodies and no proceedings have so far been issued by either of them.  The Group has commissioned a further independent investigation which is being undertaken on its behalf by Mayer Brown LLP.  Whilst this investigation is at an early stage and is ongoing, to date still no conclusive evidence to support the original allegation has been found.  However, evidence has come to light that suggests that material instances of deception may have been perpetrated by a former employee or employees of the Group during the period 2009 – 2011.  These findings are being investigated further.”

Citigroup

When first discussing Citigroup’s “FCPA scrutiny” I noted the importance of understanding that the FCPA contains generic books and records and internal controls provisions that can be implicated in the absence of any FCPA anti-bribery issues. (See here for a prior post on this subject).  As highlighted in this recent New York Times Dealbook article, this appears to be what Citigroup’s scrutiny involves.  According to the article:

“Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation into a recent $400 million fraud involving Citigroup’s Mexican unit, according to people briefed on the matter …  The investigation, overseen by the FBI and prosecutors from the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, is focusing in part on whether holes in the bank’s internal controls contributed to the fraud in Mexico. The question for investigators is whether Citigroup — as other banks have been accused of doing in the context of money laundering — ignored warning signs.”

Cisco

BuzzFeed goes in-depth as to Cisco’s alleged conduct in Russia that has resulted in FCPA scrutiny for the company. The article states, in pertinent part:

“[T]he iconic American firm is facing a federal investigation for possible bribery violations on a massive scale in Russia. At the heart of the probe by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, sources tell BuzzFeed, are allegations that for years Cisco, after selling billions of dollars worth of routers, communications equipment, and networks to Russian companies and government entities, routed what may have amounted to tens of millions of dollars to offshore havens including Cyprus, Tortola, and Bermuda.”

“Two former Cisco insiders have described to BuzzFeed what they say was an elaborate kickback scheme that used intermediary companies and went on until 2011. And, they said, Cisco employees deliberately looked the other way.”

“No one is suggesting that Cisco bribed Russia’s top leaders. Instead, the investigation is centered on day-to-day kickbacks to officials who ran or helped run major state agencies or companies. Such kickbacks, according to the allegations, enabled the firm to dominate Russia’s market for IT infrastructure.”

“Last year, according to sources close to the investigation, a whistleblower came forward to the SEC, sketching out a vast otkat [kickback] scheme and providing documents as evidence.”

“The two former Cisco executives laid out for BuzzFeed how the alleged scheme worked:  In Cisco’s Russia operations, funds for kickbacks were built into the large discounts Cisco gave certain middleman distributors that were well-connected in Russia. The size of the discounts are head-turning, usually 35% to 40%, but sometimes as high as 68% percent off the list price.  And there was a catch: Instead of discounting equipment in the normal way, by lowering the price, parts of the discounts were often structured as rebates: Cisco sent money back to the middlemen after a sale. Some intermediaries were so close to the Russian companies and government agencies — Cisco’s end customers — that these intermediaries functioned as their agents. These middleman companies would direct the rebate money to be sent to bank accounts in offshore havens such as Cyprus, the British Virgin Islands, or Bermuda.”

According to the article, WilmerHale is conducting the internal investigation.

Societe Generale

Like other financial services company, Societe Generale has come under FCPA scrutiny for business dealings in Libya.  (See here for the prior post).  As noted in this recent article in the Wall Street Journal, in a U.K. lawsuit the Libyan Investment Authority has alleged that the company “paid a middleman $58 million in alleged bribes to secure almost $2 billion in business … during the final years of dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s rule.”

Reading Stack

The most recent issue of the always informative FCPA Update from Debevoise & Plimpton contains a useful analysis of the DOJ’s recent opinion procedure release (see here for the prior post).  Among other things, the Update states:

“[W]hy did it take eight months for the DOJ to issue an Opinion which could have simply cited [a prior Opinion Release]? The delay does not appear to be related to the DOJ’s heavy workload or bureaucratic inertia, as “significant backup documentation” was provided and “several follow up discussions” took place during the eight months.”

*****

A good weekend to all.  On Wisconsin!

Friday Roundup

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Other items of note, add another to the list, a 6 day sentence, a notable name from the past and spot-on.  It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Other Items of Note

Yesterday’s post highlighted comments made by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez at the Dow Jones / Wall Street Journal Global Compliance Symposium.  Other items of note from the event concern the Africa Sting case and the SEC’s neither admit nor deny settlement policy.

Africa Sting

The jury foreman in the second Africa Sting trial (see here for the prior post) stated that there were “enough small comments through the course of [jury] deliberations [that lead the person] to believe that [the jury's] underlying view was that the defendants had acted in good faith and the FBI/DOJ in bad faith.”

The Africa Sting cases ended (see here for the prior post) by Judge Richard Leon stating, in pertinent part, as follows.

“This appears to be the end of a long and sad chapter in the annals of white collar criminal enforcement.”

“I expressed on a number of occasions my concerns regarding the way this case had been investigated and was conducted especially vis-a-vis the handling of Mr. Bistrong.”

“I for one hope this very long, and I’m sure very expensive, ordeal will be a true learning experience for both the Department and the FBI as they regroup to investigate and prosecute FCPA cases against individuals in the future.”

Yet listening to the interview of Ronald Hosko (assistant director of the criminal investigative division of the FBI) at the Dow Jones event, one was left with the conclusion that nothing appeared to be learned.  Indeed, Hosko seemed to blame the government’s loss on Judge Leon’s evidentiary rulings and the defendants’ good lawyers.  Hosko was interviewed by Dow Jones reporter Christopher Matthews (who closely followed the Africa Sting cases) and Matthews specifically asked Hosko whether anything will change as a result of the case.  Hosko said “we will do it again – see you out there.”

Neither Admit Nor Deny

Former SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami had the opportunity at the Dow Jones event to articulate a sound rationale and purpose for the SEC’s long-standing neither admit nor deny settlement policy.  (See numerous prior posts here, here, here, and here – focusing mostly on Judge Jed Rakoff’s (S.D.N.Y.) disdain of the policy. ).

Instead, Khuzami’s remarks were unconvincing.

Khuzami acknowledged that direct accountability occurs when someone is forced to admit something “on the record,” but he stated that this incremental benefit (compared to a defendant in an SEC enforcement action resolving the case by way of penalties and other relief via a neither admit nor deny settlement) presents challenges that are not worth the additional costs that come from a system that demanded such accountability.

Khuzami noted that without the settlement policy, the “SEC would get few settlements, [settlements] would happen much later in the process, [and that enforcement actions] would tie up a great deal of resources, resources that could be used for the next fraud or victim.”  Against “all those benefits,” and the defendant writing a check and reforming itself, Khuzami did not believe that “it is worth the marginal increase in accountability” to require an explicit admission.

The problem with Khuzami’s defense is the failure to recognize that such a policy insulates SEC enforcement positions from judicial scrutiny.  Indeed, the SEC explicitly acknowledged in the Bank of America enforcement action (where Judge Rakoff first expressed concerns regarding the settlement policy) that SEC settlements “do not necessarily reflect the triumph of one party’s position over the other.”

The SEC is a law enforcement agency and enforcing a law and accusing people (legal or natural) of wrongdoing should not be easy and efficiency should not be the goal.  Justice, transparency, and accountability ought to be the goals and the SEC’s neither admit nor deny settlement policy frustrates these goals.

Add Another

Add another to the list of companies subject to FCPA scrutiny.  SBM Offshore (a Netherlands-based company with ADRs traded in the U.S. and a company that provides floating production solutions to the offshore energy industry) recently issued this press release titled “Update on Internal Investigation.”  It stated, in pertinent part, as follows.

“This investigation commenced in 2012 at the request of SBM Offshore into alleged payments involving sales intermediaries in certain African countries in the period 2007 through 2011, in order to determine whether these alleged payments violated anti-corruption laws. These alleged payments came to the attention of the management board after a review of SBM Offshore’s compliance procedures in late 2011. In the course of the investigation allegations were made of improper payments in countries outside Africa but to date no conclusive proof of such allegations has been established. The investigation is being carried out by outside legal counsel and forensic accountants, with the support of the chief Governance and Compliance officer and under the oversight of the audit committee. The investigation is expected to be completed in 2013.

As the investigation is not yet concluded, SBM Offshore cannot make any definitive statements regarding the findings of the investigation. The initial feedback received to date is that there are indications that substantial payments were made, mostly through intermediaries, which appear to have been intended for government officials. Also, SBM Offshore’s new Management Board, which was appointed in the course of 2012, has found it necessary and appropriate to increase awareness of proper compliance throughout the Group up to the highest management levels.

The Company voluntarily disclosed the investigation to the Dutch Public Prosecution Service (Openbaar Ministerie) and the United States Department of Justice in 2012. The Company will update the authorities on this initial feedback from the investigation shortly. At this stage it is not possible to state anything on the outcome of the investigations, including financial or otherwise.

6-Day Sentence

Bloomberg’s David Glovin has extensively followed the Kozeny, Bourke, etc. enforcement actions.

He reports here that Clayton Lewis (a former executive at hedge fund Omega Advisors, Inc.) was sentenced to time served by U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald.  As noted in Glovin’s article, Lewis pleaded guilty in 2004 to charges that he conspired with Viktor Kozeny to pay bribes as part of a 1998 scheme to buy the state oil company in Azerbaijan. Soon after his 2003 arrest, Lewis agreed to cooperate with the DOJ and he previously served six days in jail.

A Notable Name From The Past

Roderick Hills (Chairman of the SEC in the mid-1970′s) was a notable voice in the story of the FCPA.  (See here for my article of the same name).  It is ironic (given the SEC’s current FCPA unit) that the Commission never wanted any role whatsoever in enforcing the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.  Indeed, Chairman Hill stated as follows during various Congressional hearings.

“The Commission does not oppose direct prohibitions against these payments, but we have previously stated that, as a matter of principle, we would prefer not to be involved even in the civil enforcement of such prohibitions. As a matter of long experience, it is our collective judgment that disclosure is a sufficient deterrent to the improper activities with which we are concerned.”

“[A]s a matter of longstanding tradition and practice, the [SEC] has been a disclosure agency. Causing questionable conduct to be revealed to the public has a deterrent effect. Consistent with our past tradition, we would rather not get into the business, however, we think get involved in prohibiting particular payments. It is a different thing entirely to try to prohibit something, to try to make a decision as to whether it is legal or illegal, or proper or improper. Under present law, if it is material, we cause its disclosure, and we need not get into the finer points of whether it is or is not legal.”

“[The SEC] would prefer not to be involved in civil enforcement of such prohibitions since they embody separate and distinct policies from those underlying the federal securities laws. The securities laws are designed primarily to insure disclosure to investors of all of the relevant facts concerning corporations which seek to raise their capital from the public at large. The [criminal payment provisions of proposed legislation], on the other hand, would impose substantive regulation on a particular aspect of corporate behavior.The Commission recognizes the congressional interest in enacting these prohibitions, but the enforcement of such provisions does not easily fit within the Commission’s mandate.”

Against this backdrop, I enjoyed reading recent comments by Hills on the FCPAmericas Blog (see here).  Hills recently stated as follows.

“My view at the time was that the problem of bribery that we had uncovered had been dealt with and I did not support the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. I was concerned then that broad criminalization of “questionable payments” to foreign officials would adversely affect the incentives for transparency that we had created. Nonetheless, the FCPA was passed and it has been properly amended to reduce the possibility that undue criminal actions will be brought.  It is important to remember that it was the ability of the SEC to cause disclosure that brought the scope of worldwide corporate bribery to light. What began in the 1970’s with the SEC enforcement efforts is now a worldwide crusade against the use of bribes to secure business. Today I accept that the FCPA has had, on balance, a positive effect on the reduction of bribery and that similar laws in other countries can have a similar effect. However, criminalization alone is not a useful policy. By itself it is an incentive to conceal. Without effective independent auditing, fair enforcement of FCPA type legislation is unlikely. Also, I believe that in the United States and elsewhere, prosecutorial discretion is essential if we are serious about reducing the corruption. Payments that are made in response to extortion demands or payments that are made by lower level corporate officials contrary to the policies of their employer should surely be treated differently than money crassly offered to buy corrupt official action. In short, as other countries are following the United States’ lead they need to understand that the criminalization of corporate bribery is not enough. If a country does not have effective means of causing broad transparency with effective auditing and independent oversight, FCPA type laws make it too easy to use improper payments as a political weapon.”

Spot-On

In a recent Q&A on Law360, Haywood Gilliam Jr. (Covington & Burling), stated as follows.

“Q: What aspects of your practice area are in need of reform and why?

A: Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement stands out as an area in need of further reform. Over the past several years, FCPA enforcement has been characterized by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission advancing aggressive enforcement theories, but there have been limited opportunities for courts to scrutinize those theories. Most FCPA enforcement cases end in negotiated resolutions such as deferred prosecution or nonprosecution agreements. In that context, regulators often insist that the settling company or individual accept the government’s expansive theories as a condition of resolving the case.  For example, the DOJ has extracted penalties from non-U.S. based, non-U.S. traded companies not covered under the four corners of the statute by asserting broad theories such as aiding and abetting or conspiracy — even when the foreign entity has not taken any action in the U.S. As a practical matter, that could be a hard case to prove at trial — but the government almost never has to.  The result of this trend has been to enshrine the government’s aggressive enforcement positions as quasi-precedent: The law means what the DOJ and SEC say it means, and defendants (especially publicly traded companies) seldom have a realistic opportunity to push back in court, given the financial and practical costs of fighting a contested enforcement action. Relatively recently, district courts have begun to weigh in on these theories, which is a positive development, but there still is a dearth of FCPA case law as compared to other areas of criminal law.  This absence of settled law makes it challenging for companies to decide how to handle thorny FCPA compliance issues. For example, companies routinely face a difficult choice in deciding whether to self-report potential violations to the government, as opposed to thoroughly investigating and remediating the issues internally. While regulators insist that they will give “meaningful credit” to companies that self-report, the tangible benefits of doing so are far from clear. The recent FCPA resource guide issued by the DOJ and SEC says that the agencies place a “high premium” on self-reporting, but does not give concrete guidance as to how the government weighs self-reporting in deciding whether to charge a case, as opposed to offering a deferred prosecution or nonprosecution agreement, or declining the case outright. While the resource guide is a start, companies and their counsel would benefit from more specific guidance when they are weighing the potential, but uncertain, benefits of disclosure against the cost and distraction that can result from voluntarily handing the government a case that otherwise might not have come to its attention.”

Gilliam’s spot-on comments would make for good conversation with his firm’s new Vice-Chair, former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer.

In a recent Q&A on Law360, Mary Spearing (Baker Botts) stated as follows.

“Q: What aspects of your practice area are in need of reform and why?

A: It would be good for the practice if there was more litigation surrounding the scope and breadth of the statutes as applied and the government were put to the test. Currently, so much is being defined in settlements reached with the government. More frequent trials would render more judicial oversight of the government’s readings of the scope of the statutes’ reach.”

*****

A good weekend to all.