Most admired, from the U.K., one way to avoid judicial scrutiny is to avoid the courts, another DOJ official departs, scrutiny updates, and survey says. It’s all here in the Friday roundup.
Are companies that resolve a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement or are otherwise under FCPA scrutiny bad or unethical companies? To be sure, certain companies that have resolved FCPA enforcement actions are deserving of this label, yet most are not. Indeed, as detailed in this prior post several companies have earned designation as “World Most Ethical Companies” during the same general time period relevant to an enforcement action or instance of FCPA scrutiny.
In a similar vein, several FCPA violators or companies under FCPA scrutiny can be found on Fortune’s recent “Most Admired Company” list. In the top 50, I count 12 such companies including IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, JPMorgan, and Cisco.
Let’s face it, not all companies that resolve FCPA enforcement actions or are under FCPA scrutiny are bad or unethical companies. If more people would realize this and accept this fact, perhaps a substantive discussion could take place regarding FCPA reform absent the misinformed rhetoric.
From the U.K.
In this October 2013 post at the beginning of the U.K. trial of former News Corp. executives Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of News of the World, and Andy Coulson, another former News of the World editor, I observed as follows.
“What happens in these trials concerning the bribery offenses will not determine the outcome of any potential News Corp. FCPA enforcement action. But you can bet that the DOJ and SEC will be interested in the ultimate outcome. In short, if there is a judicial finding that Brooks and/or Coulson or other high-level executives in London authorized or otherwise knew of the alleged improper payments, this will likely be a factor in how the DOJ and SEC ultimately resolve any potential enforcement action and how News Corp.’s overall culpability score may be calculated under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines.”
Well …, this Wall Street Journal article reports as follows.
“[Rebekah Brooks testified that] she authorized payments to public officials in exchange for information on “half a dozen occasions” during her time as a newspaper editor—but did so only in what she said was the public interest. [...] On the stand, Ms. Brooks, who edited News Corp’s Sun newspaper and its now-closed News of the World sister title, said the payments were made for good reasons, and done so on rare occasions and after careful consideration. “My view at the time was that there had to be an overwhelming public interest to justify payments in the very narrow circumstances of a public official being paid for information directly in line with their jobs,” said Ms. Brooks.”
As noted in this previous post at the beginning of News Corp.’s FCPA scrutiny, any suggestion that the media industry is somehow excluded from the FCPA’s prohibitions is entirely off-base.
One Way to Avoid Judicial Scrutiny is to Avoid the Courts
In recent years, the SEC has had some notable struggles in the FCPA context and otherwise when put to its burden of proof in litigated actions or otherwise having to defend its settlement policies to federal court judges. For instance, Judge Shira Scheindlin (S.D.N.Y.) dismissed the SEC’s FCPA enforcement against former Siemens executive Herbert Steffen. In another FCPA enforcement action, Judge Keith Ellison (S.D.Tex.) granted without prejudice Mark Jackson and James Ruehlen’s motion to dismiss the SEC’s claims that sought monetary damages. In Gabelli, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the SEC’s statute of limitations position. Judge Richard Leon (D.D.C.) expressed concerns regarding the SEC’s settlement of FCPA enforcement actions against Tyco and IBM and approved the settlements only after imposing additional reporting requirements on the companies. In addition, the SEC’s neither admit nor deny settlement policy has been questioned by several judges (most notably Judge Jed Rakoff) and the merits of this policy is currently before the Second Circuit.
The SEC’s response to this judicial scrutiny has been, as strange as it may sound, to bypass the judicial system altogether when resolving many of its enforcement actions including in the FCPA context. As detailed in this previous post concerning SEC FCPA enforcement in 2013, of the 8 corporate enforcement actions from 2013, 3 enforcement actions were administrative actions (Philips Electronics, Total, and Stryker) and 1 action (Ralph Lauren) was a non-prosecution agreement. In other words, there was no judicial scrutiny of 50% of SEC FCPA enforcement actions from 2013.
Based on recent statements from SEC officials at the “SEC Speaks” conference this trend is going to continue.
According to this Vedder Price bulletin:
“Charlotte Buford, Assistant Chief Counsel, spoke about the SEC’s intention to use the administrative proceeding forum more frequently and in a wider variety of upcoming enforcement actions. Ms. Buford stated that in choosing the forum, the SEC considers factors such as speed and efficiency, the nature of the case, litigation considerations such as the amount of discovery needed, and settlement considerations. Ms. Buford noted that, although certain types of actions such as insider trading cases were historically brought in district court, two insider trading cases were recently brought as administrative actions. She also referenced the SEC’s recent action against Alcoa, Inc. involving FCPA violations, which was filed as a settled administrative proceeding. Ms. Buford indicated that the SEC will continue to increase its use of administrative proceedings in the coming years.”
This Perkins Coie alert adds the following:
“[Kara Brockmeyer - Chief of the SEC's FCPA Unit] also noted that companies can expect to see more cases resolved in administrative proceedings, and that the FCPA Unit is considering bringing litigated FCPA cases through administrative proceedings as well.”
SEC administrative settlements in the FCPA context were rare prior to 2010 largely because the SEC could not impose monetary penalties in such proceedings absent certain exceptions. However, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act granted the SEC broad authority to impose civil monetary penalties in administrative proceedings in which the SEC staff seeks a cease-and-desist order. However, Congress’s grant of such authority to the SEC – no doubt politically popular in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis – has directly resulted in less judicial scrutiny of SEC enforcement theories including in the FCPA context.
Like so much of what is happening in the FCPA space (and government regulation of corporate conduct generally), this is a troubling development.
In other “SEC Speaks” tidbits, the Vedder Price bulletin also states:
“Kara Brockmeyer, Chief of the FCPA Unit, noted that her unit brought a variety of cases in 2013, which included “old school” bribery cases funneling money, improper travel and entertainment, and improper charitable donations. Ms. Brockmeyer stated that the SEC continues to see issues with third-party intermediaries, as many companies enter into arrangements with third parties without adequately explaining the roles of the third parties. Ms. Brockmeyer lauded companies for “putting more thought” into compliance programs and internal controls, as well as for their decisions to self-report. She also discussed the Cross-border working group, which has brought 21 fraud actions involving 90 individuals or entities and has revoked the registrations of 63 companies since this initiative started three years ago.”
The Perkins Coie alert also states:
“Turning to the area of cooperation credit and non-prosecution agreements (NPAs), Chief Brockmeyer stated that the 2013 Ralph Lauren case is a good example of where such an outcome was warranted. Several factors that weighed in favor of that favorable NPA settlement resulted from the company: self-reporting the suspected bribery within two weeks of finding violations; discovering the violations on its own through internal monitoring activities; assisting the SEC’s investigation by providing English language translations of foreign documents, and bringing witnesses to the United States for questioning; and undertaking extensive remediation efforts, including a worldwide investigation to determine if there were any systemic issues. Finally, Chief Brockmeyer added that it was significant that Ralph Lauren’s investigation determined that the bribery issues were confined to one country; if the violations were found to be more widespread, the company would likely still have received cooperation credit, but would not have been a candidate for a NPA.
Chief Brockmeyer stated that the SEC will continue to address Compliance Monitorship requirements on a case-by-case basis. Recently, the SEC has imposed both “full” monitorships, as well as some “hybrid” monitorships that include 18 months of monitoring, combined with 18 months of self-monitoring by the company. She noted that some companies might even qualify for just internal monitoring, but all these considerations depend heavily on the state of the company’s compliance program.
Finally, Chief Brockmeyer indicated that whistleblower tips continue to serve as a primary lead for the SEC in identifying potential FCPA actions. The SEC is using these tips to identify specific sectors or industries that are not paying sufficient attention to corporate compliance or internal controls. The SEC is also focused on enforcing the anti-retaliation whistleblower provisions in Dodd Frank. In some instances, the SEC has observed that companies have required employees to sign confidentiality agreements that appear to bar an employee from becoming a whistleblower. She opined that such agreements would violate Dodd-Frank’s prohibition against regulated entities taking actions to impede employees from making whistleblower complaints.”
Another DOJ Official Departs
When Lanny Breuer departed as DOJ Assistant Attorney Criminal Division in March 2013, Mythili Raman became Acting Assistant Attorney and carried forward much of the same rhetoric Breuer frequently articulated concerning the DOJ’s FCPA enforcement program. (See here for my article “Lanny Breuer and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Enforcement).
In speeches (here and here) Raman stated that the DOJ’s “stellar FCPA Unit continues to go gangbusters, bringing case after case,” “our recent string of successful prosecutions of corporate executives is worth highlighting” and “we are not going away … our efforts to fight foreign bribery are more robust than ever.”
Like other DOJ FCPA officials before her, Raman frequently highlighted certain enforcement statistics, yet conveniently ignored the most telling enforcement statistic of all – the DOJ’s dismal record when actually put to its burden of proof in FCPA enforcement actions. In short, for a long time the DOJ’s FCPA Unit has had a distorted view of success.
Certainly, the DOJ and SEC have had “success” in this new era of FCPA enforcement exercising leverage and securing large corporate FCPA settlements against risk-averse corporations through resolution vehicles often not subjected to any meaningful judicial scrutiny. However, by focusing on the quantity of FCPA enforcement, the quality of that enforcement is often left unexplored. The simplistic notion advanced by the enforcement agencies seems to be that more FCPA enforcement is an inherent good regardless of enforcement theories, regardless of resolution vehicles, and regardless of actual outcomes when put to its burden of proof. This logic is troubling and ought to be rejected. In a legal system founded on the rule of law, a more meaningful form of government enforcement agency success is prevailing in the context of an adversarial system when put to the burden of proof. As to this form of success, during this new era of FCPA enforcement, the DOJ and SEC have had far less “success” in enforcing the FCPA.
Recently the DOJ announced that Raman is departing from her position. (See here). In this related Q&A with the Wall Street Journal Law Blog (LB) Raman confirmed that the DOJ measures success in terms of quantity without regard to quality.
LB: [On enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which has increased in recent years] do you think you’re winning? Are there fewer bribes being paid now?
MR: We often measure our success by numbers of enforcement actions but actually at the end of the day…. the deterrent effect is what actually matters. I don’t know if fewer bribes are being paid or not. But I do know that there are many more companies who know what their obligations are now.
Last summer German healthcare firm Fresenius Medical Care AG disclosed an FCPA internal investigation (see here for the prior post). In its recently filed annual report, the company stated as follows:
“The Company has received communications alleging certain conduct in certain countries outside the U.S. and Germany that may violate the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) or other anti-bribery laws. The Audit and Corporate Governance Committee of the Company’s Supervisory Board is conducting an internal review with the assistance of independent counsel retained for such purpose. The Company voluntarily advised the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) that allegations have been made and of the Company’s internal review. The Company’s review and dialogue with the SEC and DOJ are ongoing. The review has identified conduct that raises concerns under the FCPA or other anti-bribery laws that may result in monetary penalties or other sanctions. In addition, the Company’s ability to conduct business in certain jurisdictions could be negatively impacted. Given the current status of the internal review, the Company cannot reasonably estimate the possible loss or range of possible loss that may result from the identified matters or from the final outcome of the continuing internal review. Accordingly, no provision with respect to these matters has been made in the accompanying consolidated financial statements. The Company’s independent counsel, in conjunction with the Company’s Compliance Department, have reviewed the Company’s anti-corruption compliance program, including internal controls related to compliance with international anti-bribery laws, and appropriate enhancements are being implemented. The Company is fully committed to FCPA compliance.”
Bio-Rad Laboratories disclosed as follows yesterday in an earnings release.
“[Fourth quarter] results included an accrued expense of $15 million in connection with the Company’s efforts to resolve the previously disclosed investigation of the Company in connection with the United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; this is in addition to an accrued expense of $20 million in the third quarter of 2013.”
The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai recently released its China Business Report (2013-2014).
Notable findings include the following:
“Generally consistent with previous years, 80 percent of respondents cited bureaucracy as the No. 1 challenge, with 72 percent declaring difficulties from an unclear regulatory environment and 70 percent were concerned over problems with tax administration rounding out the top three leading legal and regulatory challenges that companies said hindered their business.”
As I’ve frequently stated, the root causes of much bribery and corruption are various trade barriers and distortions. These barriers and distortions – whether complex customs procedures, import documentation and inspection requirements, local sponsor or other third-party requirements, arcane licensing and certification requirements, quality standards that require product testing and inspection visits, or other foreign government procurement practices – all serve as breeding grounds for harassment bribes to be requested. Simply put, trade barriers and distortions create bureaucracy. Bureaucracy creates points of contact with foreign officials. Points of contact with foreign officials create discretion. Discretion creates the opportunity for a foreign official to misuse their position by making demand bribes.
The report also stated:
“Efforts by the Chinese government to target companies for corruption investigations have sharply increased companies’ concern over compliance with China’s laws and regulations. In 2013, 46 percent of companies said compliance with domestic laws was more important to their business, up from 31 percent in 2012, compared to international anti-bribery laws such as the FCPA (32 percent).
Twice as many respondents said that China’s more aggressive regulatory enforcement for anti-corruption and anti-competition has greatly increased or increased their own business risk (18 percent) than those who say their business risk has greatly decreased or decreased (8 percent). The issue of corruption and fraud was most strongly felt in the healthcare industry (24 percent), which contended with high profile government investigations of foreign and domestic pharmaceutical companies in 2013.”
The impetus for much of this concern is the result of GSK’s (and other pharma and healthcare related companies) scrutiny by Chinese authorities for alleged improper business practices. (See here for the prior post).
A good weekend to all.