Last week, the SEC announced (here) a settled FCPA enforcement action against International Business Machines Corporation (“IBM”).

This post summarizes the enforcement action and then addresses the many questions raised by the enforcement action.

Summary of Enforcement Action

According to the SEC complaint (here): “During the period from 1998 through 2009, in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, employees of certain of [IBM's] subsidiaries and a majority-owned joint venture provided cash payments, improper gifts, as well as improper travel and entertainment to government officials in South Korea and China.”

The conduct at issue focused on:

IBM-Korea, Inc. (“IBM-Korea”), a South Korean corporation “wholly-owned indirectly by IBM International Group B.V, which, in turn is wholly-owned by IBM;”

LG IBM PC Co. Ltd. (“LG-IBM”), a South Korean joint venture formed in 1996 by IBM-Korea (51% owner of the JV) and LG Electronics (“LG”) (49% owners of the JV); and

IBM (China) Investment Company Limited and IBM Global Services (China) Co. Ltd. (collectively “IBM-China”) – entities “owned by IBM China/Hong Kong Limited, a Hong Kong company that is ultimately owned by IBM.”

In summary fashion, the SEC alleged as follows.

“From 1998 to 2003, employees of [IBM-Korea] and [LG-IBM] made payments to various government officials in South Korea. The purpose of these payments was to secure the sale of IBM products through IBM-Korea and LG-IBM’s business partners. During the relevant period, these managers paid approximately KRW 216,832,500 (South Korean Won), or $207,000, in cash bribes to South Korean government officials, including providing improper·gifts and payments of travel and entertainment expenses.”

“From at least 2004 to early 2009, employees of [IBM-China] engaged in a widespread practice of providing overseas trips, entertainment, and improper gifts to Chinese government officials. The misconduct in China involved several key IBM-China employees and more than 100 IBM China employees overall.”

As to IBM, the parent-company issuer, the SEC alleged as follows.

“Despite its extensive international operations, IBM lacked sufficient internal
controls designed to prevent or detect these violations of the FCPA. During the period 1998 to 2009, IBM had corporate policies prohibiting bribery and procedures relating to compliance with the FCPA; however, deficient internal controls allowed employees of IBM’s subsidiaries and joint venture to use local business partners and travel agencies as conduits for bribes or other improper payments to South Korean and Chinese government officials over long periods of time.”

“During the period 1998 to 2009, IBM failed to make and keep books and records that accurately reflected the improper payments made in South Korea and China. Instead, these payments were recorded as legitimate business expenses.”

The body of the SEC’s complaint alleges various “things of value” provided to alleged South Korean “foreign officials” including shopping bags filled with thousands of dollars, cash-filled envelopes exchanged in parking lots and free personal computers, and travel and entertainment expenses.

According to the SEC, such “things of value” were: “in exchange for designating IBM-Korea a preferred supplier of mainframe computers to [an alleged government entity] and for placing orders with IBM-Korea at higher prices;” “in exchange for (1) maintaining IBM-Korea as the supplier of mainframe computers to [an alleged government entity]; and (2) for helping an IBM-Korea business partner win bids to supply mainframe computers and storage equipment to [an alleged government entity] worth more than [$21 million]; “in exchange for [an alleged "foreign official's] assistance to IBM-Korea in obtaining a contract with [an alleged government entity] worth approximately [$13 million] for the installation of a mainframe computer in 2002;” “to entice [foreign official's] to purchase IBM products:” “to win a contract to supply 657 (later increased to 825) personal computers valued at [approximately $1.4 million]; “in exchange for providing LG-IBM with certain confidential information regarding the product specifications on [an alleged government entity's] request for procurement;” “to persuade employees of [an alleged government entity] to purchase IBM products;” and to entice alleged foreign officials “to purchase IBM products or to provide information to assist LG-IBM in the bidding process.”

The body of the SEC’s complaint as to China conduct alleges as follows.

“From at least 2004 to early 2009, IBM-China employees created slush funds at local travel agencies in China that were then used to pay for overseas and other travel expenses incurred by Chinese government officials. In addition, IBM-China employees created slush funds at its business partners to provide a cash payment and improper gifts, such as cameras and laptop computers, to Chinese government officials. IBM failed to record accurately these payments in its books and records.”

Specifically, the SEC alleged as follows:

“Between 2004 and 2009, IBM’s internal controls failed to detect at least 114
instances in which (1) IBM-China employees and its local travel agency worked together to create fake invoices to match approved [Delegation Trip Requests] DTRs; (2) trips were not connected to any DTRs; (3) trips involved unapproved sightseeing itineraries for Chinese government employees; (4) trips had little or no business content; (5) trips involved one or more deviations from the approved DTR; and (6) trips where per diem payments and gifts were provided to Chinese government officials.”

Based on the above allegations, the SEC charged IBM with violating the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions. As noted in the SEC release, IBM, without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, consented to the entry of a final judgment permanently enjoining the company from future FCPA violations. IBM agreed to pay $10 million (disgorgement of $5.3 million, $2.7 million in prejudgment interest, and a $2 million civil penalty).

Peter Barbur and Evan Chessler (Cravath, Swaine & Moore – here and here) represented IBM.

Questions Abound

For starters, this is not the first time IBM has been the focus of an FCPA enforcement action.

In December 2000 (see here), the SEC found, in a cease and desist proceeding, that IBM violated the FCPA books and records provisions in connection with a $250 million contract to integrate and modernize computer systems in Argentina. As part of the settlement, “IBM consented to the entry of an Order that requires IBM to cease and desist from committing or causing any future violation of [the FCPA's books and records provisions].

Given that IBM was charged last week with FCPA books and records violations, IBM has clearly violated this 2000 court order.

In my recent “Facade of FCPA Enforcement” article (here), I highlight various pillars that contribute to the facade of FCPA enforcement.

Pillars include, unsupported legal conclusions serving as the foundation for an enforcement action, including as to “foreign official” and disgorgement issues; the tendency of factually similar cases being resolved materially different ways; and bribery, yet no bribery.

These pillars are present in the IBM enforcement action.

For starters, who were the “government officials in South Korea and China.” Were they traditional bona-fide government officials or employees of alleged state-owned or state-controlled enterprises and thus “foreign officials” under the enforcement agencies’ interpretation – an interpretation currently the subject of judicial challenges?

As to the South Korean officials, the complaint merely alleges that the “foreign government officials involved worked for sixteen South Korean government entities.” These officials included the “Chief of Operations for the Electronic Operations Division” of an entity; an employee of the same entity; a “manager of the government-controlled entity”; the “Director of Planning” of another entity; employees of an entity; an employee of a “state-owned agency of the South Korean government;” a “Director of Information Technology” at another entity; employees of another entity; and “key decision makers at ten other” entities.

As to the Chinese officials, the complaint merely alleges that the individuals were associated with “government-owned or controlled customers in China for hardware, software, and other services.”

Based on the descriptions in the complaint, it seems as if the “foreign officials” were all employees of SOE entities. If so, two out of three corporate FCPA enforcement actions in 2011 (IBM and Maxwell Technologies – see here) involve SOE employees.

Why no FCPA anti-bribery charges against IBM or the relevant subsidiaries (accepting of course the SEC’s “foreign official” interpretation)?

According to the SEC, the conduct at issue took place between 1998 and 2009. Further, according to the SEC, “in connection with the conduct described herein, IBM, directly or indirectly, made use of the mails or the means or instrumentalities of interstate commerce in connection with the acts, transactions, practices and courses of business alleged in this Complaint.”

Why no DOJ involvement?

It is very common for the DOJ and SEC to announce FCPA enforcement actions on the same day. Thus, one can assume (perhaps future events will prove otherwise) that the DOJ elected to sit this one out.

Why?

The SEC’s complaint alleges vivid instances of bribery (not always seen in FCPA enforcement actions) in connection with multi-million dollar contracts.

Yet, no bribery – not even civil FCPA anti-bribery charges.

Is this another instance where the U.S. enforcement agencies look first at the corporate offender, its customers, and its products, and then craft a resolution that will hurt the least?

After all, one of IBM’s largest customer segments is the government (federal, state, etc.) see here.

Did this play any role in how the enforcement action was resolved?

The SEC charged IBM only with FCPA books and records and internal controls violations. Yet, as in several other cases, the SEC pursued a disgorgement remedy. As noted in my Facade article (pages 981-984) non-FCPA disgorgement case law clearly holds that disgorgement may not be used punitively. It is difficult to see how mis-recording of a payment (a payment the SEC does not allege violated the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions) can properly give rise to a disgorgement remedy. See also here from Philip Urofsky and Danforth Newcomb on this issue.

In a transparent legal system, similar facts are supposed to be resolved with similar charges. However, it is questionable whether this fundamental principle (one that inspires trust and confidence in a legal system) is followed in many FCPA enforcement actions.

The China-related charges against IBM regarding excessive travel and entertainment expenses are nearly identical to two previous FCPA enforcement actions – the December 2007 enforcement action against Lucent Technologies and the December 2009 enforcement action against UTStarcom, Inc.

Lucent was resolved via a DOJ non-prosecution agreement (here) and an SEC enforcement action charging only FCPA books and records violations (here).

UTStarcom was resolved via a DOJ non-prosecution agreement (here) and an SEC enforcement action charging FCPA anti-bribery as well as books and records and internal controls violations (here).

IBM, as detailed above, is presumably being resolved without any DOJ involvement and an SEC enforcement action charging only FCPA books and records violations.

Three cases – all involving in whole or in part allegations of providing excessive travel and entertainment expenses to Chinese “foreign officials” – resolved in three different ways.

*****

And now, as one reader put it, the question all FCPA Professor blog readers (at least this particular reader) are dying to know.

Butler or Wisconsin?

I am a born and raised cheesehead and graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School.

However, my allegiance is to my employer – Butler University. Let’s face it, Butler is an awesome, feel-good story. Student-athletes in every sense of the word, home games at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, a coach who, a few years ago, left his job selling pharmaceuticals to become a volunteer coach (since promoted), and a small, cozy campus to top it off.

BU-TLE- R U a Bulldog – hell ya!