If every company voluntarily disclosed that its distant subsidiaries and/or its distant subsidiaries’ joint venture partners provided minor things of value (such as a notebook computer, kitchen appliances, and business suits) to someone deemed a “foreign official” by the enforcement agencies, then instead of 15 to 20 core FCPA enforcement actions per year, there would probably be something like 150 to 200 FCPA enforcement actions per year.

If every issuer voluntarily disclosed that its internal controls were imperfect as to distant subsidiaries or its distant subsidiaries’ joint venture partners, and that such distant entities failed to follow issuer instructions or issuer provided training and guidance, then instead of 15 to 20 core FCPA enforcement actions per year, there would probably be something like 1,500 to 2,000 FCPA enforcement actions per year (recognizing that the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions equally apply to domestic operations).

So why did RAE Systems voluntarily disclose such conduct to the DOJ and the SEC? Would it not have been more efficient and cost-effective for the company to effectively remedy these issues internally?

Do the high professional expenses connected with voluntary disclosures (compared to effectively remedying issues internally) have anything to do with the increase in voluntary disclosures? (See here for a prior post on the issue). In RAE Systems annual report for the year ended December 31, 2009 (see here), filed in March 2010, the company disclosed that it had (at that point) incurred $4 million in professional fees in connection with the FCPA investigation.

From an enforcement standpoint, is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act becoming an all-purpose corporate governance instrument? Should it?

These are some of the questions raised by the odd RAE Systems enforcement action.

Last Friday, the DOJ and SEC announced (see here and here) a joint enforcement against RAE System (a San-Jose, California based company with shares on the New York Stock Exchange) “a leading global provider of rapidly deployable connected, intelligent gas detection systems that enable real-time safety and security threat detection.” (See here for the company website). In September, RAE Systems signed a definitive agreement to be acquired by Battery Ventures. The transaction is expected to close by the end of the first quarter of 2011.

This post summarizes the DOJ and SEC enforcement actions in which RAE Systems agreed to pay approximately $2.95 million in fines and disgorgement.

DOJ

Pursuant to a three-year non-prosecution agreement, RAE Systems acknowledged its “knowing violations of the internal controls and books and records provisions” of the FCPA “arising from and related to improper benefits corruptly paid by employees of two joint ventures majority owned and controlled by RAE Systems to foreign officials of departments, agencies, and instrumentalities” of the Chinese government.” Pursuant to the NPA, RAE Systems agreed to pay a $1.7 million penalty.

According to the NPA, RAE Systems “had significant operations” in China organized “under a holding company called RAE Asia, headquartered in Hong Kong.” RAE Systems “sold products and services in mainland [China] primarily through second-tier subsidiaries organized as joint ventures with local Chinese entities.

One of the joint ventures is RAE-KLH (Beijing) Co., Limited (“RAE-KLH”). RAE Systems acquired a 64% stake in RAE-KLH in 2004 and upped the stake to approximately 96% in 2006. The other joint venture is RAE Coal Mine Safety Instruments (Fushun) Co., Ltd. (“RAE-Fushun”). In 2006, RAE Systems acquired a 70% interest in RAE Fushan.

Both RAE-KLH’s and RAE Fushun’s financial results were included in the consolidated financial statements that RAE Systems filed with the SEC.

According to the NPA, “a significant number of RAE-KLH’s and RAE Fushun’s customers” in China were “government departments and bureaus and large state-owned agencies and instrumentalties.” The NPA states as follows. “The Lanzhous City Honggu Mining Safety Bureau, for example, was a government customer. Other government clients included regional fire departments, emergency response departments, and entities under the supervision of the provincial environmental agency, among others. Accordingly, officers and employees of a significant number of RAE-KLH’s and RAE Fushun’s customers were ‘foreign officials’ within the meaning of the FCPA …”.

The NPA then contains a heading that states, “RAE System’s Knowing Failure to Implement Systems of Effective Internal Controls at RAE-KLH and RAE Fushun Post Closing.”

The NPA then cites various company documents that suggest RAE was aware that KLH sales personnel were making kickbacks or otherwise engaging in questionable sales tactics with its customers. The NPA cites a document from a RAE Systems employee from the United States who met with KLH personnel that stated “we knew this risk all along and have accepted it upon entering the JV deal.”

Following the acquisition, the NPA states that “RAE Systems did provide some FCPA training to RAE-KLH personnel and did tell RAE-KLH personnel to stop paying bribes and providing other improper benefits, but such steps were half-measures.” The NPA states that “RAE Systems did not impose sufficient internal controls or make sufficient changes to high-risk practices.”

As to RAE-Fushun, the NPA states that “RAE Systems did not conduct pre-acquisition corruption due diligence of RAE Fushun” but that “given RAE’s System’s experience with KLH described above, the high-risk nature of the location, and the existence of numerous government customers, pre-acquisition corruption-focused due diligence was merited. The NPA further states “as was later confirmed, improper business practices had occurred at RAE Fushun before the acquisition and continued post-acquisition, as RAE Systems failed to implement an effective system of internal controls at RAE Fushun.”

Based on the above facts, the NPA states that “RAE Systems knowingly failed to implement a system of effective internal accounting controls at RAE-KLH and RAE Fushun…”.

According to the NPA, the “lack of effective internal accounting controls permitted improper payments to continue at RAE-KLH and RAE-Fushun after acquisition.”

As to RAE-KLH, the NPA states that certain sales representatives at RAE-KLH “used cash advances and reimbursements for improper purposes, including the corrupt giving of gifts and paying for entertainment, as well as direct or indirect payments to customers.” According to the NPA, “the gifts included, among other things, a notebook computer for the son of the deputy director of a state-owned chemical plant as part of efforts to obtain business from that entity.” The NPA also states that RAE-KLH made payments under contracts with a purported consultant and that some or all of the payments were funneled to officials of a state-owned enterprise and government departments.

As to RAE Fushun, the NPA likewise statements that certain sales representatives at RAE Fushun “used cash advances and reimbursements for improper purposes including the corrupt giving of gifts and paying for entertainment, as well as making direct or indirect payments, to officers and employees of customers.” According to the NPA, “these gifts to certain officials of state-owned enterprises and government departments included, among other things, a variety of luxury items, such as jade, fur coats, kitchen appliances, business suits, and high-priced liquor.”

The NPA then states that the “lack of effective internal controls and continued improper payments led to inaccurate books and records.”

During the three-year term of the NPA, RAE Systems agreed to undertake a host of compliance reforms and to report to the DOJ on an annual basis.

The DOJ agreed to enter into the NPA “based in part, on the following factors: (a) RAE System’s timely, voluntary, and complete disclosure …; (b) RAE System’s thorough, real-time cooperation with the DOJ and SEC; (c) the extensive remedial efforts already undertaken and to be undertaken by RAE Systems; and (d) RAE System’s commitment to submit periodic monitoring reports to the DOJ.”

SEC

The SEC’s complaint (here) is based on the same core set of facts described above. It charges RAE Systems, not only with FCPA books and records and internal control violations, but anti-bribery violations as well.

The complaint begins by alleging that “from 2004 through 2008″ RAE Systems violated the FCPA “by paying, through two of its joint venture entities in China, approximately $400,000 to third party agents and government officials in China to influence acts or decisions by foreign officials to obtain or retain business for RAE Systems.” According to the complaint, the payments “were made primarily by the direct sales force utilized by RAE Systems” at its two Chinese joint-venture entities: RAE-KLH and RAE-Fushun.

According to the SEC, RAE System’s “illicit payments to government officials and third-party agents generated revenues worth over $3 million and gross margin of $1,147,800.”

The complaint states: “While the payments were made exclusively in China and were conducted by Chinese employees of RAE-KLH and RAE-Fushun, RAE Systems was aware of significant indications of ongoing bribery at RAE-KLH. At the time, RAE Systems failed to effectively investigate these indications, or red flags, and to stop the bribery from continuing. RAE System’s failure to act on these significant red flags allowed, at least in part, bribery to continue at RAE-KLH.”

RAE Systems was held liable for RAE-KLH’s improper payments even though the SEC complaint states that “RAE Systems Instruct[ed] KLH Personnel to Stop Bribery Practices.” According to the SEC, “while RAE Systems communicated these instructions to RAE-KLH personnel, RAE Systems did not impose sufficient internal controls or make any changes to the practice of sales personnel obtaining cash advances.” According to the SEC, RAE System’s CFO visited RAE-KLH’s Chinese facilities and observed that certain cash advances may be used for “grease payments, to supplement sales employees’ incomes and as bribes.” In response, RAE Systems, “implemented FCPA compliance training and required each RAE-KLH employee to certify that he or she did not engage in bribery practices.” However, the SEC alleged “again, however, [RAE Systems] did not impose sufficient internal controls or make changes to the practice of sales personnel obtaining cash advances.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, RAE Systems agreed to pay $1,147,800 in disgorgement (plus $109,212 in prejudgment interest) and to undertake a host of FCPA compliance measures.

Cheryl Scarboro (Chief of the SEC’s FCPA Unit) stated as follows. “RAE Systems develops products to detect harmful emissions, yet it did not have adequate measures in place to detect and root out internal wrongdoing. Companies that fail to respond to red flags can be held liable for the acts of their joint venture partners.”

Carlos Ortiz (a former DOJ attorney now at LeClair Ryan – here) and Roy McDonald (DLA Piper – here) represented RAE Systems.