Top Menu

Yet Another Noisy Exit

Rodolfo Michelon was the Director & Controller – Mexico of Sempra Global. Michelon was also the legal representative of various Sempra subsidiary companies located in Mexico and served as a member of the board of directors of the Mexican subsidiaries.

That is until March 10, when Michelon was terminated by Sempra.

In a lawsuit (here) recently filed in California state court, Michelon claims that his termination was wrongful for many reasons, including the following:

“Sempra regularly required Michelon to transfer funds, and account for illegitimate expenditures that boiled down to bribes of government officials – everything from fraudulent trusts ostensibly to purchase fire fighting equipment for Mexican governments, to paying off local fisherman to move their operations away from Sempra facilities, to demanding remediation of accounting that falsely stated Sepmpra’s assets, to the outright wiring of huge amounts of money to ‘consultants’ throughout Mexico. As with his other attempts to ensure he was complying with his ethical requirements as a CPA, Michelon’s repeated questioning and protests of the miscellaneous frauds and bribes was met with open hostility and threats of termination. The termination of the Controller employment was not only in retaliation for Michelon’s complaints, but it was also meant to keep Michelon from reporting the frauds and bribes to governmental, law enforcement officials.”

Sempra Global is described (here) as “the umbrella for Sempra Energy’s businesses operating in competitive energy markets. Sempra Global companies acquire, develop and operate infrastructure assets related to the production and distribution of energy, including power plants, natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) receipt terminals.”

Various Sempra entities are publicly traded issuers (see here).

In this San Diego Union Tribune report Sempra officials “called Michelon a disgruntled ex-employee attempting to cash in by making ‘outlandishly false claims and misrepresentations’ after being let go in a routine reorganization.” A Sempra spokesperson said that the “company first became aware of Mr. Michelon’s claims several months ago” and that “Sempra’s board of directors ordered an independent investigation, which found Mr. Michelon’s allegations to be completely without merit.”

Michelon’s “noisy exit” is the fourth such exit publicly reported over the past three months that may implicate the FCPA. See here and here for the prior posts.

The Facade of FCPA Enforcement

I am pleased to release (here) my paper, “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement,” recently published by Georgetown Journal of International Law.

Below is an abstract.


The rise in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) enforcement actions has been well documented. Against the backdrop of aggressive enforcement and the resulting multi-million dollar fines and penalties is the undeniable fact that, in most instances, there is no judicial scrutiny of the FCPA enforcement theories. The end result is that the FCPA often means what the enforcement agencies say it means. Because of the “carrots” and “sticks” relevant to resolving a government enforcement action, FCPA defendants are nudged to accept resolution vehicles notwithstanding the enforcement agencies’ untested and dubious enforcement theories or the existence of valid and legitimate defenses. The end result is often the facade of FCPA enforcement.

This article discusses various pillars that contribute to the facade of FCPA enforcement and highlights that the FCPA, during its decade of resurgence, is being enforced like no other law. This article does not argue, or even suggest, that every FCPA enforcement action is unwarranted or that no company or individual has ever violated the FCPA. Rather, this article demonstrates that a significant majority of recent FCPA enforcement actions are a facade—including those that allege clear instances of corporate bribery—yet are resolved without FCPA anti-bribery charges.

The facade of FCPA enforcement matters. Even though the resolution vehicles typically used to resolve an FCPA enforcement action are not subject to judicial scrutiny and the vehicles do not necessarily reflect the triumph of the enforcement agencies’ theories, in the absence of substantive FCPA case law, these privately negotiated resolution vehicles have come to represent de facto FCPA case law. The facade of FCPA enforcement also breeds inefficient overcompliance by risk averse business actors fearful of enterprise–threatening liability because of the enforcement agencies’ untested and dubious theories. Because the factors that contribute to the facade are being modeled by other nations when enforcing their own bribery laws, the facade of FCPA enforcement is a global issue affecting a broad segment of the marketplace.

Identifying and acknowledging the existence of a problem is a necessary first step to crafting solutions. This article exposes the facade of FCPA enforcement, argues that addressing the facade and subjecting FCPA enforcement actions to greater judicial scrutiny is in the public interest, and encourages more FCPA defendants to challenge the enforcement agencies and further expose the facade of FCPA enforcement.

“The Payments … Would Not Constitute Facilitation Payments for Routine Governmental Actions Within the Meaning of the FCPA”

The above words are from the DOJ’s non-prosecution agreement with Noble Corporation (“Noble”). The DOJ used this phrase twice in the NPA and one can reasonably conclude that if the DOJ felt the need to express such a statement twice, that the FCPA’s facilitating payment exception is probably on the minds of many in connection with the CustomsGate enforcement actions.

Next up in the analysis of CustomsGate enforcement actions is Noble Corporation (see here). See this prior post for analysis of the GlobalSantaFe enforcement action.

The Noble enforcement action involved both a DOJ and SEC component. Total settlement amount was approximately $8.2 million ($2.6 million criminal fine via a non-prosecution agreement; $5.6 million in disgorgement and interest via a SEC complaint).

During the time period relevant to the enforcement action, Noble was a Cayman Islands company. In March 2009, a new Swiss parent company, also called Noble Corporation, was created and Noble Corporation, the Cayman Islands company, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Swiss parent company.


As set forth in the NPA (see here), the DOJ agreed “not to criminally prosecute Noble […] or any of subsidiaries […] related to the making of improper payments by employees and agents of Noble and/or its subsidiaries to officials of the Nigerian Customs Service in connection with Noble’s and/or its subsidiaries’ import and export of goods and items relating to its operations in Nigeria from January 2003 to July 2007, and the accounting and record-keeping associated with these improper payments.”

According to the Statement of Facts in the NPA, a “Nigerian Customs Agent” provided a variety of logistics and customs services for Noble Drilling (Nigeria) Ltd. (“Noble Nigeria”) a wholly-owned subsidiary of Noble and the primary Noble operating company in Nigeria. The Nigerian Customs Agent submitted false documents to Nigerian customs officials on behalf of Noble Nigeria “relating to the temporary importation of rigs owned or operated by Noble Nigeria into Nigerian waters” and the Nigerian Customs Agent invoiced Noble Nigeria and was paid for its services.

The Statement of Facts describes “The Nigerian Temporary Import Process.” As described, if Noble were to “permanently import a rig into Nigerian waters” the customs duties were significant, between 10-20% of the total value of the rig. Alternatively, Noble could import rigs and other items on a temporary basis in which case no customs duties would be assessed. However, as described in the Statement of Facts, “a rig, or other item, could be imported on a temporary basis only if the item: (a) was considered a high valued piece of special equipment, (b) was not available for sale in Nigeria, and (c) was being imported temporarily and was intended to be exported.” If these requirements were met, “a company, through a local customs agent, could apply for a temporary import permit.” (“TIP”).

According to the Statement of Facts, “items imported under a TIP (and TIP extension) could not remain in Nigeria longer than the period allowed for by the TIP and/or TIP extensions. When the TIP (or TIP extension) expired, the owner “could either choose to permanently import the rig … or export the rig and re-import it and obtain a new initial TIP.” According to the Statement of Facts, “the failure to export the rig after the TIP expired could result in the assessment of Nigerian penalties of up to six times its cost.”

The Statement of Facts indicate that Noble Nigeria chose to temporarily import rigs into Nigeria and that Noble Nigeria employed the Nigeria Customs Agent to apply for and secure its TIPs and TIP extension.

According to the Statement of Facts, “whenever a TIP (and related TIP extensions) expired for a rig in Nigeria, the Nigerian Customs Agent, with the knowledge of Noble Nigeria, engaged in a process of submitting false paperwork on Noble Nigeria’s behalf to avoid the time, cost, and risk associated with exporting the rig and reimporting it into Nigerian waters” – the so called “paper process” or a “paper move.” The Statement of Facts further assert that the “Nigeria Customs Agent, with the knowledge of Noble Nigeria, created and caused to be presented to the [Nigeria Customs Service] NCS documents that reflected that the rig had been physically exported and reimported, when, in fact, the rig had remained in Nigeria.”

According to the Statement of Facts, the Nigeria Customs Agent included a line item in its invoices for “special handling charges” and “Noble Nigeria personnel were informed by the Nigerian Customs Agent that all or part of the ‘special handling charges’ would be paid by the Nigeria Customs Agents to NCS officials.” Further, the Statement of Facts assert that “Noble Nigeria personnel approved the payments to the Nigerian Customs Agent with the knowledge that some or all of the payments would be paid to NCS officials.”

The Statement of Facts assert that “certain Noble and Noble Nigeria managers and employees authorized paper moves on five occasions.” In a separate section of the NPA titled, “Corporate Knowledge of the TIP Paper Process” the following statements are made.

“Manager A” (a U.S. citizen and a former manager in Noble’s Internal Audit Department) “interviewed several Noble-Nigeria employees who explained that false paperwork had been created and submitted to NCS officials through the Nigeria Customs Agent in connection with the process of securing TIPs” and that Manager A “also learned that the Nigeria Customs Agent in the past had charged a fee of approximately $75,000 per TIP to secure the TIPS.”

Manager A provided a written summary to Executive A (a U.S. citizen, an officer of Noble, and Head of Internal Audit).

Executive A discussed Manager A’s findings with Executive B (a U.S. citizen, an officer of Noble, and the Vice President-Eastern Hemisphere with management responsibility for Nigerian operations). Executive A then informed the Senior Executive (a U.S. citizen, an officer of Noble, and the former Chief Financial Officer).

The Audit Committee was advised of the “paper process” as was “members of Noble’s senior management.”

Executive B was tasked with “ensuring the Company’s compliance with all applicable rules and regulations related to the importation and exportation of assets in Nigeria…”.

Corrective action was contemplated, such as permanently importing rigs or moving them to a free trade zone, but Manager A and Executive B “decided that due to the time, cost, and risk of permanently importing or moving the rigs, the paper process would be used for three rigs for which TIPs had expired.”

“The Audit Committee was not advised of the decision to resume the paper process.”

Without any elaboration, the Statement of Facts states that the above described payments “would not constitute facilitation payments for routine governmental actions within the meaning of the FCPA.”

The Statement of Facts continue – between May 2005 and March 2006 “a total of five (5) TIPs were obtained through the submission of false documents via the paper process, and each included the payment of ‘special handling fees’ to the Nigeria Customs Agent. The ‘special handling fees’ ranged from approximately $13,800 to $17,000.”

According to the Statement of Facts:

“By their approval of the payments and the process, the Senior Executive, and Executive B caused Noble to inaccurately record in its books, records, and accounts the five (5) “special handling fee” payments paid to the Nigeria Customs Agent in a “facilitation payments” account totaling approximately $74,000, when the Senior Executive, Executive A, and Executive B knew that some or all of these payments would be passed on to NCS officials to obtain TIPs. Thus, such payments could not be facilitation payments for the performance of a “routine governmental action” within the meaning of the FCPA.”

The remainder of the Statement of Facts describes how Executive A failed to advise the Audit Committee and/or concealed from the Audit Committee that the paper process had resumed.

According to the Statement of Facts, “the total benefit received by Noble Nigeria for these payments in avoided costs, duties, and penalties was approximately $2,973,000.”

As noted in the NPA, the DOJ agreed to enter into the NPA based, in part, on the following factors:

“The Department enters into this Non-Prosecution Agreement based, in part, on the following factors: (a) Noble’s discovery of the violations through its own internal investigation; (b) Noble’s timely, voluntary, and complete disclosure of the facts described in [the Statement of Facts]; (c) Noble’s extensive, thorough, real-time cooperation with the Department and the SEC …; (d) Noble’s voluntary investigation of the Company’s business operations throughout the world; (e) the existence of Noble’s pre-existing compliance program and steps taken by Noble’s Audit Committee to detect and prevent improper conduct from occurring; (f) Noble’s remedial efforts to enhance its compliance program and oversight that have already been undertaken; (g) Noble’s agreement to continue to implement enhanced compliance measures …; and (h) Noble’s agreement to provide annual, written reports to the Department on its progress and experience in maintaining and, as appropriate, enhancing its compliance policies and procedures …”.

As is standard process in an NPA, Noble admitted, accepted, and acknowledged its responsibility for the conduct of its employees, agents, and subsidiaries as set forth in a Statement of Facts, and further agreed “not to make any public statement contradicting” the Statement of Facts.


The SEC’s complaint (here) concerns the same core set of facts as set forth in the DOJ’s NPA.

In summary fashion, the SEC alleges that “through the TIPs obtained using the paper process, Noble obtained profits from continued operations of rigs in Nigeria and avoided the costs of moving rigs out of and back into Nigerian waters.” According to the SEC, “Noble’s total gains from this conduct were at least $4,294,933.”

The SEC charged Noble with violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions, as well as the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions.

As to the FCPA’s books and records charge, the SEC alleges that “Noble Nigeria recorded the portion of the payments it made to its customs agent that certain Noble personnel believed were being passed on to Nigerian government officials in Noble’s ‘facilitating payment’ account and in some cases to other operating expense accounts…” However, without elaborating the SEC states, “because these payments were not qualifying facilitating payments under the FCPA or otherwise legitimate expenses, Noble created false books and records by recording the payments as such.”

As to the internal controls charges, the SEC alleges that “although Noble had an FCPA policy in place, Noble lacked sufficient FCPA procedures, training, and internal controls to prevent the use of the paper process and making of payments to Nigerian government officials to obtain TIPs and TIP extensions.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Noble agreed to agreed to an injunction and will pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest of $5,576,998.

Neither the DOJ nor the SEC resolution require the company to engage a compliance monitor.

Both the DOJ’s NPA and the SEC’s complaint specifically mention that Noble conducted a worldwide review of its operations. That no other conduct was mentioned in either the DOJ’s NPA or the SEC’s complaint, suggests that Noble’s Nigerian import/export issues were an isolated incident, not indicative of systemic issues throughout the company’s other operations.

In a press release (here) Noble’s CEO stated that “ethical business conduct and strict compliance with the law remain central to Noble’s operating philosophy,” that the company “is pleased that these investigations have been concluded and a resolution has been reached,” and that the company “is moving forward with a continuing commitment to ethical business practices and a dedication to compliance, ideas that are reflected in our core values, our policies, our training and our expectations for ethical behavior.” The release notes as follows: “In May 2007, the Company self-reported to the DOJ and the SEC possible improper payments by a customs agent in connection with securing temporary import permits and extensions for the operations of Noble’s rigs in Nigeria. An internal investigation was promptly conducted by independent outside counsel, and the Company has cooperated thoroughly with the independent investigator’s review and the government’s investigation.”

In a 10-K filing yesterday, Noble stated as follows:

“We are currently operating three jackup rigs offshore Nigeria. The temporary import permits covering two of these rigs expired in November 2008 and we have pending applications to renew these permits. We have received notice that we will be allowed to obtain a new temporary import permit for one of the two rigs and are in the process of clarifying this approval. However, as of October 31, 2010, the Nigerian customs office had not acted on our application for the second unpermitted rig, but we are discussing undertaking the same process as for the first rig. We did obtain a new temporary import permit for the third rig in 2009 that had previously been operating with an expired temporary import permit, while the application was pending, by exporting and re−importing the rig. We continue to seek to avoid material disruption to our Nigerian operations; however, there can be no assurance that we will be able to obtain new permits or further extensions of permits necessary to continue the operation of our rigs in Nigeria. If we cannot obtain a new permit or an extension necessary to continue operations of any rig, we may need to cease operations under the drilling contract for such rig and relocate such rig from Nigerian waters. In any case, we also could be subject to actions by Nigerian customs for import duties and fines for these two rigs, as well as other drilling rigs that operated in Nigeria in the past. We cannot predict what impact these events may have on any such contract or our business in Nigeria. Furthermore, we cannot predict what changes, if any, relating to temporary import permit policies and procedures may be established or implemented in Nigeria in the future, or how any such changes may impact our business there.

Mary Spearing, a former DOJ attorney (here), represented Noble.

Failure to Move Rigs Costs GlobalStantaFe

When an FCPA enforcement action involving 13 separate entities, comprising both DOJ and SEC components, is announced on the same day, there is a natural tendency to look at the forest, without spending much time on the trees.

Today’s post, and those that will follow in the near future, will focus on the separate enforcement actions (see here) announced by the DOJ/SEC on November 4th, in what I’ll call “CustomsGate.”

First up, GlobalSantaFe Corp. (“GSF”), the only enforcement action without a DOJ component.

GSF provided offshore oil and gas drilling services for oil and gas exploration companies. (GSF is a former issuer that completed a merger with a subsidiary of Transocean Inc. and became known as Transocean Worldwide, Inc. which is a subsidary of Transocean Ltd., an issuer).

In order to import equipment necessary to do such work in Nigeria, GSF needed to obtain a temporary importation permit (“TIP”) from the Nigerian government through the Nigerian Customs Service (“NCS”). Obtaining a TIP required mounds of paperwork. TIPS were initially issued for one year and were allowed to be extended twice for a period of six months each. Rarely, and only in the discretion of NCS officials, could a third six-month extension be granted.

Prior to or after a TIP expired, GSF was required to move its rigs out of Nigerian waters and to begin again the paper heavy TIP application process. Failure to export a rig after the expiration of a TIP, and all permissible extensions, would render a rig subject to potential forfeiture or seizure.

Moving a rig is no small task, it requires tug boats and money.

So begins the SEC’s complaint (here) against GSF.

According to the SEC, “instead of moving its oil drilling rigs out of Nigerian waters when GSF’s permit to temporarily import the rigs into Nigeria had expired, GSF, through its customs brokers, made payments to NCS officials in order to obtain documentation reflecting that the rigs had moved out of Nigerian waters, when in fact, the rigs had not moved at all.”

According to the SEC, there were four such instances.

The Adriatic VIII should have left Nigerian waters on or before October 15, 2004. However, in September 2004, the SEC alleges that “GSF, through its customs broker, took steps to obtain false documentation from NCS reflecting that the Adriatic VIII left Nigeria on September 29, 2004.” According to the SEC, “GSF paid its customs broker $87,500 (wired through a bank account in the name of GSF located in the U.S.) to obtain the new TIP, including a payment of $3,500 identified on the customs broker’s invoice as ‘additional charges for export.” According to the SEC, GSF managers in Nigeria “knew that the Adriatic VIII had never actually left Nigerian waters and knew, or knew that there was a high probability, that the explanation on the invoice as ‘additional charges for export’ was for purposes of disguising a bribe.” According to the SEC, a fews years later, GSF, through its customs-broker, again obtained false documentation from NCS reflecting that the Adriatic VIII had left Nigerian waters when, in fact, it had not.”

The Adriatic I should have left Nigerian waters on or before January 31, 2004. However, before this date, the SEC alleges that “GSF, through its customs broker, obtained documentation from NCS, reflecting that the Adriatic I left Nigeria on January 31, 2004 when, in fact, it had not.”

The Baltic I should have left Nigerian waters on or before June 3, 2004. However, before this date, the SEC alleges that “GSF, through its customs broker, took steps to obtain documentation from NCS, reflecting that the Baltic I left Nigeria on June 25, 2004. According to the SEC, the GSF managers “authorized and submitted for payment invoices containing charges described as ‘additional charges for export’ when the same GSF managers knew that the GSF rig had not been exported from Nigeria.” Thus, the SEC alleges, the “GSF managers either knew that the ‘additional charges for export’ were bribes, or knew that there was a high probability that they were bribes.

By engaging in the above referenced conduct, the SEC alleged that GSF: (1) avoided costs of approximately $1.5 million from not physicially moving the rigs; and (2) gained revenues of approximately $619,000 from not interrupting operations to move the rigs.”

The SEC charged GSF, on the above facts, with violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.

Because none of the above-described payments were “accurately reflected in GSF’s books and records,” the SEC also charged GSF with violating the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions in connection with the above payments.

There is more to the SEC’s complaint.

It is common for an enforcement agency (whether DOJ or SEC) to ask the “where else question.” In other words, if the company was making the above-described payments in country x, where else was the company also making similar payments?

This frequent question causes the company to do a worldwide review of its operations and report back the results to the enforcement agency.

This is why an SEC complaint or DOJ resolution vehicle often contains a laundry list of related allegations towards the end of the resolution vehicle.

Case in point, the SEC’s complaint against GSF.

The SEC alleges that “GSF, through its customs brokers, made a number of additional payments to government officials in Nigeria totaling approximately $82,000.” The complaint gives sparse detail as to these alleged “other suspicious payments.”

Further, the SEC alleges that “GSF, through its customs brokers, also made a number of other payments […] totaling approximately $300,000 to government officials in Gabon, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea.”

These “other suspicious payments” in Nigeria and the Gabon, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea payments were not accurately reflected in GSF’s books and records and GSF failed to devise and maintain an effective system of internal controls to prevent or detect them, thus giving rise to FCPA books and records and internal charges. (These other payments were not included in the FCPA anti-bribery charges).

Based on the entire above-described conduct, and without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, GSF agreed to pay $5.85 million (approximately 3.75 million in disgorgement and a 2.1 million penalty).

Esquenazi Challenges DOJ’s “Foreign Official” Interpretation

Like many FCPA defendants (corporate and individual), Joel Esquenazi allegedly violated the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions by providing something of value, not to a foreign government official, but to an employee of an alleged state-owned or state-controlled enteprise (“SOE”).

In a December 2009 indictment (here), the DOJ alleged that: (i) “Telecommunications D’Haiti (“Haiti Teleco”) was the Republic of Haiti’s state-owned national telecommunications company;” (ii) Robert Antoine and Jean Rene Duperval were, at various times, “the Director of International Relations of Haiti Teleco” and a “foreign official as that term is defined in the FCPA;” and (iii) Esquenazi, and others provides, things of value to these “foreign officials” in order to obtain or retain business in violation of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.

Unlike most FCPA defendants (corporate and individual), including others charged with Esquenazi in the same indictment, Esquenazi is putting the DOJ to its burden of proof, specifically as to the FCPA’s “foreign official” element.

In a November 2nd motion to dismiss the indictment (here), Esquenazi “respectfully moves the Court to dismiss the indictment for failure to state a criminal offense and, in the alternative, for vagueness with respect to who would constitute a ‘foreign official’ within the meaning of the” FCPA.

The motion states as follows.

“The instant indictment fails to state a criminal offense because it alleges that the recipients of the improper payments were ‘foreign officials’ because they were employees of an entity ‘owned’ by the Republic of Haiti. Such a definition of ‘foreign official’ is unsupported by the text or the purpose of the FCPA. The FCPA is a public bribery statute which criminalizes improper payments to officials performing a public function. Mere control or partial control or ownership (or partial ownership) of an entity by a foreign government no more makes that entity’s employees ‘foreign officials’ than control of General Motors by the U.S. Department of the Treasury makes all GM employees U.S. officials.” (emphasis in original).

Alternatively, the motion states as follows.

“… the Court should dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the FCPA’s definition of ‘foreign official,’ which includes employees of any foreign government ‘department, agency or instumentality,’ is unconstitutionally vague. Especially in the context of third country under a coup such as Haiti was under at the relevant time, a vague definition of ‘foreign official’ to include employees of entities solely based on partial or even full government ‘ownership’ of those entities would unfairly sweep nearly all economic activity within the scope of the statute.”

Richard J. Diaz, an attorney from Coral Gables, Florida, filed the motion on behalf of Esquenazi.


For prior entries regarding the Haiti Teleco case see here.

As noted in a prior post, an interesting twist is that Haiti Teleco is currently 60% owned by Viettel, a telecommunications company run by Vietnam’s military (see here).

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes