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FCPA Aches and “Payne”s

Helmerich & Payne Inc. (“H&P”) is an international drilling contractor headquartered in Tulsa. It has land and offshore operations in South America. To operate in that region, H&P must import and export equipment and materials. According to the DOJ and SEC, therein lies the problem.

H&P recently settled a DOJ and SEC FCPA enforcement action based on the conduct of two wholly-owned second tier subsidiaries, Helmerich & Payne (Argentina) Drilling Company (“H&P Argentina”) and Helmerich & Payne de Venezuela, C.A. (“H&P Venezuela”).

Pursuant to a two-year DOJ non-prosecution agreement, H&P acknowledged responsibility for the conduct of H&P Argentina and H&P Venezuela in making various improper payments to officials of the Argentine and Venezuelan customs services. According to a DOJ release (see here), the payments “were made in order to import and export goods that were not within regulations, to import good that could not lawfully be imported, and to evade higher duties and taxes on the goods.” Pursuant to the agreement, H&P will pay a $1 million penalty.

In a parallel action, H&P agreed to an SEC settlement under which it agreed to pay approximately $375,000. The SEC cease-and-desist order (“Order”) (see here) finds that: (i) “H&P Argentina paid Argentine customs officials approximately $166,000 to permit the importation and exportation of equipment and materials without required certifications, to expedite the importation of equipment and materials, and to allow the importation of materials that could not imported under Argentine law; and (ii) “H&P Venezuela paid Venezuelan customs officials approximately 19,673 either to permit the importation and exportation of equipment and materials that were not in compliance with Venezuelan importation and exportation regulations or to secure a partial inspection, rather than a full inspection, of the goods being imported.”

According to the Order, the payments were “falsely, or at least misleadingly” described as “additional assessments,” “extra costs,” “extraordinary expenses,” “urgent processing,” “urgent dispatch,” or “customs processing.” The SEC found that as a result of the payments, H&P avoided approximately $320,000 in expenses it would have otherwise incurred had it properly imported and exported the equipment and materials. The subsidiaries’ financial results were included in H&P’s filings with the SEC and, based on the above conduct, the SEC found that H&P violated the FCPA books and records and internal control provisions.

The Order is silent as to H&P’s knowledge of or involvement in the above described payments.

No doubt H&P received an SEC cease and desist order (the least harsh SEC sanction) and a DOJ non-prosecution agreement because of its conduct upon learning of the payments. As described in the Order, during an FCPA training session, an employee voluntarily disclosed some potentially problematic payments, through a customs broker, in Argentina to customs officials. Thereafter, H&P hired FCPA counsel, conducted an internal investigation, and voluntarily reported the conduct at issue to the government.

According to H&P’s Form 8-K filed on July 30, 2009 (see here), “[t]here are no criminal charges involved in the settlements and disciplinary action has been taken by the company with respect to certain employees involved in the matter, including in some cases, termination of employment.” The 8-K also notes that both settlements “recognize the company’s voluntary disclosure, cooperation with both agencies, and its proactive remedial efforts.”

The FCPA … It’s Not Just For Americans

In 1998, the FCPA’s antibribery provisions were amended to, among other things, broaden the jurisdictional reach of the statute to prohibit “any person” “while in the territory of the U.S.” from making improper payments through “use of the mails or any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce” or from doing “any other act in furtherance” of an improper payment. (see 15 USC 78dd-3(a)). “Any person” is generally defined to include any person other than a U.S. national or any business organization organized under the laws of a foreign nation. (see 15 USC 78dd-3(f)).

Thus, since 1998, and contrary to a still widely-held misperception, foreign nationals can be subject to the FCPA.

Ousama Naaman apparently did not get the memo as the DOJ recently unsealed a criminal indictment charging him with violating the FCPA and conspiracy to violate the FCPA and commit wire fraud. According to a DOJ release (see here) Naaman (a Canadian citizen), acting on behalf of a U.S. public chemical company and its subsidiary, allegedly offered and paid kickbacks to the Iraqi government on five contracts under the United Nations Oil for Food Program. In addition, the indictment alleges that Naaman paid $150,000 on behalf of a U.S. company to Iraqi Ministry of Oil officials to keep a competing product out of the Iraqi market.

This is certainly not the first time a foreign national has been subject to an FCPA enforcement action. Other recent examples include Jeffrey Tesler and Wojciech Chodan (both U.K. citizens criminally indicted for their roles in the KBR / Halliburton bribery scheme)(see here) and Chrisitan Sapsizian (a French citizen who pleaded guilty to violating the FCPA for his role in a scheme to bribe Costa Rican foreign officials) (see here).

Gray Sky Over Nature’s Sunshine As It Settles FCPA Enforcement Action

Companies have varying degrees of FCPA risks. Generally, at the high-end of the spectrum is a resource extraction company operating in a third-world country with an unstable government. At the low-end of the spectrum, it would seem, is a Utah-based company which got its start as a small family business selling encapsulated cayenne and other herbs to health food stores.

Yet, as evidenced by the SEC’s recent FCPA enforcement action against Nature’s Sunshine Products, Inc. (“NSP”), even a company with a relatively low FCPA risk profile can run afoul of the FCPA.

As described in the SEC’s Litigation Release (see here) NSP, without admitting or denying the allegations in an SEC civil complaint, agreed to pay a $600,000 civil penalty to resolve allegations that it violated (among other securities laws – see below) the FCPA’s anti-bribery, books and records, and internal control provisions.

According to the SEC complaint (see here), Brazil was NSP’s largest foreign market, but in approximately 2000, the Brazilian governmental agency responsible for regulating nutritional products reclassified certain of NSP’s products as medicines, thus requiring a registration process prior to import and sale of the products in Brazil. As alleged in the SEC complaint, NSP’s wholly-owned subsidiary in Brazil (“NSP Brazil”) circumvented the registration process by making approximately $1 million in cash payments to customs brokers, some of which was later used to pay Brazilian customs officials so that they would allow NSP Brazil to import unregistered product into Brazil. According to the SEC, these payments were booked by NSP Brazil as “importation advances,” but without supporting documentation. Thereafter, as alleged by the SEC, NSP Brazil purchased fictitious supporting documentation for the payments.

As suggested above, in addition to the FCPA charges, the SEC complaint also charges other securities laws violations not typically found in an FCPA enforcement action such as fraud in connection with the purchase and sale of securities and false filings with the SEC. These other charges appear to be based on the allegation that NSP, in a prior Form 10-K filing with the SEC, stated that NSP Brazil experienced a significant decline in sales “due to import regulations imposed by the Brazilian government” but which failed to disclose any material information related to the above-mentioned cash payments.

Also charged in the SEC complaint were Douglas Faggioli, the current President and Chief Executive Officer of NSP and a member of its board of directors who during the relevant time period was NSP’s Chief Operating Officer, and Craig Huff, NSP’s former CFO. The complaint alleges that Faggioli and Huff, as “control persons” of NSP, violated the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions. In language that is sure to induce a cold sweat for any executive, the SEC generally alleged that both Faggioli and Huff had “supervisory responsibilities” over NSP’s senior management and policies, yet as “control persons,” “failed to make and keep books, records, and accounts, which in reasonable detail, accurately and fairly reflected the transactions of NSP” and failed to devise and maintain an adequate system of internal accounting controls. Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Faggioli and Huff each agreed to pay a $25,000 civil penalty.

According to an NSP press release (see here) no “current NSP officers, directors, or employees are alleged to have participated in or had knowledge of any of the improper conduct” alleged in the SEC complaint. The press release also notes that NSP voluntarily disclosed the conduct at issue to both the SEC and the DOJ and fully cooperated in the government’s investigation. The press release also states that NSP “anticipates no action by the DOJ” as to the disclosed conduct.

The NSP FCPA enforcement action, and other such enforcement actions against traditionally low FCPA risk companies, should serve notice to all that no industry is immune from FCPA scrutiny.

July Ends With a Bang!

Fireworks don’t just happen in early July.

In the past 24 hours, four separate FCPA enforcement actions have been announced: Helmerich & Payne, Inc., Nature’s Sunshine Products, Inc. and its CEO Douglas Faggioli and former CFO Craig Huff, Control Components, Inc., and Canadian national Ousama Naaman.

Much more to follow in the coming days …

Avery Dennison Settles FCPA Matter – Is There a Strict Liability Standard for FCPA Books and Records and Internal Controls Violations?

The FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions, as written, generally state where an issuer “holds 50 per[cent] or less of the voting power with respect to a domestic or foreign firm” the books and records and internal control provisions “require only that the issuer proceed in good faith to use its influence, to the extent reasonable under the issuer’s circumstances, to cause such domestic or foreign firm to devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls…” See 15 USC 78m(b)(6). The section further notes that “[s]uch circumstances include the relative degree of the issuer’s ownership of the domestic or foreign firm and the laws and practices governing the business operations of the country in which such firm is located. An issuer which demonstrates good faith efforts to use such influence shall be conclusively presumed to have complied with the requirements of [the books and records and internal control provisions].” Id.

As readers of this blog are perhaps keenly aware – the FCPA, as written, and the FCPA, as enforced, are sometimes two different things.

Such is the case with the SEC’s apparent position that issuers are liable (in a way that closely resembles strict liability) for any record keeping or internal control deficiency of any entity (no matter how remotely related to the issuer) in its corporate hierarchy. Although it is sometimes difficult to draw conclusions from negotiated settlement documents, the recent FCPA enforcement action against Avery Dennison Corporation would seem on-point. (See here for the SEC Cease- and-Desist Order, here for the SEC Litigation Release).

“Big picture,” and as noted in the Litigation Release, the SEC filed a settled civil complaint against Avery Dennison (a California-based manufacturer of self-adhesive materials, offices products, labels, and graphics imaging media) (“Avery”), charging Avery with violations of the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions. The SEC also issued an administrative cease-and-desist order (“Order”) finding that Avery violated these same provisions.

The alleged violations principally involve Avery (China) Co. Ltd. (“Avery China”), an “indirect subsidiary” of Avery. I wish I knew how to post a flow-chart in this forum, because to connect Avery to Avery China, a flow-chart would indeed be useful. In any event, here is the narrative version as found in para 6 of the Order:

“Avery China is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Avery headquartered in Shanghai, China. It is incorporated under the laws of China and wholly-owned by Avery Dennison Hong Kong BV, which is in turn wholly owned by Avery Dennison Group Danmark ApS, which is in turn wholly owned by Avery Dennison Corporation. The Reflective Division is part of Avery China and is currently part of Avery’s Graphics Division. Avery China is overseen by Avery’s Asia Pacific Group, an unincorporated group based in Hong Kong within the Avery Dennison Hong Kong BV entity.”

As set forth in the Order, the SEC found that: “Avery China’s Reflective Division paid or authorized the payments of several kickbacks, sightseeing trips, and gifts to Chinese government officials” with “the purpose and effect of improperly influencing decisions by foreign officials to assist Avery China to obtain or retain business.” (See para. 2).

The SEC also found that “after Avery acquired a company in June 2007, employees of the acquired company continued their pre-acquisition practice of making illegal petty cash payments to customs or other officials in several foreign countries.” (See para. 3). These findings, which relate to payments to customs officials in Indonesia and Pakistan, and China, are interesting as well from the standpoint that the Order, at various times, refers to these payments as “certain potential [FCPA] violations” (para. 1), “illegal” (para. 3, 16 and 17), “possible improper payments” (para. 15), and “illicit” (para. 17).

The Order is silent as to Avery’s participation in, or knowledge of, any of this conduct.

Yet the SEC found that “Avery failed to accurately record these payments and gifts in the company’s books and records, and failed to implement or maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to detect and prevent such illegal payments or promises of illegal payments.” (See para. 4).

More specifically, the SEC found that:

“Avery’s books, records, and accounts did not properly reflect the illicit payments, sightseeing trips and gifts that Avery China made or provided to government officials, and the illicit payments to customs officials in several countries by employees of the acquired subsidiaries. As a result, Avery violated the [the books and records provisions]” (para. 19).

“Avery also failed to devise or maintain sufficient internal controls to provide reasonable assurance that Avery China and the acquired subsidiaries complied with the FCPA and that payments, gifts or sightseeing expenses they provided to foreign officials were accurately reflected on its books and records. As a result Avery violated [the internal control provisions]” (para 20).

Avery agreed to settle the matter by paying approximately $520,000 (disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and a civil penalty) and agreeing to cease and desist from future violations of the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions.

Notwithstanding 15 USC 78m(b)(6), this sure seems like a strict liability standard for multinational issuers. So long as this is the SEC’s position, the FCPA compliance message is clear – multinational issuers will be held responsible for the conduct of all entities within its corporate hierarchy (no matter how remote or indirect) which could potentially implicate the FCPA. For this reason, corporate leaders are wise to fully implement FCPA compliance policies and procedures and audit protocols throughout the entire corporate hierarchy.

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