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The Financial Reform Bill’s Whistleblower Provisions And The FCPA

Section 1504 (see here for the prior post) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is not the only provision of the “financial reform package” that may impact Foreign Corrupt Practices Act compliance and enforcement.

Sections 922-924 of the Act President Obama is expected to sign soon also has the potential to impact FCPA enforcement.

Why?

Because it creates new whistleblower provisions applicable to all securities laws violations and the FCPA is part of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.

This post will cover three topics: an overview of the new whistleblower provisions; some thoughts on whether whistleblower provisions applicable to FCPA enforcement is wise policy; and some thoughts on whether the new whistleblower provisions will impact FCPA enforcement, and if so, to what extent.

Overview

Section 922 amends the Exchange Act by including a new section, 21F, titled “Securities Whistleblower Incentives and Protection.”

Pursuant to the new section:

* any whistleblower (meaning “any individual who provides, or 2 more more individuals acting jointly who provide, information relating to a violation of the securities laws” to the SEC)

* who voluntarily provides original information (meaning information that: (a) “is derived from the independent knowledge or analysis of a whistleblower;” (b) “is not known to the [SEC] from any other source, unless the whistleblower is the original source of the information;” and (c) “is not exclusively derived from an allegation made in a judicial or administrative hearing, in a governmental report, hearing, audit, or investigation, or from the news media, unless the whistleblower is a source of the information”)

* to the SEC that leads “to the successful enforcement” of a “covered judicial or administrative action” (meaning “any judicial or administrative action brought by the [SEC] under the securities laws that results in monetary sanctions exceeding $1,000,000”)

* shall be entitled to an award equal to “not less than 10%” and “not more than 30%” “of what has been collected of the monetary sanctions imposed” in the underlying SEC enforcement action.

Monetary sanctions include “any monies, including penalties, disgorgement, and interest ordered to be paid” by the SEC.

In determining the amount of the award the whistleblower shall receive, the SEC “shall take into consideration: (i) the significance of the information provided by the whisteblower to the success [of the enforcement action]; (ii) the degree of assistance provided by the whistleblower [or the whistleblower’s legal representative] [in the enforcement action]; (iii) “the programmatic interest of the [SEC] in deterring violations of the securities laws by making awards to whistleblowers who provide information that lead to the successful enforcement of such laws; and (iv) such additional relevant factors as the [SEC] may establish by rule or regulation.”

Pursuant to the new whistleblower provisions, a whistleblower may be represented by counsel.

The provisions allow a whistleblower to submit information to the SEC anonymously, however in such a case, the whistleblower “shall be represented by counsel” and the whistleblower’s identity must be disclosed to the SEC before an award is made to such a whistleblower.

Section 922 specifically authorizes a whisteblower to receive an award “regardless of whether any violation of a provision of the securities laws, or a rule or regulation thereunder” underlying the SEC enforcement action “occurred prior to the date of enactment” of the provisions.

As with many whistleblower provisions, Section 922 prohibits employers from directly or indirectly discharging, demoting, suspending, threatening, harassing, or in any other manner discriminating against a whistleblower.

Section 922 also authorizes the SEC to share whistleblower provided information with other U.S. government agencies, including the Attorney General, as well as foreign securities authorities and foreign law enforcement.

In addition to the “original information” limitation discussed above, Section 922 also precludes the following categories of persons from receiving whistleblower awards: (a) various government and law enforcement agency employees; (b) “any whistleblower who is convicted of a criminal violation related to the [enforcement action];” and (c) “any whistleblower who gains the information through the performance of an audit of financial statements required under the securities laws and for whom such submission would be contrary to the requirements of section 10A of the Exchange Act.”

Pursuant to Section 922, the SEC “shall have the authority to issue such rules and regulations as may be necessary or appropriate” to implement the above-described provisions.

Wise Policy As Applied to FCPA Enforcement?

As indicated above, the new whistleblower provisions are applicable to all securities laws violations – not just the FCPA.

While the new provisions may or may not represent needed legislation as applied to non-FCPA securities law violations, I do not believe that the whistleblower provisions represent wise policy as applied to FCPA enforcement.

Why?

Quite simply the FCPA is enforced like no other securities law (at least that I am aware of).

Against the backdrop of little substantive FCPA case law, the FCPA is enforced based largely on government enforcement agency interpretations that have never been accepted by a court. For every FCPA enforcement action alleging conduct that all reasonable minds would agree violates the FCPA, there is seemingly three FCPA enforcement actions alleging conduct that many reasonable minds question whether the conduct even violates the FCPA. Yet, these latter FCPA enforcement actions, notwithstanding the dubious and untested legal theories they are based on, are routinely settled by companies via a resolution vehicle that does not require the company to admit or deny the SEC’s allegations. Quite simply, a settled SEC FCPA enforcement action does not necessarily represent the triumph of the SEC’s legal position over the company’s, but rather reflects a risk-based decision primarily grounded in issues other than facts and the law. It is simply easier and more cost-efficient for a company to settle an SEC FCPA enforcement (notwithstanding whatever dubious and untested legal theory it is based on) than to participate in long, protracted litigation with its principal government regulator. Ask any seasoned FCPA practitioner and, in a candid moment, they will tell you the same thing.

Against this backdrop, is it wise to award a whistleblower 10-30% of the fines, penalties and disgorgement the SEC recovers in an FCPA enforcement action? Is it wise to award a whistleblower in connection with an FCPA enforcement action when the contours of the FCPA largely remain undefined by the courts? It is wise to award a whistleblower when the company, for reasons other than law or fact, does not even mount a legal defense?

I submit that the answer to each of these questions is no.

Impact on FCPA Enforcement?

Much has been written about the whistleblower provisions and the impact on FCPA enforcement – beginning when the provisions were first included in Congressional financial reform bill drafts.

Among other law firms with an FCPA practice or FCPA practitioners writing about the subject, Morgan Lewis stated that the “new law is likely to greatly increase the number of FCPA matters under government investigation” (see here); Fried Frank predicted that the “new whistleblower program may end up playing a key role in identifying and prosecuting violations of the FCPA” (see here); and Richard Cassin on the FCPA Blog guessed that the “bounty program will result in more FCPA cases against corporations” (see here).

I am not so sure and my guess is that the new whistleblower provisions will have a negligible impact on FCPA enforcement.

My reasons?

For starters, the SEC has long had a similar whistleblower program for insider trading. The results? According to a Senate report accompanying the financial reform package, less than $160,000 paid out to five whistleblowers.

In addition, the new whistleblower provisions will only be triggered when a public company issuer is the subject of an FCPA enforcement action. No public company issuer, means no SEC jurisdiction, means no whistleblower awards. There are many more private companies subject to the FCPA than public company issuers and the new whistleblower provisions should not impact this prong of FCPA enforcement which is indeed large. For instance, with a few exceptions, the vast majority of companies indirectly implicated (at least at this point) in the Africa Sting case are all private companies.

Furthermore, and perhaps most important, most FCPA enforcement actions already result from voluntary disclosures. Is the universe of FCPA enforcement actions really going to expand when public company issuers are already largely voluntarily disclosing conduct to the SEC – presumably the same conduct that a whistleblower would disclose?

On this issue, one thing the new whistleblower provisions may do is pit the whistleblower vs. the company in a strange, yet competitive, high-stakes game of “who has the fastest car” to Washington to disclose the conduct. Simply put, if the whistleblower loses, the information he or she discloses will no longer be “original information” and thus no award. If the company loses, the disclosure will no longer be “voluntary” and the hoped for credit under the DOJ’s Principles of Prosecution of Business Organizations and the Sentencing Guidelines will disappear. Against this backdrop, it may be that more conduct will be disclosed that may not even violate the FCPA because the risks of having the “slower car” are to great to pass up. But then again (as detailed in this post) a company voluntarily disclosing conduct that may not even violate the FCPA seems to a norm these days.

If the new whistleblower provisions do indeed have an appreciable impact on FCPA enforcement, the following questions, among others, come to my mind.

Will a law firm with an established FCPA practice start representing whistleblowers on the theory that a contingent fee on a 10-30% cut of an FCPA settlement is more profitable than hourly fee investigations or compliance?

Will a go-to FCPA plaintiffs firm emerge? Which firm/lawyer will it be?

Will the new whistleblower provisions trigger more substantive FCPA case law? How many enforcement actions based on whistleblower information that a company paid for a bottle of wine and opera tickets for an employee of a Chinese state-owned enterprise (ignoring the fact that the company did the same thing for other customers) will it take before a company says – enough of this silliness – will someone please litigate the enforcement agencies “foreign official” interpretation?

Will a “sophisticated” whistleblower with knowledge of the enforcement agencies many dubious and untested legal interpretations use this “gray space” as a point of entry into a much larger potential award on the theory that the “sophisticated” whistleblower is well aware that the enforcement agencies will ask the “where else” question before agreeing to resolve an enforcement action even if the whistleblower is unaware of anything else besides the provided information (which may not even violate the statute) guessing that there is some books or records or internal control issue somewhere in the company that will crop up and raise the award level? (For more on this “where else” question see this prior post).

The new whistleblower provisions provide much to think about and raise the above (and no doubt numerous other) questions.

The best part of the new whistleblower provisions would seem to be that its impact on FCPA enforcement can be monitored and analyzed as Section 922 requires the SEC to submit annual reports to Congress on its whistleblower award program including “the type of cases in which awards were granted.” Section 922 also requires the SEC to “establish a separate office within the [SEC] to administer and enforce” the new whistleblower provisions and requires the SEC Inspector General to conduct a study of the whistleblower provisions.

Giffen Update

When your case has slogged along for over seven years, a two week delay is a minor occurence.

In any event, James Giffen’s court hearing scheduled for last week has been delayed until July 29th reports Bloomberg’s David Glovin in this interesting piece. For more on the Giffen case (see here).

As Glovin notes, the long delay in the Giffen case has spawned “conspiracy theories” and open guessing “whether the U.S. remains committed” to this case.

For starters, Giffen is accused of funneling payments to foreign officials in Kazahstan, including its current President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a U.S. ally who met with President Bush in 2006 “to discuss ways to expand U.S. access to Kazakh oil,” according to Glovin.

Adding to the intrigue, Giffen has claimed, as Glovin notes, that “U.S. intelligence services, including the Central Intelligence Agency, authorized him to pay off Kazakh leaders.” Giffen’s public authority defense has caused most of the delays in the trial as the government has fought to withhold or redact many classified documents.

Over at Harper’s Magazine (see here) Scott Horton asks the question – “why is this case languishing?”

Horton states:

“Over the past decade, I discussed the case many times with Kazakhstani officials and businessmen. They were uniformly intrigued by it and keen to learn the details of their government’s darker practices—details that have steadily emerged from the case. They were also all of the same view: this case would ultimately go nowhere because it was not in the interest of the United States to expose damaging information about President Nazarbayev. Moreover, several offered that the Kazakhstani government fully understood how to ‘spin’ the American system by hiring prominent lobbyists and consultants and engaging the right political figures. It would be able to forestall the case, they assured me. I would reply that the American system didn’t work that way—that our Justice Department was independent and that prosecutorial decisions were insulated from such lobbying. Truth is, I was never myself absolutely convinced of that, and I always felt a bit naïve saying it.”

Horton concludes with this statement:

“Today, Justice Department spokesmen tell Congress that battling corruption in foreign business dealings is a high priority. They argue that corruption is undermining the war on terror, costing taxpayers billions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the handling of the Giffen case provides skeptics with plenty of reason to doubt the sincerity of the Justice Department’s claims. Within the government there are no shortage of career personnel who believe that a properly delivered bribe to a foreign government official is a necessary sort of compromise. A government that winks at corruption in the supposed name of national security may have a hard time prosecuting it in a commercial setting.”

Financial Reform Bill Contains Major Compliance Headache

News coverage today will be extensive as to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act – the financial reform bill – that is expected to be signed by President Obama next week.

But you probably will not see much coverage as to a key “miscellaneous provision” tacked onto the end of the massive bill.

However, to many readers of this blog, this key “miscellaneous provision” is sure to cause much angst – as well it should. And no, I am not talking about the whistleblower provisions included in the financial reform bill that can reward a whistleblower who reports securities laws violations, a provision some are calling the FCPA Whistleblower Bounty Program (see here), even though the provisions are not specific to the FCPA. I will cover these provisions in a future post.

The “miscellaneous provision” is Section 1504.

It is titled “Disclosure of Payments by Resource Extraction Issuers” and it is substantively similar to S.1700, a bad bill that was introduced in the Senate in September 2009. I covered this bill, and its many problems, in this prior post.

As I noted in the prior post, bribery and corruption are bad, but that does not mean that every attempt to curtail bribery and corruption is good.

Case in point is Section 1504 of the financial reform bill.

In short, Section 1504 will substantially increase compliance costs and headaches for numerous companies that already have extensive FCPA compliance policies and procedures by further requiring disclosure of perfectly legal and legitimate payments to foreign governments. Section 1504 is akin to “swatting a fly with a bazooka” and it attempts to legislate an issue that was sensibly put to rest in the mid-1970’s when Congress held extensive hearings on what would become the FCPA.

Section 1504 amends Section 13 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (15 USC 78m) (“Periodical and Other Reports”) by adding a new section “Disclosure of Payments by Resource Extraction Issuers.”

Under this section, “no later than 270 days after enactment of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the [SEC] shall issue final rules that would require:

• a “Resource Extraction Issuer” (a defined term which means an issuer that:(i) is required to file an annual report with the Commission; and (ii) engages in the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals”)

• to include in its annual report

• “information relating to any payment”

• made by the issuer, “a subsidiary” of the issuer, “or any entity under the control of the issuer”

• to a “foreign government” (a defined term which means a “foreign government, a department, agency, or instrumentality of a foreign government, or a company owned by a foreign government, as determined by the Commission”) or the “Federal Government”

• for “the purpose of the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals.”

Although it is possible that the final SEC rules may shed more light on the above provisions, at this point not much about Section 1504 is clear.

Therein lies the problem.

Not sure, if your company is a “Resource Extraction Issuer” because you are unclear what “commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals” means?

No problem, Section 1504 provides this crystal clear definition – “the term ‘commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals’ includes exploration, extraction, processing, export and other significant actions relating to oil, natural gas, or minerals, or the acquisition of a license for any such activity, as determined by the [SEC]. “

In other words, if you are an issuer, and you engage in “significant actions relating to oil, natural gas, or minerals” you just may have some huge, new reporting / disclosure requirements imposed on you!

Still confused? Join the club.

Is selling equipment to a core resource extraction company, which is then used to explore for oil, natural gas, or minerals a “significant action relating to oil, natural gas, or minerals?” Is selling exploration software to a core resource extraction company, which is then used to explore for oil, natural gas, or minerals a “significant action relating to oil, natural gas, or minerals?”

What is a payment?

That’s an easy one and Section 1504 provides this crystal clear definition – the term payment means:

(i) a payment that is (I) made to further commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals; and (II) not de minimis; and

(ii) includes taxes, royalties, fees (including license fees), production entitlements, bonuses, and other material benefits, that the Commission […] determines are part of the commonly recognized revenue stream for the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals.”

Ignoring for the moment the imperfect and imprecise definition of “Resource Extraction Issuer,” it is one thing to require such issuers to disclose royalties paid to a foreign government, and if that is viewed as providing transparency and eliminating bribery and corruption (however dubious that view may be), well then perhaps Section 1504 is a good piece of legislation.

But Section 1504 seeks disclosure and reporting of much, much more and could conceivably require disclosure of every single dollar a “Resource Extraction Issuer” makes to a “foreign government, a department, agency, or instrumentality of a foreign government, or a company owned by a foreign government, as determined by the Commission” for the “purpose of the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals.”

Here is the real kicker though.

Section 1504 requires all payments (meeting the above definitions – if indeed you can figure out what those definitions are) to be disclosed, including perfectly legitimate and legal payments.

To those who supported Section 1504, I’ve got this to say – “we’ve been down this road before.”

It is called the FCPA (and the various versions of the statute before it was enacted). Years of congressional hearings were had as to this very same disclosure issue and we don’t need to repeat this exercise.

Here is some background.

The FCPA as enacted in 1977 contained (and still contains) an outright prohibition on improper payments to “foreign officials” to obtain or retain business (the anti-bribery provisions) as well as books and records and internal control provisions – but not disclosure provisions.

The original versions of what became the “FCPA” (i.e. the “Foreign Payments Disclosure Act” and other similar bills) started out with disclosure provisions, including provisions requiring all U.S. companies to disclose all payments over $1,000 to any foreign agent or consultant and any and all other payments made in connection with foreign government business.

As to these disclosure provisions, many people, including, most notably Senator Proxmire (D-WI – a Congressional leader on what would become the FCPA), were concerned that the disclosure obligations were too vague to enforce and would require the disclosure of thousands of payments that were perfectly legal and legitimate.

Proxmire said during congressional hearings, “I would think they [the corporations subject to the disclosure requirements] would want some certainty. They want to know what they have to report and what they don’t have to report. They don’t want to guess and then find themselves in deep trouble because they guessed wrong.”

The final House Report (see here) on what would become the FCPA is even more clear. It states (when discussing the various disclosure provisions previously debated, but rejected):

“Most disclosure proposals would require U.S. corporations doing business abroad to report all foreign payments including perfectly legal payments such as for promotional purposes and for sales commissions. A disclosure scheme, unlike outright prohibition, would require U.S. corporations to contend not only with an additional bureaucratic overlay but also with massive paperwork requirements.”

The words of the late Senator Proxmire and the sensible conclusion reflected in the House Report are equally applicable to Section 1504.

Section 1504 (while however noble its intended purpose) is akin to “swatting a fly with a bazooka.”

The FCPA already criminalizes improper payments made to the “foreign government” recipients targeted in Section 1504 to the extent those payments are made to “obtain or retain business.”

Do we really now need a law that requires “Resource Extraction Issuers” to disclose all such payments, even perfectly legitimate and legal payments?

In passing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Congress apparently said yes to this question. However, with any bill of this magnitude, it is likely that certain members of Congress did not even know what they were voting for or, if they did, were willing to accept undesirable “miscellaneous provisions” to ensure overall passage. In fact, what is now Section 1504 never made it “out of committee” since being introduced in September 2009. A similar bill was also introduced in 2008, but likewise went nowhere.

That is all water under the bridge as they say, because Section 1504 is likely soon to become law.

China, China and More China

China.

It is a country often talked about on these pages.

Not surprising given the extent to which companies subject to the FCPA have flocked to this growth market in recent years.

Not surprising given that most companies operating in China do so through joint ventures or third parties. Even if a company does business in China through a subsidiary, oversight and control of the subsidiary’s employees and agents is often difficult.

Not surprising given the number of Chinese “foreign officials” because the enforcement agencies deem all employees of state-owned or state-controlled enterprises to be “foreign officials.” [On this issue, an in-house attorney recently shared with me that during training sessions the attorney tells company employees that there are 1.3 billion “foreign officials” that could be the recipient of a bribe in China. A bit of an exaggeration, but no doubt you get the point.]

I’ve written about China specific issues, including this guest post for the China Law Blog and more extensively here “The Unique Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Challenges of Doing Business in China.”

With many FCPA enforcement inquiries focused on China and with no expected slowdown in China business activity, China issues remain at the forefront of much of what is covered on these pages.

Against this backdrop, two recent practitioner pieces caught my eye.

The first piece (here) is titled “FCPA Compliance in China and the Gifts and Hospitality Challenge” and is authored by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher attorneys Joseph Warin, Michael Diamant and Jill M. Pfenning.

Below is a short summary of the article.

“This Article discusses the anti-corruption enforcement trends confronting business practices in China, addresses the legal risks posed by the Chinese gift and hospitality culture, and presents suggestions for structuring corporate anti-corruption compliance programs to mitigate these risks. To contextualize law enforcement’s current focus on bribery and other economic crime in China, Part I provides an introduction to the country’s pervasive corruption climate, with a brief summary of recent enforcement actions by both Chinese and U.S. authorities. Turning to the problem of business courtesies, Part II provides background on the unique Chinese gift-giving culture and briefly discusses the FCPA, exploring within the statute’s anti-bribery framework the issue of business courtesy expenditures. Finally, Part III gives advice on how to tailor the gifts and hospitality component of an organization’s compliance program to address this risk in China.”

The second piece (here) is titled “The Chinese Puzzle Box: the Conundrum of
Distinguishing a Permissible Gift from an Illegal Bribe” and is authored by Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker attorneys Leslie Ligorner and Barbara Tsai.

Of particular interest is the section on Chinese state-owned entities and China corruption laws. Among other things, the article notes that many SOE employees “behave like private players in commercial playing fields and not in the manner traditionally associated with the behavior of government officials” and that China law “does not specifically include employees of SOEs within the definition of public officials.”

Also catching my eye was this recent Businessweek piece by Dexter Roberts titled “The Higher Costs of Bribery in China.”

Some China reading material to keep you occupied until the next China-related post.

Former SEC FCPA Enforcement Attorney Critical of SEC’s Recent Veraz Networks Inc. Enforcement Action

Richard Grime is a former high-ranking SEC FCPA enforcement attorney. While at the SEC, Grime “played a prominent role in the Commission’s FCPA program, spoke at FCPA conferences, and participated or supervised many of the Commission’s FCPA cases. He also worked closely with the Department of Justice on countless parallel investigations.” (See here).

Grime is currently a partner at O’Melveny & Myers LLP and is listed as the lead author of this recent release regarding the SEC’s recent enforcement action against Veraz Networks Inc.

The Veraz enforcement action was discussed in this prior post. Among other things, I noted in the post that the Veraz enforcement action contributes to several pillars of what I have been calling the facade of FCPA enforcement. In short, one pillar is the frequency in which FCPA enforcement actions are resolved based on uninformative, bare-bones, and legal conclusory statements of facts or allegations. Check as to the Veraz enforcement action, I stated. Another pillar discussed is the increasing and alarming trend of FCPA enforcement actions being resolved based on tenuous, dubious and untested legal theories. Check as to the Veraz enforcement action, I stated given that the enforcement action (like so many) is based on the SEC’s theory, never accepted by a court, that employees of state-owned or state-controlled enterprises are “foreign officials” under the FCPA.

Grime and his co-authors strike the same themes in the release.

Among other things, Grime and his co-authors state that the SEC “complaint discloses little information about the specifics of the alleged misconduct” and “the complaint is remarkably ambiguous about the substance of the alleged violations.”

According to Grime and his co-authors:

“The complaint refers to ‘gifts,’ ‘illicit payments,’ and ‘questionable expenses,’ but provides little useful insight as to the surrounding circumstances or even the value of some of the alleged gifts and payments. Similarly, the complaint does not state how the company recorded the payments or how the records were inaccurate.”

Why does this matter?

As Grime and his co-authors note: “given that there are few FCPA court opinions, the SEC should seek through these settled complaints to fully explain the facts underlying its actions and how those facts violate the law.”

As to the enforcement agencies’ interpretation of the key “foreign official” element, Grime and his co-authors state as follows:

“Like numerous prior cases, the SEC alleges that employees of foreign government-controlled companies are foreign ‘government officials.’ Until a court decides otherwise, the SEC and the Department of Justice will continue to broadly interpret the FCPA and companies will need to diligence the ownership and control of commercial organizations across the world to avoid running afoul of the FCPA.”

Grime and his co-authors also dish up this criticism of the Veraz enforcement action:

“By punishing Veraz for such conduct, the SEC provides little incentive for a company to voluntarily disclose misconduct, cooperate, and thereby seek leniency. It is unstated whether Veraz cooperated with the SEC investigation, but the company did disclose that it spent $3 million on the investigation. For that sum, the company presumably assisted the SEC’s investigation, but no credit (or explanation for a lack of credit) is given. The specter that even small payments will be prosecuted may drive companies to conclude that remediation without the government’s involvement is the wiser approach.”

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