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SEC Brings FCPA Enforcement Action Against Former Executive Of Harris Corp’s Dissolved Chinese Subsidiary

Ping

As highlighted in this prior post, in April 2011 Harris Corporation completed an acquisition of Carefx and in the process acquired its subsidiaries including Carefx China. In connection with its integration activities and the subsequent audit of the financials of the Carefx China operations, Harris Corp. became aware that certain entertainment, travel and other expenses in connection with the Carefx China operations may have been incurred or recorded improperly. In response, Harris Corp. voluntarily disclosed to the DOJ and SEC.

As highlighted in this prior post, a few months ago Harris Corp. disclosed that “during the second quarter of fiscal 2016, the DOJ advised us that they have determined not to take any action against us related to this matter.” The same disclosure stated that the company is “continuing to cooperate with the SEC regarding its investigation.”

In the meantime, earlier this week the SEC announced this administrative action finding that Jun Ping Zhang (pictured – a U.S. citizen and former Chairman and CEO of CareFx China who was terminated in mid-2012) violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Zhang is currently Senior Vice President, Product Innovation and Chief Technology Officer at MedeAnalytics. (See also here).

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Current CEO Of LAN Airlines Resolves SEC FCPA Enforcement Action Based On A Payment He Authorized 10 Years Ago In Connection With A Labor Dispute

PlazaLast week was busy for SEC Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement.

First, there was the $3.9 million enforcement action against SAP (see here).

Then, there was the $12.8 million enforcement action against SciClone Pharmaceuticals (see here).

And then, as highlighted in this post, there was an individual action against Ignacio Cueto Plaza, the current CEO of LAN Airlines (pictured at left).

The Cueto enforcement action was noteworthy in at least five respects.

  • First, it was a rare SEC individual FCPA enforcement action (the Cueto action represents only the fourth core individual action since April 2012).
  • Second, it was an FCPA enforcement action against a CEO (rarely do individual FCPA enforcement actions involve an executive officer).
  • Third, it was an FCPA enforcement action against an existing CEO (most individual FCPA enforcement involve former employees because the company, as part of its remedial measures, terminates the employee found to be in violation of the FCPA).
  • Fourth, even though most FCPA enforcement actions are based on “old” conduct, a 2016 enforcement action based on 2006 conduct stretches the credibility of the SEC’s enforcement program to a new level, coupled with the fact that a U.S. law enforcement agency brought an enforcement action against a Chilean citizen based on alleged improper conduct in Argentina.
  • Fifth, most FCPA enforcement actions, even those that “only” charge or find FCPA books and records and internal controls violations, are still based on the alleged “foreign officials.” In this regard, the Cueto enforcement action is vague whether the SEC viewed the Argentine “union officials” to be “foreign officials” under the FCPA. If the SEC did view the “union officials” as such, it stretches the definition of “foreign official” even further. If the SEC did not view the “union officials” as foreign officials, the Cueto action represents a rare enforcement action concerning improper booking and insufficient internal controls concerning an instance of commercial bribery.

In this administrative action, the SEC found as follows.

“In 2006 and 2007, Ignacio Cueto Plaza (“Cueto”), the CEO of LAN Airlines S.A. (“LAN”), authorized $1.15 million in improper payments to a third party consultant in Argentina in connection with LAN’s attempts to settle disputes on wages and other work conditions between LAN Argentina S.A. (“LAN Argentina”), a subsidiary of LAN, and its employees. At the time, Cueto understood that it was possible the consultant would pass some portion of the $1.15 million to union officials in Argentina. The payments were made pursuant to an unsigned consulting agreement that purported to provide services that Cueto understood would not occur. Cueto authorized subordinates to make the payments that were improperly booked in the Company’s books and records, which circumvented LAN’s internal accounting controls.”

Cueto is described as follows.

” [A] Chilean citizen and, since 2012, has been CEO of LAN. From 1995 to 1998, Cueto served as President of LAN Cargo, a LAN subsidiary located in Miami, Florida. He served on the Board of Directors of LAN from 1995 to 1997. From 1999 to 2005, Cueto was CEO of LAN’s passenger airline business. In 2005, Cueto became President and COO of LAN Airlines S.A. He remained in that position until June of 2012, when LAN merged with Brazilian Airline TAM, S.A. (“TAM”) and became LATAM Airlines Group S.A. (“LATAM”). Cueto remains CEO of LAN, which is now part of LATAM.”

The enforcement action focuses the “obstacles that LAN might face in trying to enter the Argentine airline market.” Under the heading “LAN Faces Major Issues Upon Entering the Argentine Market,” the order states:

“Upon entering the Argentine passenger airline market LAN immediately faced several major issues impacting its viability and began losing money. First, it needed to meet demands from labor unions representing the employees acquired from LAFSA and Southern Winds. Second, LAN needed majority ownership of its Argentine subsidiary, and therefore had to persuade the Argentine government to change its existing law on foreign ownership of domestic airlines and to increase caps on airfares. Third, LAN needed regulatory authorization to operate various flight routes, both domestically and internationally, in Argentina. Since the Argentine passenger airline market was heavily regulated by the government, particularly officials within the Department of Transportation who had close ties to the unions, LAN sought help from the government officials with each of these issues.

In early 2006, the consultant again contacted the Vice President of Business Development and offered to assist LAN in Argentina. By this time, the consultant was a government official in the Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services, Department of Transportation. On January 31, 2005, the Secretary of Transportation appointed the consultant as a Cabinet Advisor “ad-honorem.”

LAN executives, including Cueto, knew that for LAN Argentina to become profitable it would need an infusion of cash. LAN asked Argentine government officials to liberalize the laws on foreign ownership so that LAN could own a majority share of LAN Argentina and sought government authorization to raise regulated airfares. On or about August 8, 2006, the President of Argentina signed a Decree that enabled LAN to become a majority owner of LAN Argentina and allowed LAN to raise airfares by 20%. LAN Argentina was also awarded critical additional flight routes by the Transportation Secretary.”

Under the heading “LAN Encounters Problems with the Unions in Argentina,” the order states:

“As part of the deal that LAN reached with the Argentine government in March 2005, LAN was required to hire between six and eight hundred employees from the defunct LAFSA and Southern Winds airlines. LAN was bound by the existing bargaining agreements between LAFSA, Southern Winds and the labor unions.

There were five unions representing airline employees in Argentina. They included the grounds crew union, the Asociación del Personal Aeronáutico (APA), the pilots’ union, the Asociación de Pilotos de Lineas Aereas (APLA), the mechanics’ union, Asociacion del Personal Técnico Aeronáutico (APTA), the flight attendants’ union, Asociación de Tripulantes de Cabina de Pasajeros de Empresas Aerocomerciales (ATCPEA), and the supervisors’ union, Unión del Personal Superior y Profesional de Empresas Aerocomerciales (UPSA).

All of the unions were powerful and unafraid to make demands on LAN. They sought wage increases and additional benefits, and used the terms of their respective Collective Bargaining Agreements (“CBAs”) as leverage. These labor agreements contained provisions that LAN believed were unfavorable, such as restrictions on the hours employees could work and their work locations.

The mechanics’ union, the flight attendants’ union and the supervisors’ union each had a single-function rule contained in their CBAs. The single-function rule was a provision that limited workers from performing more than one work function at a time for LAN. The single-function rule was loosely interpreted and for the most part not enforced by the unions. Had it been enforced, the single-function rule would have required LAN to double its work force and would have seriously imperiled LAN’s ability to continue its operations in Argentina.

Around 2006 the unions began campaigning for wage increases. The unions threatened to enforce the single-function rule unless LAN Argentina agreed to a substantial wage increase. LAN’s management, including Cueto, attempted to negotiate on the wage issues but made no progress and things worsened over time. Eventually there were work stoppages and slowdowns on the part of the workforce, including strikes involving the pilots’ and the mechanics’ unions.”

Under the heading “Cueto Approves Improper Payments,” the order states:

“Beginning in the summer of 2006, the consultant supplied LAN executives with information on how to deal with specific union members and the unions in general. Eventually, the consultant offered to negotiate directly with the unions on LAN’s behalf, making it clear that he would expect compensation for such negotiations, and that payments would be made to third parties who had influence over the unions. After his staff informed Cueto that the consultant was well connected with the unions and could effectively negotiate an agreement with union officials, Cueto approved the retention of the consultant.

During the summer of 2006, Cueto approved payments totaling $1,150,000 to the consultant in connection with LAN’s attempts to settle disputes on wages and other work conditions with the unions. At the time, Cueto understood that it was possible the consultant would pass some portion of the $1.15 million to union officials in Argentina. Cueto approved the payments to get the unions to abandon their threats to enforce the single-function rule and to get them to accept a wage increase lower than the amount asked for in negotiations. LAN and the consultant agreed that LAN would make the payment to a company controlled by the consultant in Argentina. In 2006, LAN did not have a policy requiring that due diligence be performed on consultants, and neither Cueto nor LAN conducted any due diligence on the consultant or any of his related entities.

Around August 2006, Cueto’s staff informed him that the consultant had reached an oral agreement to settle the wage dispute with the mechanics’ union on LAN’s behalf. Although the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement with the mechanics’ union would remain unchanged, Cueto understood that the union would orally agree not to seek enforcement of the single-function rule for a period of four years in exchange for a wage increase of approximately 6 15% of salary. The wage increase of approximately 15% was lower than the amount originally sought by the mechanics’ union.

Around August 2006, the flight attendants’ and supervisors’ unions both agreed to accept wage increases of approximately 15% and 10% respectively of salaries. The amounts were lower than the amounts originally sought by each union.”

Under the heading, “Cueto Authorized Improper Payments That Were Not Accurately and Fairly Feflected on LAN’s Books and Records,” the order states:

“Cueto directed subordinates to make the improper payments. The improper payments authorized by Cueto were improperly described in the books and records as “other debtors” costs in a LAN subsidiary that had no role in LAN’s argentine business.”

Under the heading, “Cueto Caused LAN’s Internal Accounting Control Failure,” the order states:

“As President and Chief Operating Officer of LAN, Cueto, along with others, was responsible for devising and maintaining compliance with internal accounting controls at LAN. Cueto did not follow the company’s existing internal accounting controls when he authorized the payment of $1,150,000 to the consultant’s company and failed to prevent the payment of $58,000 to another company owned by consultant’s son and wife. Cueto received and approved the sham contract for the consultant’s company to provide consulting services to LAN, knowing that such services would never be provided. Cueto also authorized payment of invoices from the consultant’s company that contained a description of services listed on the invoices that was false.”

Based on the above findings, the order finds that Cueto caused books and records and internal controls violations by LAN and that Cueto also knowingly circumvented or knowingly failed to implement a system of internal accounting controls or knowingly falsified book, record or account and that Cueto also violated falsified or cause to be falsified, a book, record, or account.

Under the heading “Remedial Actions and Undertakings,” the order states:

“As the CEO of LAN, which is now a division of LATAM, Cueto is subject to LATAM’s enhanced compliance structure and internal accounting controls. Cueto is required to certify compliance with LATAM’s new Code of Conduct that was adopted in 2013, as well as other internal corporate policies, including an Anti-Corruption Guide, a Gifts, Travel, Hospitality and Entertainment Policy, an Escalation Policy, and Procurement and Payment policies.

Cueto has attended the Corporate Governance Training provided by the LATAM Chief Compliance Officer and has provided a certification confirming acknowledgement of the Code of Conduct, the relevant applicable regulations, as well as the Company policies. Cueto has also executed an amendment to his employment agreement whereby Respondent acknowledges having been informed regarding the LATAM Manual for the Prevention of Corruption, among other matters, and his responsibilities to perform his duties with the highest ethical standards, in compliance with all Company Policies and Procedures.

[…]

Cueto also undertakes to attend all anti-corruption training sessions required for senior executives at LAN. These sessions will include, but are not limited to, both live and online anti-corruption trainings to be completed on at least an annual basis and according to LAN’s Compliance Department’s training schedule. These sessions will include, in addition to anticorruption laws and regulations, such as the FCPA, training on anti-trust laws, the Company’s Code of Conduct and all other applicable policies that each LAN employee must follow. After the conclusion of each session Cueto will sign the appropriate documentation that acknowledges his attendance and understanding of the topics presented. Should LAN modify the schedule of such  training sessions for any reason, Cueto will, so long as he is a senior executive of LAN, attend a comparable anti-corruption session on an annual basis and complete appropriate documentation attesting to his attendance and the session’s contents.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, Cueto agreed to cease and desist from future legal violations and agreed to pay a $75,000 civil penalty.

Cueto was represented by Richard Grime (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher –  a former Assistant Director of Enforcement at the SEC heavily involved in FCPA enforcement). Commenting generally on the SEC’s evolving and expansive FCPA enforcement theories, Grime recently stated:

“It’s not that you couldn’t intellectually [conceive of] the violation. It’s that the government is sort of probing every area where there is an interaction with government officials and then working backwards from there to see if there is a violation, as opposed to starting out with the statute … and what it prohibits.”

DOJ Brings First FCPA Enforcement Action Of 2015

European Bank

February 2014 post foreshadowed a future FCPA enforcement action against Dmitrij Harder in connection with a notable Third Circuit grand jury proceeding.

Yesterday, the DOJ announced the enforcement action against Harder, the former owner and President of Chestnut Consulting Group Inc. and Chestnut Consulting Group Co. (together “Chestnut Group”), for allegedly bribing an official with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The enforcement action is notable in that it invokes the rarely used “public international organization” prong of the FCPA’s “foreign official” element.

In the indictment, Harder is described as “Russian national, naturalized German citizen and permanent resident alien of the United States” who purportedly used the Chestnut Group entities to “provide, among other things, consulting services to companies seeking financing from multilateral development banks.”

According to the indictment:

“Between in or around 2007 through in or around 2009, Harder engaged in a scheme to pay approximately $3.5 million in bribe payments for the benefit of a foreign official to corruptly influence the foreign official’s actions on applications for financing submitted to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (“EBRD”) by the clients of Harder and the Chestnut Group, and to corruptly influence the foreign official to direct business to Harder and the Chestnut Group, and others.”

The EBRD is described as follows.

“The EBRD was a multilateral development bank headquartered in London, England, and was owned by over 60 sovereign nations. Among other things, the EBRD provided debt and equity financing for development projects in emerging economies, primarily in Eastern  Europe. On or about June 18, 1991, the President of the United States signed Executive Order 12766 designating the EBRD as a “public international organization.” The EBRD was thus a “public international organization,” as that term is defined in the FCPA.”

The EBRD Official is described as follows.

“EBRD Official” was a Russian and United Kingdom national residing in or around London, England, and was a senior banker working in the Natural Resources Group at the EBRD. As a senior banker, EBRD Official served as an Operations Leader in the Natural Resources Group and was responsible for leading the review of applications submitted to the EBRD for project financing, including loans and equity investments. EBRD Official thus had the authority to influence the process for approving project financing, and setting the terms and conditions for that financing. EBRD Official was a “foreign official,” as that term is used in the FCPA.  […] Harder  knew EBRD Official from business associations dating back to at least 1999.”

The indictment also described the EBRD Official’s Sister as follows.

“EBRD Official’s Sister” was a Russian and United Kingdom national residing in or around London, England, and was the sister of EBRD Official. EBRD Official’s Sister purportedly provided consulting and other business services for the Chestnut Group. In reality, however, EBRD Official’s Sister provided no such services to the Chestnut Group or Harder.”

According to the indictment:

“Between in or about 2007 and in or about 2009, Harder, through the Chestnut Group, worked as a financial consultant to companies seeking project financing from the EBRD. For at least four of these applications, including those of Company A [a Russian independent oil and gas company] and Company B [an oil and gas company incorporated in the United Kingdom with operations in Russia] EBRD Official was the Operations Leader responsible for leading the management of the application process and negotiating the terms and conditions of any financing provided by the EBRD. Chestnut Inc. was retained by Company A and Company B despite its relatively small size, distant location from the EBRD, and unproven track record as a financial advisor. […] [T]he EBRD ultimately approved the applications for project financing for Company A and Company B.”

[…]

In all, Chestnut Inc. received payments from Company A totaling approximately $2.9 million, and Harder caused payments to be made to EBRD Official’s Sister totaling approximately $1.06 million. While EBRD Official’s Sister purportedly received these payments as a result of providing consulting and other business services to the Chestnut Group, in reality, EBRD Official’s Sister provided no such services. Instead, EBRD Official’s Sister received these payments for the benefit of EBRD Official, to corruptly influence the foreign official’s actions on applications for financing by the clients of Harder and the Chestnut Group, and to corruptly influence the foreign official to direct business to Harder and the Chestnut Group.”

[…]

“[A]fter Chestnut Inc. received the success fees from Company B, Harder caused a payment of approximately $2,478,580.89 to be made to EBRD Official’s Sister. Although EBRD Official’s Sister purportedly received these payments as a result of providing consulting and other business services to the Chestnut Group, in reality, EBRD Official’s Sister provided no such services. Instead, EBRD Official’s Sister received these payments for the benefit of EBRD Official, to corruptly influence the foreign official’s actions on applications for financing by the clients of Harder and the Chestnut Group, and to corruptly influence the foreign official to
direct business to Harder and the Chestnut Group.”

Under the heading “concealment of the bribe payments,” the indictment alleges:

“Through the Chestnut Group, Harder paid EBRD Official’s Sister approximately $3.5 million in bribe payments for the benefit of EBRD Official. To conceal and cover up these bribe payments, Harder and EBRD Official’s Sister created false paperwork to make it appear that EBRD Official’s Sister had provided services to the Chestnut Group for these payments, when in fact no such services were provided.”

Based on the above allegations, the indictment charges Harder with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA and Travel Act, five counts of violating the FCPA, five counts of violating the Travel Act, one count of conspiracy to commit international money laundering, and two counts of money laundering.

In the DOJ’s release, Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell stated:

“We are committed to combating foreign corruption, across the globe and across all industries, through enforcement actions and prosecutions of companies and the individuals who run those companies. As alleged, in this case, the owner and chief executive of a Pennsylvania financial consulting firm secured hundreds of millions of dollars in business by bribing a European banking official. He now faces an indictment for corruption in federal court.  Bribery of foreign officials undermines the public trust in government and fair competition in business.  The charges returned today reflect the clear message that we will root out corruption and prosecute individuals who violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania stated:

“We will aggressively investigate and prosecute individuals in our district who use corrupt means like bribery to influence foreign officials.  Our criminal statutes in this arena must be enforced to ensure fair dealing in a competitive global marketplace where foreign officials often hold significant decision-making authority.  The alleged conduct here was particularly reprehensible because it undermined the legitimacy of a process designed to support businesses for the citizens of developing nations.”

Special Agent in Charge Edward Hanko of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division stated:

“This is a great example of the FBI’s ability to successfully coordinate with our international law enforcement partners to tackle corruption. Bribery – foreign or domestic – cripples the notion of fair competition in the marketplace.”

For more information on the conduct alleged in the enforcement action, see this 2012 Bloomberg article.

Attorney General Holder – “The Buck Needs to Stop Somewhere” – But Does It Stop With Him?

Buck Stops Here

Last week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered this speech at New York University School of Law.  While focusing on financial fraud issues, the speech also touched upon several issues of general interest such as Holder’s statement that “the buck needs to stop somewhere where corporate misconduct is concerned.”  (emphasis in original).  Holder spoke of corporate structures that “blur lines of authority and prevent responsibility for individual business decisions from residing with a single person.”  Holder also highlighted that:

“[A]t some institutions that engaged in inappropriate conduct before, and may yet again, the buck still stops nowhere.  Responsibility remains so diffuse, and top executives so insulated, that any misconduct could again be considered more a symptom of the institution’s culture than a result of the willful actions of single individual.”

Recognizing that there are obvious differences between a government department and a business organization, the fact remains there are many similarities between the two when it comes to internal behavior, diffusion of responsibility and insulation of top leadership.

For instance and to borrow corporate analogies, Attorney General Holder is the CEO of DOJ Inc. and even the DOJ describes itself as the “world’s largest law office, employing more than 10,000 attorneys nationwide.”  That employee headcount (obviously the DOJ also employs non-attorneys as well) is rather small compared to a typical corporation doing business in the global marketplace through employees and hundreds, if not thousands, of third parties.

Returning to an issue previously highlighted here and here, if the DOJ was a business organization and subject to the same legal principles its uses to prosecute business organizations, the DOJ would constantly be under scrutiny and the subject of numerous enforcement actions.

Why?

Because as highlighted in this recent report by the Project on Government Oversight (“POGO”) titled “Hundreds of Justice Department Attorneys Violated Professional Rules, Laws, or Ethical Standards:”

“An internal affairs office at the Justice Department has found that, over the last decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other Justice employees violated rules, laws, or ethical standards governing their work.”

[…]

“From fiscal year 2002 through fiscal year 2013, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) documented more than 650 infractions … In the majority of the matters – more than 400 – OPR categorized the violations as being at the more severe end of the scale:  recklessness or intentional misconduct, as distinct from error or poor judgment.”

Although not specifically discussed in the POGO report, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement actions have seen instances of prosecutorial misconduct.  For instance, as highlighted in this post, in the DOJ’s enforcement action against Lindsey Manufacturing and two of its executives, the judge in dismissing the case, stated that the instances of misconduct were “so varied, and occurr[ed] over so lengthy a period … that they add up to an unusual and extreme picture of a prosecution gone badly awry.” In the failed Africa Sting case, the judge in dismissing the cases, stated that certain of the DOJ’s conduct had “no place in a federal courtroom.”  (See here).

The DOJ’s Principles of Prosecution of Business Organizations state, among the factors prosecutors should consider in deciding whether – and how – to charge a business organization as follows.

“Among the factors prosecutors should consider and weigh are whether the corporation appropriately disciplined wrongdoers, once those employees are identified by the corporation as culpable for the misconduct.”

Against this backdrop, the POGO report stated that several “examples of misconduct” within the DOJ often result in lenient sanctions such as a 10, 14 or 30 day suspensions.  Moreover, if I am not mistaken, certain of the DOJ prosecutors in the above FCPA enforcement actions – far from being disciplined – were promoted after their conduct was called into question by the federal judiciary.

The policy question needs to be asked: as a matter of principle should not the prosecutor / regulator and the prosecuted / regulated be held to the same general standards?

As a matter of principle and borrowing Holder’s policy pronouncements, should not the buck somewhere in the DOJ when improper conduct occurs within its ranks?  Is responsibility so diffuse in the DOJ that top leaders are insulated from accountability?

As noted in the POGO report, “high-level DOJ officials have said in the past that given the context – tens of thousands of its attorneys working on tens of thousands of cases each year – the amount of misconduct is small.”  (See here).

Could not the same be said of a typical business organization doing business in the global marketplace?  After all, dig into the details of many corporate FCPA enforcement actions and you will quickly learn that the conduct at issue was engaged in by a “small fraction” of the company’s global workforce to borrow the phrase the DOJ used in the HP enforcement action.

To be clear, the point of this post is not to call (as some actually have) for Holder’s resignation or to insist that Holder ought to be personally responsible, legally or ethically, for the improper conduct that has taken place in the DOJ under his leadership.

Rather, the point of this post is to highlight from a policy perspective the similarities between the DOJ and a business organization when it comes to compliance, internal behavior, diffusion of responsibility and insulation of top leadership.

These similarities ought to make top government enforcement officials less confident and less sweeping in their policy statements and simplistic views of legal and ethical culpability.  And if not, the similarities should at least cause top government enforcement officials to recognize that the same statements and views can be appropriately used to shine a light on the organizations they are tasked with running.

*****

For additional views of Holder’s recent speech, see here from Debevoise & Plimpton and here from Professor Peter Henning at his White Collar Crime Watch column in the New York Times.

An FCPA Enforcement Action With Many Interesting Wrinkles

[This post is part of a periodic series regarding “old” FCPA enforcement actions]

The 1998 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action against Saybolt Inc., Saybolt North America Inc. and related individuals had many interesting wrinkles:  a unique origin; a rare FCPA trial; a fugitive still living openly in his native land; and case law in a related civil claim.

As to the unique origin, Saybolt Inc. was a U.S. company whose primary business was conducting quantitative and qualitative testing of bulk commodities, such as oil, gasoline, and other petrochemicals, as well as grains, vegetable oils and other commodities.  The Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division (“EPA-CID”) was investigating the company for allegedly submitting false statements to the EPA about the oxygen content of reformulated gasoline blended in accordance with the requirements of the Clean Air Act.  The investigation was initiated by reports of data falsification at Saybolt’s Massachusetts facility.

During the course of the investigation EPA-CID interviewed Steven Dunlop (the general manager for Latin American operations for Saybolt) who provided the following information.

During a trip to Panama in 1994, Dunlop was advised of new business opportunities that were being offered to Saybolt Panama through the Panamanian Ministry of Commerce and Industries.  Specifically, the DOJ’s criminal complaint alleged that Hugo Tovar (the General Director of the Hydrocarbon Directorate, a division of the Ministry of Commerce and Industries) and Audo Escudero (the Sub-Director of the Hydrocarbon Directorate), offered to Saybolt Panama an opportunity to: (1) receive a substantial reduction in Saybolt Panama’s tax payments to the government of Panama; (2) obtain lucrative new contracts from the government of Panama; and (3) secure a more permanent facility for Saybolt Panama’s operations on highly coveted land near the Panama Canal.  According to the criminal complaint, this parcel of land was coveted because Saybolt Panama “only had a tenuous legal claim on its existing facility” and as a result its operations were continually at risk.

The complaint details various communications between Dunlop and David Mead (the President and CEO of Saybolt) in which Dunlop informed Mead of a $50,000 “fee” that would be needed to accomplish the above opportunities.

The complaint details a 1995 board of directors meeting at Saybolt during which discussion concerned the “$50,000 payoff demanded by the Panamanian officials with whom Saybolt was negotiating.  According to the complaint, present at this meeting were Board members Frerik Pluimers and Philippe Schreiber as well as Mead and Saybolt’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Petoia.  According to the complaint, Dunlop received instructions from Mead that he was to “take the necessary steps to ensure that the $50,000 was paid to the Panamanian officials in order to secure the deal” and that Schreiber was to be his primary contact on all issues concerning the Panamanian transaction.

According to the complaint, “in the minutes leading up to the time he was scheduled to leave his house for the airport” to travel to Panama,” Dunlop had a telephone conversation with Schreiber who advised him “that the action [he] was about to take would constitute a violation of the FCPA.”

According to the complaint, while in Panama Dunlop “learned that the Saybolt funds needed to make” the payment had not yet been received and that Dunlop then tried to contact Mead.  According to the complaint, Mead sent Dunlop an e-mail which stated: “Per telecon undersigned and capo grande Holanda the back-up software can be supplied from the Netherlands.  As previously agreed, you to detail directly to NL attn FP.” According to the complaint, “capo grande Holanda” was a reference to Pluimers (the President of the Dutch holding company that controlled Saybolt, Inc.” and the “back-up software” was a reference to the $50,000 payment.”

The complaint alleged that the funds never arrived in Panama and that Dunlop was receiving pressure from the Panamanian officials “to make the $50,000 payment prior to the upcoming Christmas holidays.”  According to the complaint, Mead told Dunlop on a telephone call to make the $50,000 payment using funds that were in the operating account of Saybolt Panama.

According to the complaint, the $50,000 in cash was obtained by laundering a check through a local construction company and that a “sack full of currency” was handed over to Escudero at a bar in Panama City by the individual who was serving as Saybolt Panama’s liaison with Escudero.  Further, according to the complaint, “shortly after this payment was made, the Ministry of Commerce and Industries and other necessary government agencies acted favorably on Saybolt’s proposal.”

In April 1998, the DOJ filed this indictment against Mead (a citizen of the U.K. and resident of the U.S. and Pluimers (a national and resident of the Netherlands) based on the above conduct.  The indictment charged Mead and Pluimers with conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and the Travel Act, two substantive violations of the FCPA, and two substantive violations of the Travel Act.

According to the indictment, the purposes and objectives of the conspiracy were:

  • To obtain contracts for Saybolt de Panama and its affiliates to perform import control and inventory inspections for the Ministry of Hydrocarbons, and the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, both departments of the Government of the Republic of Panama;
  • To obtain and to expedite tax benefits for Saybolt de Panama and its affiliates from the Government of the Republic of Panama, including exemptions from import taxes on materials and equipment and reductions in annual profit taxes;
  • To obtain from an agency of the Government of the Republic of Panama a secure and commercially attractive operating location for an inspection facility in Panama; and
  • To “lock out” Saybolt’s competitors by retaining possession and control of Saybolt de Panama’s existing location in Panama.

In September 1998, the DOJ filed this superseding indictment substantially similar to the first and including the same charges.

Mead moved to strike the indictment of allegations that he violated the FCPA and for dismissal of the indictment for failure to state an offense under the Travel Act, and for a Bill of Particulars.   In a one page order, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Thompson denied the motions. Dunlop was given full immunity as was the American attorney present at the board meeting and involved in several conversations with Pluimers, Mead, and Dunlop concerning the alleged payments.

Mead argued that the FCPA only prohibited payments to assist a domestic concern in obtaining and retaining business” and he used Saybolt’s rather complex corporate structure to argue that the business sought to be obtained or retained was for a different Saybolt entity, not a domestic concern.  In his motion, Mead stated “because the government ignores the corporate legal structure and does violence to the FCPA by attempting to end-run congressional policy, the Court must justifiably refuse.”  Elsewhere, the motion stated:

“Whether the government labels foreign corporations as ‘agents of a domestic concern’ or members of an ‘unincorporated organization,’ the government still may not manipulate the Act’s broad language to end-run this congressional policy (of deliberately excluding both foreign subsidiaries and non-subsidiary foreign corporations from FCPA liability).”

The motion also argued that the indictment was devoid of any allegation that Mead acted “willfully” (i.e. with the specific intent to violate the law) because he followed the legal advice of counsel in making the alleged payments.

In response, the DOJ stated that the indictment “describes in detail how Mead – himself a U.S. resident, and also the President of one U.S. corporation (Saybolt Inc.), Executive Vice-President of a second U.S. corporation (Saybolt North America Inc.), and Chief Executive Officer of an unincorporated association (Saybolt Western Hemisphere) – and others decided to send a Saybolt Inc. employee to Panama City, Panama, to oversee the payment of a $50,000 bride, which they believed would be provided to high level government officials, in exchange for favorable treatment of Saybolt’s business interests in Panama.  The Indictment charges that Mead gave the order to go forward with the bribe and it details the contents of the e-mail message that Mead sent from his office in New Jersey to the Saybolt employee in Panama City.”

At trial, Mead argued that the Government failed to meet its burden of proof and that he acted in good faith belief that the payment to the Panamanian officials was lawful.  The relevant jury instructions stated as follows.

“If the evidence shows you that the defendant actually believed that the transaction was legal, he cannot be convicted.  Nor can he be convicted for being stupid or negligent or mistaken.  More is required than that.  But a defendant’s knowledge of a fact may be inferred from “willful blindness” to the knowledge or information indicating there was a high probability that there was something forbidden or illegal about the contemplated transaction and payment.  It is the jury’s function to determine whether or not the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to the inferences and the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence here.”

According to this docket sheet, Mead’s trial occurred in October 1998 and he was found guilty of all charges.  According to the docket, Mead was sentenced to four months imprisonment, to be followed by four months of home confinement, to be followed by three years of supervised release.  According to the docket, he was also ordered to pay a $20,000 criminal fine. After sentencing, US Attorney Donald Stern of Boston, stated: “This sentence puts American executives on notice there will be a price to pay, far more than the monetary cost of the birbe, when they buy off foreign officials.”  For additional reading on Mead’s case, see this transcript of an in-depth CNN story about Mead that aired in 1999.

What about Pluimers?

As indicated by this docket sheet, there has been no substantive activity in the case since 1999 and Pluimers remains a fugitive – albeit living openly in his native Netherlands.  According to this 2011 New York Times article citing a Wikileaks cable, “Pluimers simply has too much influence with high-ranking Dutch officials to be handed over to U.S. authorities.”

What about Saybolt?

In August 1998, the DOJ the filed two separate criminal informations against Saybolt Inc. and its parent corporation Saybolt North American Inc. The first information charged Saybolt with conspiracy and wire fraud related to the company’s “two year conspiracy to submit false statements to the EPA about results of lab analyses. The second information charged Saybolt and Saybolt North America with conspiracy to violate the FCPA and one substantive charge of violating the FCPA.

As noted in this plea agreement, Saybolt agreed to plead guilty to all charges in the informations and agreed to pay a total fine of $4.9 million allocated as follows:  $3.4 million for the data falsification violations and $1.5 million for the FCPA violation. Saybolt also agreed to a five year term of probation.

The conduct at issue in the Saybolt and related enforcement actions also spawned a related civil malpractice action alleging erroneous legal advice by counsel regarding the above-described payments to Panamanian officials.  In Stichting v. Schreiber, 327 F.3d 173 (2d Cir. 2003), the Second Circuit analyzed whether a company, in pleading guilty to FCPA anti-bribery violations, acknowledged acting with intent thus undermining its claims that the erroneous legal advice was the basis for its legal exposure.

The court stated:

“Knowledge by a defendant that it is violating the FCPA – that it is committing all the elements of an FCPA violation – is not itself an element of the FCPA crime.  Federal statutes in which the defendant’s knowledge that he or she is violating the statute is an element of the violation are rare; the FCPA is plainly not such a statute.”

The court also stated concerning “corruptly” in the FCPA:

“It signifies, in addition to the element of ‘general intent’ present in most criminal statutes, a bad or wrongful purpose and an intent to influence a foreign official to misuse his official position.  But there is nothing in that word or anything else in the FCPA that indicates that the government must establish that the defendant in fact knew that his conduct violated the FCPA to be guilty of such a violation.”

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