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Pride – A Little Bit Of Nigeria, And A Whole Lot Else … Plus It Pays To Assist the DOJ!

Next up in the analysis of CustomsGate enforcement actions is Pride International.

As described below, the Pride enforcement action includes not only Nigeria – Panalpina related conduct, but also conduct relating to contract extensions in Venezuela, bribing an administrative law judge in India, customs duties in Mexico, as well as other improper conduct in other countries.

See here for the prior post on the Shell enforcement action, here for the prior post on the Transocean enforcement action, here for the prior post on the Tidewater enforcement action here for the prior post on the Noble enforcement action and here for the prior post on the GlobalSantaFe enforcement action.

The Pride enforcement action involved both a DOJ and SEC component. Total settlement amount was approximately $56.2 million ($32.6 million criminal fine via a DOJ plea agreement and deferred prosecution agreement; $23.5 million in disgorgement and prejudgment interest via a SEC settled complaint).

DOJ

The DOJ enforcement action involved a criminal information against Pride International Inc. (“Pride International”) resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement and a criminal information against Pride Forasol S.A.S. (“Pride Forasol”), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pride International resolved through a plea agreement.

Pride International Inc. Criminal Information

Houston based issuer Pride International Inc. (here) is one of the world’s largest offshore drilling companies.

The criminal information (here) alleges bribery schemes in Venezuela, India and Mexico.

Venezuela

According to the information, “Pride International owned and operated numerous oil and gas drilling rigs throughout South America, including in Venezuela.” In Venezuela, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (“PDVSA”), “a Venezuelan state-owned oil company,” leased “the semi-submersible rig Pride Venezuela from Pride Foramer Venezula.” Pride Foramer is described as a branch of Pride Forasol’s wholly-owned subsidiary Prime Foramer operating in Venezuela. According to the information, PDVSA “also contracted with Pride Foramer Venezuela to operate two jackup rigs, the GP-19 and the GP-20.”

The information alleges that between February 2003 and July 2003 Country Manager 1 [a U.S. citizen who was the Country Manager in Venezuela], the Marketing Manager [a Venezuelan citizen working for Pride Foramer Venezuela in Venezuela], the Operations Manager [a French citizen working for Pride Foramer Venezuela in Venezuela], and others known and unknown agreed to pay $120,000 to the Venezuela Intermediary [a company that provided catering services to Pride Foramer Venezuela] with the intent that the money would be paid to the PDVSA Director [a Venezuelan citizen appointed by the President of Venezuela as a member of the PDVSA Board of Directors] to secure a contract extension for the Pride Venezuela.”

According to the information, “in order to conceal and to generate money to pay the bribes to the PDVSA Director” the above named individuals “agreed and instructed one of Pride Foramer Venezuela’s vendors, Vendor A, to inflate certain of its invoices for its services” that “Pride Foramer Venezuela then paid Vendor A for the undelivered services relating to the inflated invoices” and that “Vendor A delivered the excess money it received from Pride Foramer Venezuela to the Venezuela Intermediary with the intent that it would be provided to the PDVSA Director.”

According to the information, “on behalf of Pride International and Pride Foramer Venezuela, Vendor A wire transferred bribe payments of at least $120,000 to, or for the benefit of, the PDVSA Director to an account at a bank in Miami, Florida in the name of the Venezuelan Intermediary.” According to the information, “in exchange for the corrupt payments, the Pride Venezuela contract was extended for approximately three months” and “the profits Pride International derived from extending the contract were approximately $2.45 million.”

As to GP-19 and GP-20, the information alleges that between April 2004 and November 2004 “the Marketing Manager, the Operations Manager, and others known and unknown also agreed to pay at least $114,000 to the Venezuelan Intermediary with the intent that the money would be paid to the PDVSA Director to secure contract extensions for the GP-19 and GP-20.” The information describes a similar payment scheme and payments made to an account in Miami, Florida in the name of the Venezuela Intermediary. According to the information, “in exchange for the corrupt payments, the PDVSA Director caused PDVSA to extend the GP-20 contract from July 2004 through June 2005 and the GP-19 contract from February 2005 through June 2005.”

According to the information “the profits that Pride International derived from the contract extensions for the GP-20 were approximately $596,000” however, the “GP-19 extension was not profitable.” The information further alleges that Senior Executive A [a U.S citizen located in Houston] “concealed information relating to the bribe payments to the PDVSA Director from reports submitted to Pride International auditors.”

India

The information alleges that between January 2003 and July 2003, “Senior Executive B [a French citizen who served as the Director of International Finance for Pride International], the Legal Director [a French citizen who served as the Director of Legal Affairs for Pride Forasol], the Base Manager [a Canadian citizen working for Pride India], the Area Manager [a U.S. citizen with responsibility for the Asia Pacific region], the India Customs Consultant [an individual who provided customs consulting services to Pride India], and others known and unknown agreed to pay $500,000 into bank accounts in Dubai in the names of third party entities with the intent that it would be passed on to an Indian CEGAT [Customs, Excise, and Gold Appellate Tribunal – an Indian administrative judicial tribunal] judge to secure a favorable judicial decision for Pride India [a branch of Pride Forasol’s wholly-owned subsidiary Pride Foramer] relating to a litigation matter pending before the official involving the payment of customs duties and penalties owed for a rig, the Pride Pennsylvania.”

According to the information, “to pay the bribe, employees of Pride Forasol, including Senior Executive B and the Legal Director, caused false invoices for agent and consulting services to be created and submitted to Interdrill [a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pride International organized under the laws of the Bahamas] for payment.” The invoices were processed, the payment was made and on June 30, 2003″Pride India received a favorable ruling from CEGAT” resulting in an “estimate gain to Pride Forasol” of “at least $10 million.”

According to the information, “to conceal the bribe, the Finance Manager [a British citizen who was the Eastern Hemisphere Finance Manager for Pride International], who was located in Houston, Texas, with knowledge of the scheme to bribe the Indian CEGAT judge, sent an e-mail to the Assistant Controller [a U.S. citizen], who was located in Houston, Texas, authorizing the booking of the bribe payments by Pride International’s subsidiary, Interdrill, as a ‘regular fee’ in a newly created ‘miscellaneous fees’ account.”

Mexico

The information alleges that around December 2004, “Senior Executive A, the Logistics Coordinator [a U.S. citizen who was the Logistics Coordinator for Pride Mexico], Country Manager 2 [a U.S. citizen who was the Country Manager in Mexico], and others known and unknown agreed to pay approximately $10,000 to the Mexican Marketing Agent [an individual who provided marketing services to Pride Mexico] to avoid taxes and penalties for alleged violations of Mexican customs regulations relating to a vessel leased by Pride International.”

According to the information, “to conceal the payments, the Mexico Marketing Agent caused false invoices purportedly for electrical maintenance services to be submitted to Pride Mexico [collectively Mexico Drilling Limited LLC, Pride Central America LLC, and Pride Drilling LLC – wholly owned subsidiaries of Pride International] in support of the payment.”

The information then alleges that all of the above-described payments were falsely characterized in the books and records of various subsidiaries or branches that were consolidated into the books, records, and accounts of Pride International for purposes of financial reporting.

Under the heading “total corrupt payments paid and improper benefits received,” the information alleges that between January 2003 through December 2004 “certain Pride International subsidiaries and their branches paid at least $804,000 in bribes to foreign government officials in Venezuela, India, and Mexico to extend contracts, secure a favorable judicial decision, and avoid the payment of customs duties and penalties.”

According to the information, “the benefit that Pride International received as a result of these payments was at least $13 million.”

Based on the above allegations, the DOJ charged Pride International with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and to knowingly falsify books and records as to the Mexico payments; one count of violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions as to the Venezuela payments; and one count of FCPA books and records violations as to the India payments.

Pride International Inc. DPA

The DOJ’s charges against Pride International were resolved via a deferred prosecution agreement (see here).

Pursuant to the DPA, Pride International admitted, accepted and acknowledged that it was responsible for the acts of its officers, employees, subsidiaries, and agents as set forth above.

The term of the DPA is three years and seven months and it states that the DOJ entered into the agreement “based on the individual facts and circumstances” of the case and Pride International. Among the factors stated are the following.

(a) during a routine audit, Pride International discovered an allegation of bribery;

(b) Pride International voluntarily and timely disclosed to the Department and the SEC the misconduct;

(c) Pride International conducted a thorough internal investigation of that misconduct;

(d) Pride International voluntarily initiated a comprehensive anti-bribery compliance review of Pride International’s business operations in certain other high-risk countries [as to this broader compliance review, this Joint Motion to Waive Presentence Investigation notes that the review included a number of “high-risk countries including Angola, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, and Saudi Arabia” and that outside counsel with assistance from forensic accounting professionals were involved in the review of approximately 20 million pages of electronic and hard copy documents gathered from approximately 350 custodians, and that more than 200 interviews of employees and agents took place;

(e) Pride International regularly reported its findings to the Department;

(f) Pride International cooperated in the Department’s investigation of this matter, as well as the SEC’s investigation;

(g) Pride International undertook, of its own accord, remedial measures, including the enhancement of its FCPA compliance program, and agreed to maintain and enhance, as appropriate, its FCPA compliance program; and

(h) Pride International agreed to continue to cooperate with the Department in any ongoing investigation of the conduct of Pride International and its employees, agents, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, and subsidiaries relating to violations of the FCPA.

As stated in the DPA, the fine range for the above describe conduct under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines was $72.5 million to $145 million. Pursuant to the DPA, Pride International agreed to pay a monetary penalty of $32.625 million – approximately 55% below the minimum guideline amount.

Pursuant to the DPA, Pride International agreed to a host of compliance undertakings and to report to the DOJ on an annual basis (during the term of the DPA) “on its progress and experience in maintaining and, as appropriate, enhancing its compliance policies and procedures.”

As is standard in FCPA DPAs, Pride International agreed not to make any public statement “contradicting the acceptance of responsibility by Pride International as set forth” in the DPA and Pride International further agreed to only issue a press release in connection with the DPA if the DOJ does not object to the release.

Pride Forasol Criminal Information

The Pride Forasol criminal information (here) alleges the same scheme to bribe an administrative judge in India as described in the Pride International information. The information charges one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and to knowingly falsify books and records; one count of violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions; and one count of aiding and abetting the creating of false books and records.

Pride Forasol Plea Agreement

The above described charges against Pride Forasol were resolved via a plea agreement (see here). Even though the Pride Forasol information is limited to India conduct, the sentencing guidelines range, $72.5 million to $145 million, is the same as set forth in the above described Pride International DPA.

The agreement sets forth factors motivating the DOJ to resolve the criminal charges in the manner in which they were resolved.

Such factors include: “Pride International’s and Pride Forasol’s substantial assistance with other related Department investigations regarding the bribery of foreign government officials in Venezuela and Mexico, including providing: (1) the names of individuals involved; and (2) contact information for the individuals” and “Pride International’s and Pride Forasol’s substantial assistance with other Department investigations regarding the bribery of foreign government officials in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, including providing documentation and access to individuals.”

The above referenced Joint Motion to Waive Presentence Investigation states that Pride Forasol and Pride International “developed and timely provided detailed and significant information regarding third parties, including Panalpina Word Transport (Holding) Ltd. […] that was used to pay bribes to foreign government officials by numerous companies around the world.” The Joint Motion states that “the information provided by the Companies substantially assisted the Department because the extent of Panalpina’s conduct was unknown by the Department at the time of the Companies’ disclosure. It was only through the extensive, worldwide investigative efforts of the Companies that these complex criminal activities were uncovered and reported to the Department.”

SEC

The SEC’s civil complaint (here) alleges the same Venezuela, India, and Mexico payments described above.

As to Venezuela, the complaint alleges as follows:

“From approximately 2003 to 2005, Joe Summers, the country manager of the Venezuelan branch of a French subsidiary of Pride, and/or certain other managers authorized payments totaling approximately $384,000 to third-party companies believing that all or a portion of the funds would be given to an an official of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company in order to secure extensions of three drilling contracts. In addition, Summers authorized the payment of approximately $30,000 to a third party believing that all or a portion of the funds would be given to an employee of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company in order to secure an improper advantage in obtaining the payment of certain receivables.” (See this prior post for a summary of the Summers enforcement action).

“In or about 2003, a French subsidiary of Pride made three payments totaling approximately $500,000 to third-party companies, believing that all or a portion of the funds would be offered or given by the third-party companies to an administrative judge to favorably influence ongoing customs litigation relating to the importation of a rig into India. Pride’s U.S.-based Eastern Hemisphere finance manager had knowledge of the payments at the time they were made.”

“In or about late 2004, Bobby Benton, Pride’s Vice President, Western Hemisphere Operations, authorized the payment of $10,000 to a third party, believing that all or a portion of the funds would be given by the third party to a Mexican customs official in return for favorable treatment by the official regarding certain customs deficiencies identified during a customs inspection of a Pride supply boat.” (See here for a summary of the Benton enforcement action).

Based on these allegations, the SEC charged Pride International with FCPA anti-bribery violations. Based on these allegations, as well as the below allegations, the SEC charged Pride International with FCPA books and records and internal control violations.

The SEC’s complaint also describes certain other “transactions entered into by wholly or majority owned Pride subsidiaries operating in Mexico, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Congo, and Libya [that] were not correctly recorded in those subsidiaries’ books.”

As to Mexico, the complaint alleges that a $15,000 payment was made to a “Mexican customs official during the course of the export [of certain rigs] to ensure that the export of the rig would not be delayed due to claimed violations relating to non-conforming equipment on board the rig.”

As to Kazakhstan, the complaint alleges that the Kazakhstan affiliate of Panalpina informed a Pride Forasol logistics manager “that Kazakh customs officials had identified irregularities during a customs audit of Pride Forasol Kazakhstan, but that the issue could be resolved by making a cash payment of approximately $45,000 and paying substantially reduced monetary penalties.” According to the complaint, “certain Pride Forasol managers authorized the cash payment by [Panalpina] to resolve the customs irregularities.” The complaint further alleges that Pride Forasol Kazakhstan made “three payments totaling approximately $204,000” to a Kazakh Tax Consultant while “knowing facts that suggested a high probability that the Kazakh Tax Consultant would give all or a portion of the payments to Kazakh tax officials” who previously threatened to levy substantial taxes and penalties against Pride Forasol Kazakhstan.

As to Nigeria, the complaint alleges that “certain Pride Forasol Nigeria and Pride Forasol managers were aware of information suggesting a high probability that [Panalpina] would give all or a portion of the lump-sum payments charged in connection with obtaining or extending Pride Forasl Nigeria temporary importation (“TI”) permits to Nigerian customs officials in exchange for their cooperation in issuing the TI permits on favorable terms and/or without completing certain legally required steps.” The complaint further alleges that Pride Forasol Nigeria records were incompete and that Pride Forasol Nigeria “did not have adequate assurances” that certain tax payments were not paid directly to tax officials. In addition, the complaint alleges that Pride Forasol Nigeria “authorized the payment of $52,000 to a Nigeria Tax Agent while knowing facts that suggested a high likelihood that the Nigeria Tax Agent would give all or a portion of the money to a Nigerian tax official.”

As to Saudi Arabia, the complaint alleges that the Saudi Arabian affiliate of Panalpina informed a Pride Forasol Arabia manager that expedited customs clearance of a rig could be assured for a payment of $10,000. The complaint alleges that the manager “took $10,000 in cash from Pride Forasol Arabia’s petty cash fund, describing on the petty cash voucher the purpose of the payment as ‘freight forwarding services,’ and gave the money to a Saudi customs official.”

As to Congo, the complaint alleges as follows. “An inspection by the Congo Merchant Marine revealed that certain personnel abroad [a Pride Congo rig] lacked required maritime certification. A Merchant Marine official proposed that Pride Congo could resolve the paperwork defiiciency by making a payment for his personal benefit. A Pride Congo manager agreed to pay the Merchant Marine official $8,000 in lieu of an official penalty.” According to the complaint, the “payments were recorded as travel expenses in Pride Congo’s books and records.”

As to Libya, the complaint alleges that Pride Forasol managers authorized payments to a Libya Tax agent in connection with unpaid social security taxes and penalties against Pride Forasol Libya “without adequate assurances that the Libyan Tax Agent would not pass some or all of these fees to” officials of Libya’s social security agency.

According to the complaint, “Pride obtained improper benefits totaling approximately $19,341,870 from the conduct” described in the complaint. “Prejudgment interest on this amount is $4,187,848.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Pride agreed to an injunction prohibiting future FCPA violations and agreed to pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest of $23,529,718.

Pride’s press release (here) notes, among other things, as follows: “In addition to self-reporting in February 2006 and voluntarily cooperating with the government, we have greatly strengthened and enhanced our antibribery compliance program and policies. Our current management and board are strongly committed to conducting the company’s business ethically and legally, and we seek to instill in our employees the expectation that they uphold the highest levels of honesty, integrity, ethical standards and compliance with the law.”

Martin Weinstein (here) and Jeffrey Clark (here) both former DOJ enforcement attorneys with Willkie Farr & Gallagher, as well as Samuel Cooper (here) of Baker Botts, represented the Pride entities.

Facilitating Payments or Bribes?

In Greece, it’s the “little envelopes” that affect everyone from “hospital patients to fishmongers.” (see here for the Wall Street Journal story).

In India, it’s needing to “string up some wire and get licenses from the government” to start a “tiny business delivering telephone and Internet service” but “getting those things done without hassles require[s] a bribe.” (see here for the story from National Public Radio).

In July 2009, Nature’s Sunshine Products found out that it’s about payments to Brazilian customs agents to import certain unregistered products into Brazil (see here).

Also in July 2009, Helmerich & Payne found out that it’s about payments to various officials and representatives of the Argentine and Venezuelan customs services in connection with importation and exportation of goods and equipment (see here).

Numerous other examples abound.

Facilitating payments or bribes?

The FCPA has a specific exception for “facilitating or expediting payment[s] to a foreign official … the purpose of which is to expedite or to secure the performance of a routine governmental action by a foreign official.”

Where a facilitating payment ends and where a payment to “obtain or retain business” begins is a difficult question.

U.S. v. Kay, 359 F.3d 738 (5th Cir. 2004) is commonly viewed as answering that question.

However, Kay merely holds that Congress intended for the FCPA to apply broadly to payments intended to assist the payor, directly or indirectly, in obtaining or retaining business and that payments to a “foreign official” to reduce custom and tax liabilities can, under appropriate circumstances, fall within the statute. The Kay court empathically stated that not all such payments to a “foreign official” outside the context of directly securing a foreign government contract violate the FCPA; it merely held that such payments “could” violate the FCPA. The key question, according to Kay, is whether the payments at issue were intended to lower the company’s costs of doing business enough to assist the company in obtaining or retaining business. The Kay court recognized that “there are bound to be circumstances” in which such attenuated payments merely increase the profitability of an existing profitable company and thus, presumably, do not assist the payer in obtaining or retaining business. In fact, the court specifically stated: “…if the government is correct that anytime operating costs are reduced the beneficiary of such advantage is assisted in getting or keeping business, the FCPA’s language that expresses the necessary element of assisting in obtaining or retaining business would be unnecessary, and thus surplusage – a conclusion that we are forbidden to reach.”

Post-Kay none of the above seems to matter much.

Because the Nature’s Sunshine Products and Helmerich & Payne enforcement actions (as well as numerous other similar enforcement actions) were not challenged, it remains an open question whether the payments at issue in these cases, if subjected to judicial scrutiny, would satisfy the “obtain or retain business” element as interpreted in Kay or would be excepted as facilitating payments.

Many of these payments would appear attenuated to any specific cause-and-effect business nexus or otherwise would appear to have merely increased the profitability of an existing profitable business and, per the Kay holding, would presumably not satisfy this key FCPA antibribery element.

While some find facilitating payments to be a corrupt payment under a different name, the fact remains that the FCPA passed by Congress and signed by the President contains an express exception for facilitating payments.

It is this statute that the enforcement agencies are obligated to enforce and this express exception would certainly appear relevant to the above-described actions. Because these enforcement actions were not challenged, this obviously relevant defense was not explored in these cases and these post-Kay cases stand as de facto FCPA case law, notwithstanding the fact that the alleged conduct in these cases may have been excused because of the FCPA’s facilitating payment exception.

It’s a complex world.

Congress recognized that when it passed the FCPA, including the facilitating payment exception.

The Kay court recognized that when concluding that not all such attenuated payments violate the FCPA.

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