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A Closer Look At The U.K.’s First Deferred Prosecution Agreement

Closer Look

As highlighted in this post, there were two firsts in last week’s U.K. Serious Fraud Office enforcement action against Standard Bank Plc (currently known as ICBC Standard Bank Plc): (i) the first use of Section 7 of the Bribery Act (the so-called failure to prevent bribery offense) in a foreign bribery action; and (ii) the first use of a deferred prosecution agreement in the U.K.

This prior post analyzed “what” was resolved (an alleged violation of Sec. 7 of the Bribery Act for failure to prevent bribery).

This post continues the analysis by highlighting “how” the enforcement action was resolved (through a deferred prosecution agreement).

That the U.K’s first DPA was used to resolve a Bribery Act offense is perhaps fitting as U.K. anti-corruption enforcement officials have long expressed a fondness for U.S. alternative resolution vehicles used to resolve alleges instances of FCPA violations. Such fondness was widely seen as a significant driver for the U.K. to adopt DPAs (as highlighted in this prior post, the U.K. rejected NPAs) although DPA’s are authorized to resolve other alleged instances of financial crime as well.

Knowledgeable observers already know that U.K. style DPAs are significantly different than U.S. style DPAs, but in analyzing the U.K.’s first DPA, this fact bears repeating.

Sir Brian Leveson’s Approved Judgment and Preliminary Judgment provide a detailed overview of the U.K’s process for DPAs, including the judicial review aspect of the process, and should be required reading for anyone trying to better understand the DPA process in the U.K.. (This aspect is largely absent in U.S. style NPAs and DPAs – indeed the DOJ has argued on several occasions that the judiciary has no substantive role to play in the DPA process – an issue that is currently before the D.C. Circiut in Fokker Services).

If a nation is to have DPAs, the U.K. model is far more sound than the U.S. model and an initial observation from the U.K.’s first DPA is that it was incredibly refreshing to read a document relevant to an alleged bribery offense drafted by someone other than the prosecuting authority.

The Standard Bank (SB) DPA is similar in many respects to DPAs used to resolve alleged FCPA violations. For starters, the term of the DPA is three years (the typical term of U.S. DPAs tends to be from 18 months to three years).

In the DPA, SB accepted responsibility for the alleged conduct at issue, agreed to on-going cooperation with the SFO and other law enforcement agencies, and agreed to pay the components of the settlement amount. In the DPA, SB also agreed to post-enforcement action compliance reviews and enhancements, including the engagement of PwC to conduct an independent review of the company’s progress.

Similar to U.S. DPAs, the SB DPA also contains a so-called “muzzle clause” in which:

“Standard Bank agrees that it shall not make, and it shall not authorise its present or future lawyers, officers, directors, employees, agents, its parent company, sister companies, subsidiaries or shareholders or any other person authorised to speak on Standard Bank’s behalf to make any public statement contradicting the matters described in the Statement of Facts.”

That the U.K.’s first DPA contains a “muzzle clause” is interesting given that, as discussed in this previous post, Lord Justice Thomas was critical of the SFO’s attempt to insert a “muzzle clause” into the Innospec resolution documents.  Lord Justice Thomas stated: “It would be inconceivable for a prosecutor to approve a press statement to be made by a person convicted of burglary or rape; companies who are guilty of corruption should be treated no differently to others who commit serious crimes.”

Despite the similarities between the SB DPA and U.S. style DPA’s, there are key differences.

For instance, in U.S. DPAs the DOJ claims unilateral power to declare a breach of the agreement (a contractual term many have criticized see here). The SB DPA states, under the heading “Breach of Agreement,” as follows.

“If, during the Term of this Agreement, the SFO believes that Standard Bank has failed to comply with any of the terms of this Agreement, the SFO may make a breach application to the Court. In the event that the Court terminates the Agreement the SFO may make an application for the lifting of the suspension of indictment associated with the DPA and thereby reinstitute criminal proceedings.

In the event that the SFO believes that Standard Bank has failed to comply with any of the terms of this Agreement the SFO agrees to provide Standard Bank with written notice of such alleged failure prior to commencing proceedings resulting from such failure. Standard Bank shall, within 14 days of receiving such notice, have the opportunity to respond to the SFO in writing to explain the nature and circumstances of the failure, as well as the actions Standard Bank has taken to address and remedy the situation. The SFO will consider the explanation in deciding whether to make an application to the Court.”

Another difference, albeit rather minor, concerns the time period to resolve the action. The SFO’s release states that SB’s counsel made the voluntary disclosure in late April 2013. Thus, the time period from start to finish was a relatively swift 2.5 years (at least compared to the typical time frame in the U.S.).

Other interesting aspects of the U.K’s first DPA are as follows.

Regarding SB’s voluntary disclosure and cooperation, Sir Leveson stated:

“Standard Bank immediately reported itself to the authorities and adopted a genuinely proactive approach to the matter […] In this regard, the promptness of the self-report and the extent to which the prosecutor has been involved are to be taken into account […] In this case, the disclosure was within days of the suspicions coming to the Bank’s attention, and before its solicitors had commenced (let alone completed) its own investigation.

Credit must also be given for self-reporting which might otherwise have remained unknown to the prosecutor. […] In this regard, the trigger for the disclosure was incidents that occurred overseas which were reported by Stanbic’s employees to Standard Bank Group. Were it not for the internal escalation and proactive approach of Standard Bank and Standard Bank Group that led to self-disclosure, the conduct at issue may not otherwise have come to the attention of the SFO.

[…]

Standard Bank fully cooperated with the SFO from the earliest possible date by, among other things, providing a summary of first accounts of interviewees, facilitating the interviews of current employees, providing timely and complete responses to requests for information and material and providing access to its document review platform. The Bank has agreed to continue to cooperate fully and truthfully with the SFO and any other agency or authority, domestic or foreign, as directed by the SFO, in any and all matters relating to the conduct which is the subject matter of the present DPA. Suffice to say, this self-reporting and cooperation militates very much in favour of finding that a DPA is likely to be in the interests of justice.”

Regarding “Compensation,” Sir Levenson stated in pertinent part:

“A DPA may impose on an organisation the requirement to compensate victims of the alleged offence and to disgorge profits made from the alleged offence.”

[…]

In the present DPA, Standard Bank would be required to pay the Government of Tanzania the amount of US $6 million plus interest of US $1,153,125. This sum represents the additional fee of 1% of the proceeds of the private placement, paid to EGMA the local partner engaged by Stanbic and very swiftly withdrawn in cash. The fee was paid from the US $600 million capital raised by the placement and the consequence was that the Government of Tanzania received US $6 million less than it would have received but for that payment. The interest figure of US $1,153,125 is calculated by reference to interest paid on the loan and, by the time of repayment, will amount to US $1,153,125.”

That the Government of Tanzania was a victim is speculative and an open to question.

The private placement bond offering SB facilitated was unrated (and thus risky) and represented, according to SB, the first ever benchmark-sized private placement by a sub-Saharan sovereign. According to SB, “the transaction was privately placed with 116 investors with a wide geographic mix of accounts and resulted in the government raising substantial funds for infrastructural investment in a most efficient and cost-effective manner.”

To properly analyze whether the Government of Tanzania was a “victim” of SB’s conduct, two factors would have to be analyzed: (i) did the government have other options in the transaction or was SB the only investment bank willing to facilitate the transaction given its risky nature?; and (ii) if there were other options, what was the fee structure for the other options – more specifically did other investment banks offer to structure the transaction for less than 2.4% of the proceeds (representing the original 1.4% fee plus the additional 1% fee at issue in the enforcement action)? In this regard, it must be noted, as the SEC found in its related enforcement action, that the Government of Tanzania “had been unsuccessful in obtaining a credit rating, making a EuroBond offering unfeasible.”

Regarding disgorgement, Sir Levenson stated:

“The legislation specifically identifies disgorgement of profit as a legitimate requirement of a DPA. […] The provision is clearly underpinned by public policy which properly favours the removal of benefit in such circumstances. In this case, no allowance has been made for the costs incurred by Standard Bank (to such extent as they can be put into money terms) and the proposal is that it should disgorge the fee which Standard Bank and Stanbic received as joint lead managers in relation to this transaction, namely 1.4% or US $8.4 million. Again, there is no suggestion that Standard Bank does not have the means and ability to disgorge this sum.”

The above logic is simplistic – as it often is in many FCPA enforcement actions – and ignores basic causation issues. (See prior posts hereherehere, and here). Moreover, the disgorgement in the SB action follows the oft criticized “no-charged bribery disgorgement” approach often used in the U.S.

Regarding the financial penalty, Sir Levenson stated:

“[F]or offences of bribery, the appropriate figure will normally be the gross profit from the contract obtained, retained or sought as a result of the offending. As has been discussed in regard to appropriate disgorgement of profits, in this case, it has been taken as the total fee retained in respect of the transaction by Standard Bank and Stanbic as the Joint Lead Managers, that is to say, the sum of US $8.4 million. The Sentencing Council Guideline identifies the starting point for a medium level of culpability as 200% of the ‘harm’ i.e. gross profit, with a range of 100% to 300% (cf. a starting point of 300% with a category range of 250-400% for high culpability).

It is then necessary to fix the level by reference to factors which increase and reduce the seriousness of the offending. As regards aggravation, although not an offence of bribery, there were serious failings on the part of Standard Bank in regard to the conduct at issue at a time when the Bank was well aware that further regulatory enforcement measures were in train: these led to a fine by the FCA for failings in internal controls relating to anti-money laundering. Further, in this context, it must be underlined that the predicate offending by Stanbic resulted in substantial harm to the public and, in particular, the loss of US$ 6m. from the money being borrowed by the Government of Tanzania for much needed public infrastructure projects.

On the other side of the coin, the mitigating features include the fact that Standard Bank (a company without previous convictions) volunteered to self-report promptly and both facilitated and fully cooperated with the investigation which the SFO conducted. Further, there is no evidence that the failure to raise concerns about antibribery and corruption risks (as opposed to money laundering concerns which led to the FCA regulatory action) was more widespread within the organisation. Finally, the transaction took place when the Bank was differently owned and, additionally, the business unit that carried it out is no longer owned by Standard Bank.

In the circumstances, I consider it appropriate that the provisional agreement is to take a multiplier of 300% which is the upper end of medium culpability and the starting point of higher culpability. This leads to a figure of US $25.2 million before the court must (following Step 5 of the Sentencing Council Guideline) ‘step back’ and consider the overall effect of its orders such that the combination achieves “removal of all gain, appropriate additional punishment and deterrence”. Bearing in mind, inter alia, the value, worth or available means of the offender and the impact of the financial penalties including on employment of staff, service users, customers and local economy (but not shareholders), the guideline is clear that: “The fine must be substantial enough “to have a real economic impact which will bring home to both management and shareholders the need to operate within the law”.

In assessing the financial penalty, Sir Levenson found comfort as follows.

“Bearing in mind the observations of Thomas LJ in Innospec Ltd [see here for the prior post], a useful check is to be obtained by considering the approach that would have been adopted by the US authorities had the Department of Justice taken the lead in the investigation and pursuit of this wrongdoing. Suffice to say that the American authorities have been concerned with the circumstances and have been conducting an inquiry in connection with possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, 15 USC para. 78dd-1. Noting the co-operation of Standard Bank and Stanbic with them, the Department of Justice has confirmed that the financial penalty is comparable to the penalty that would have been imposed had the matter been dealt with in the United States and has intimated that if the matter is resolved in the UK, it will close its inquiry. In the circumstances, there is nothing to cast doubt on the extent to which these aspects of the proposed approach are fair, reasonable and proportionate.”

In  conclusion, Sir Levenson stated:

“It is obviously in the interests of justice that the SFO has been able to investigate the circumstances in which a UK registered bank acquiesced in an arrangement (however unwittingly) which had many hallmarks of bribery on a large scale and which both could and should have been prevented. Neither should it be thought that, in the hope of getting away with it, Standard Bank would have been better served by taking a course which did not involve self report, investigation and provisional agreement to a DPA with the substantial compliance requirements and financial implications that follow. For my part, I have no doubt that Standard Bank has far better served its shareholders, its customers and its employees (as well as all those with whom it deals) by demonstrating its recognition of its serious failings and its determination in the future to adhere to the highest standards of banking. Such an approach can itself go a long way to repairing and, ultimately, enhancing its reputation and, in consequence, its business. It can also serve to underline the enormous importance which is rightly attached to the culture of compliance with the highest ethical standards that is so essential to banking in this country.”

That SB “far better served its shareholders” and other stakeholders by voluntarily disclosing is of course an opinion.

In this regard, it bears repeating that SB voluntarily disclosed “within days of the suspicions coming to the Bank’s attention, and before its solicitors had commenced (let alone completed) its own investigation.” In the minds of many, SB’s disclosure is likely to be viewed as premature, careless and indeed reckless.

As it turned out – as further explored in yesterday’s post – the conduct at issue in the SB enforcement action involved just one transaction, against the backdrop of SB having various policies and procedures designed to minimize the same conduct giving rising to the enforcement action, and against the further backdrop of – in the words of the judge – “Standard Bank [having] no previous convictions for bribery and corruption nor has it been the subject of any other criminal investigations by the SFO” and “there is no evidence that the failure to raise concerns about anti-bribery and corruption risks … was more widespread within the organization.”

Given these circumstances, an alternative to voluntary disclosure – and an approach that would have likely better served SB’s shareholders – would have been, after a thorough investigation, promptly implementing remedial measures, and effectively revising and enhancing compliance policies and procedures – all internally and without disclosing to the SFO or other law enforcement agencies.

Fittingly Foolish

Foolish

Last week – on April Fools’ Day – the SEC announced this administrative action against KBR Inc.

It was fitting because the action was foolish.

In the words of the SEC:

“The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, enacted on July 21, 2010, amended the Exchange Act by adding Section 21F, “Whistleblower Incentives and Protection.” The congressional purpose underlying these provisions was “to encourage whistleblowers to report possible violations of the securities laws by providing financial incentives, prohibiting employment-related retaliation, and providing various confidentiality guarantees.” […]

To fulfill this congressional purpose, the Commission adopted Rule 21F-17, which provides in relevant part: (a) No person may take any action to impede an individual from communicating directly with the Commission staff about a possible securities law violation, including enforcing, or threatening to enforce, a confidentiality agreement . . . with respect to such communications.”

As to KBR, the SEC stated:

“As part of its compliance program, KBR regularly receives complaints and allegations from its employees of potential illegal or unethical conduct by KBR or its employees, including allegations of potential violations of the federal securities laws. KBR’s practice is to conduct internal investigations of these allegations. KBR investigators typically interview KBR employees (including the employees who originally lodged the complaint or allegation) as part of the internal investigations.

Prior to the promulgation of Rule 21F-17 and continuing into the time that Rule 21F-17 has been in effect, KBR has used a form confidentiality statement as part of these internal investigations. Although use of the form confidentiality statement is not required by KBR policy, the statement is included as an enclosure to the KBR Code of Business Conduct Investigation Procedures manual, and KBR investigators have had witnesses sign the statement at the start of an interview.

The form confidentiality statement that KBR has used before and since the SEC adopted Rule 21F-17 requires witnesses to agree to the following provisions: I understand that in order to protect the integrity of this review, I am prohibited from discussing any particulars regarding this interview and the subject matter discussed during the interview, without the prior authorization of the Law Department. I understand that the unauthorized disclosure of information may be grounds for disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.”

And now for the foolish part.  The SEC specifically stated:

“Though the Commission is unaware of any instances in which (i) a KBR employee was in fact prevented from communicating directly with Commission Staff about potential securities law violations, or (ii) KBR took action to enforce the form confidentiality agreement or otherwise prevent such communications, the language found in the form confidentiality statement impedes such communications by prohibiting employees from discussing the substance of their interview without clearance from KBR’s law department under penalty of disciplinary action including termination of employment. This language undermines the purpose of Section 21F and Rule 21F-17(a), which is to “encourage[e] individuals to report to the Commission.”

Based on the above, the SEC found that KBR violated Rule 21F-17.

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings, KBR agreed to pay a civil monetary penalty of $130,000.

A far more prudent approach would have been for the SEC to issue a Section 21(a) Report of Investigation (see here).

The supreme irony of the SEC’s enforcement action?

While faulting KBR for its non-existent, theoretical muzzling of individuals, the SEC routinely muzzles corporate defendants in SEC enforcement actions.

For instance, the recent PBSJ deferred prosecution agreement with the SEC stated:

“Respondent agrees not to take any action or to make or permit any public statement through present or future attorneys, employees, agents, or other persons authorized to speak for it, except in legal proceedings in which the Commission is not a party in litigation or otherwise, denying, directly or indirectly, any aspect of this Agreement or creating the impression that the statements in [the Statement of Facts” are without factual basis. […] Prior to issuing a press release concerning this Agreement, the Respondent agrees to have the text of the release approved by the staff of the Division.”

The Ralph Lauren non-prosecution agreement and the Tenaris deferred prosecution agreement contained the same muzzle clauses.

The “Muzzle” Clause

In December 2012, the DOJ announced here as follows.

“Standard Chartered Bank, a financial institution headquartered in London, has agreed to forfeit $227 million to the Justice Department for conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).  The bank has agreed to the forfeiture as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department and a deferred prosecution agreement with the New York County District Attorney’s Office for violating New York state laws by illegally moving millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on behalf of sanctioned Iranian, Sudanese, Libyan and Burmese entities.  The bank has also entered into settlement agreements with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.”

As indicated in the above release, Standard Chartered agreed to resolve its potential exposure via a deferred prosecution agreement.

Like DPAs in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act context, the Standard Chartered DPA required the company to accept responsiblity for the conduct set forth in the agreement.

Like DPAs in the FCPA context, the Standard Chartered DPA contained a “public statements” clause under which the company was prohibited, directly or indirectly through others (such as attorneys, consultants, etc.), from making “any public statements contradicting the acceptance of responsibility.”  If the company, directly or indirectly, made such public statements, it would constitute, subject to cure rights, “a willful and material breach” of the DPA thereby subjecting the company to criminal prosecution.  A further provision in the “public statements” clause was that the determination of whether a public statement contradicts acceptance of responsibility “shall be in the sole discretion” of the DOJ.  A further provision in the clause was that the company shall not issue a press release or hold a press conference concerning the facts at issue in the DPA without first consulting with the DOJ “to determine (a) whether the text of the release or proposed statements at the press conference are true and accurate with respect to matters between the United States and [the company]; and (b) whether the United States has no objection to the release.”

Portions of the Standard Chartered “public statements” clause were recently triggered.  (See here from the Wall Street Journal and here from the U.K. Guardian).

In short, during a recent earnings conference call with investors, Standard Chartered Chairman John Peace was asked a question “concerning individual employee conduct and compensation” following the DPA.  Peace responded, when asked about bonuses for executives, as follows. “We had no wilful act to avoid sanctions; you know, mistakes are made – clerical errors – and we talked about last year a number of transactions which clearly were clerical errors or mistakes that were made.”

According to the Wall Street Journal article, prosecutors “pounced when they heard Mr. Peace’s comments” and demanded a copy of the conference call transcript.  According to the article, “Mr. Peace and other top executives were [soon] in Washington to [apologize] before a room full of top prosecutors at the U.S. Justice Department, which has threatened to bring criminal charges if Mr. Peace didn’t recant.”  According to the article, “Standard Chartered officials and the U.S. prosecutors spent more than a week negotiating possible wording of the bank’s retraction.”

On March 21st, Mr. Peace, through the company, issued this statement which read as follows.

“I, together with Chief Executive Officer Peter Sands and Group Finance Director Richard Meddings, representing Standard Chartered Bank (the “Group”), held a press conference where certain questions were asked concerning individual employee conduct and compensation in light of the deferred prosecution agreements made with the US Department of Justice and the New York County District Attorney’s Office in December 2012.  During that press conference, which took place via phone, I made certain statements that I very much regret and that were at best inaccurate.

In particular, I made the following statements in reference to a question regarding the reduction of bonuses for [company] executives:  We had no willful act to avoid sanctions; you know, mistakes are made – clerical errors – and we talked about last year a number of transactions which clearly were clerical errors or mistakes that were made…

My statement that [the company] “had no willful act to avoid sanctions” was wrong, and directly contradicts [the company’s] acceptance of responsibility in the deferred prosecution agreement and accompanying factual statement.

Standard Chartered Bank, together with me, Mr. Peter Sands and Mr.  Richard Meddings, who jointly hosted the press conference, retract the comment I made as both legally and factually incorrect. To be clear, Standard Chartered Bank unequivocally acknowledges and accepts responsibility, on behalf of the Bank and its employees, for past knowing and willful criminal conduct in violating US economic sanctions laws and regulations, and related New York criminal laws, as set out in the deferred prosecution agreement.  I, Mr. Sands, Mr. Meddings, and Standard Chartered Bank apologize for the statements I made to the contrary.”

I’ve written before about what I will call the “muzzle” clause in FCPA DPAs.

In response to an FCPA commentator who believed that NPAs and DPAs have never been used to resolve cases that do not actually represent provable FCPA violations – because the commentator had never heard any complaint “from any practitioners, on or off the record, in public or in private” of this being the case – I noted that there was a simple explanation for this.  I then proceeded to analyze a “muzzle” clause in an FCPA DPA.  See here for the prior post.

Greater scrutiny is needed of “muzzle” clauses.

First, the DOJ can use its leverage and its ability to bring criminal charges against a company.  Second, the DOJ will can then use an NPA or DPA to insulate its version of the facts and enforcement theories from judicial scrutiny which the risk averse company will more often that not accept.  Third, in the resolution agreement, the DOJ can include a “muzzle” clause prohibiting anyone associated with the company from making any statement inconsistent with the DOJ’s version of the facts or its enforcement theories.  Fourth, if the DOJ believes, in its sole discretion, that a public statement has been made contradicting its version of the facts or its enforcement theories, the DOJ can “pounce” and threaten to bring criminal charges.

Is this an effective system of justice?

Is this consistent with the rule of law (recognizing that one accepted factor in analyzing the rule of law is distribution of authority in a manner that ensures that no single organ of government has the practical ability to exercise unchecked power)?

Professor Ellen Podgor has rightfully asked on the her White Collar Crime Prof Blog (see here) whether the government can include such clauses in resolution agreements without infringing on First Amendment rights.

Reacting to the August 2012 DOJ enfocement action against Gibson Guitar resolved with a DPA (with a “muzzle” clause), Harvey Silverglate(author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”) wrote in this Wall Street Journal opinion piece as follows.

“Put another way, Gibson is now forbidden to tell the world the whole truth about its conduct and its reasons for settling a case it previously claimed publicly, including in an opinion piece in [the Wall Street Journal], involved no criminal conduct on its part. In exchange for agreeing to read the government’s script, Gibson regained its ability to conduct business without a federal sword of Damocles dangling over its corporate head.  This naked effort by federal prosecutors to control both news and outcomes, not to mention their own reputations, does not surprise those familiar with the modern federal criminal justice system.”

As noted in this previous post, when the U.K. Serious Fraud office attempted to insert a “muzzle” clause in its Innospec resolution documents, it received a lashing from Lord Justice Thomas who stated as follows.  “It would be inconceivable for a prosecutor to approve a press statement to be made by a person convicted of burglary or rape; companies who are guilty of corruption should be treated no differently to others who commit serious crimes.”

Whether in the FCPA context or otherwise, “muzzle” clauses are in need of greater scrutiny.

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