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The Bribery Racket

Those are the words on the cover of the current issue of Forbes Magazine.

The feature article (here) by Nathan Vardi is “How Federal Crackdown on Bribery Hurts Business And Enriches Insiders.”

Given my soon to be published piece, “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement” and my other comments on FCPA Inc., the FCPA’s revolving door, voluntary disclosure and the role of FCPA counsel, etc. (see here, here, here and here), Vardi’s article resonates with me, and perhaps with you as well.

Below are a few snippets from Vardi’s article:

“[FCPA is” nice work if you can get it–and to the tune of billions of dollars, lawyers, accountants and consultants, many with past ties to the Justice Department, are getting it. In the last few years, as the feds cranked up enforcement of the 33-year-old Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a thriving and lucrative anti-bribery complex has emerged. Whether it’s having any impact on reducing bribery is another matter. Instead, companies can find themselves getting extorted in foreign lands, only to get extorted again by Washington. It works generally like this: A company that suspects bribery overseas hires a battery of lawyers, accountants and investigators who may then report any findings to Justice in hopes of some undefined leniency. More likely, the company pays out huge fines and then hires more lawyers as government-mandated compliance monitors, a job that can stretch into years of legal billing.”

“This is good business for law firms,” says Joseph Covington, who headed the Justice Department’s FCPA efforts in the 1980s and is now codirector of white-collar defense at Jenner & Block. “This is good business for accounting firms, it’s good business for consulting firms, the media–and Justice Department lawyers who create the marketplace and then get yourself a job.”

“[Mark] Mendelsohn declines to comment on his new job other than to note that it is routine for lawyers who leave the Justice Department to do white-collar defense work for corporations.” (For more on Mendelsohn see here and here)

“What are these prosecutors accomplishing? Maybe they are fighting for truth and justice. Maybe, that is, it makes sense for the U.S. to hold its corporations to a higher standard of integrity than the French or Chinese outfits they compete against when trying to win business abroad. The prosecutors, though, are doing something else at the same time. They are creating a lucrative industry–FCPA defense work–in which they will someday be prime candidates for the cushy assignments. A former prosecutor, to be sure, does not work on the defense of the same case he had as a government lawyer. But there is nothing to stop prosecutors from ginning up cases that will feed the lawyers who used to have their jobs or from looking forward to a payday in the private sector that will be made possible by their busy successors at Justice.”

“Many of the 150 pending cases will probably end with so-called deferred prosecution agreements. These involve the government threatening to bring an indictment against a company–which could effectively put the firm out of business–unless it agrees to adhere to certain practices. This hammer gives the feds immense power–for one thing, they don’t have to prove their legal theories of bribery in court.” (For more on non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements and the FCPA see here).

“The scope of things companies have to worry about is enlarging all the time as the government asserts violations in circumstances where it’s unclear if they would prevail in court,” says Lucinda Low, who has helped companies deal with the FCPA for years. “You don’t have the checks and balances you would normally have if you had more litigation.”

“The FCPA provides moneymaking opportunities even after a case is resolved. Following settlements the Justice Department often requires companies to hire a compliance monitor, whose job is to review a company’s continuing anti-bribery efforts. It seems that an important qualification for these gigs is having previously worked at the Justice Department–as 7 of the 13 FCPA monitors have done. When it came time for Daimler to pick a government-mandated compliance monitor for three years, the company hired former fbi director Louis Freeh.” (For more see here and here).

Vardi also discusses the recent NATCO matter (see here) – a case that resulted in a $65,000 SEC civil monetary penalty. Vardi states, “Natco reported the issue to the government and paid outside lawyers and accountants $11 million to investigate, causing Natco cash-flow problems.” (For additional voluntary disclosure cases that have seemingly gotten out-of-hand see here).

There’s alot in Vardi’s article.

So, what do you think?

As always, comments (even if anonymous) are welcome.

Ready, Set, Go …

The 2010 FCPA enforcement year has begun.

Yesterday, the SEC announced (here) resolution of an FCPA books and records and internal controls action against NATCO Group Inc. – a Houston based “worldwide leader in design, manufacture, and service” of oil and gas process equipment (see here).

The SEC complaint (here) alleges that TEST Automation & Controls, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of NATCO Group, “created and accepted false documents while paying extorted immigration fines and obtaining immigration visas in the Republic of Kazakhstan.” According to the complaint, “NATCO’s system of internal accounting controls failed to ensure that TEST recorded the true purpose of the payments, and NATCO’s consolidated books and records did not accurately reflect these payments.”

According to the complaint, TEST maintained a branch office in Kazakhstan and in June 2005 it won a contract which required it to hire both expatriates and local Kazakh workers. Pursuant to Kazakh law, TEST needed to obtain immigration documentation before an expatriate worker could enter the country. Thereafter, Kazakh immigration authorities claimed that TEST’s expatriate workers were working without proper documentation and the authorities threatened to fine, jail, or deport the workers if TEST did not pay cash fines.

According to the complaint, TEST employees believed the threats to be genuine and, after consulting with U.S. TEST management who authorized the payments, paid the officials approximately $45,0000 using their personal funds for which the employees were reimbursed by TEST.

The complaint alleges that when reimbursing the employees for these payments, TEST inaccurately described the money as: (i) being an advance on a bonus; and (ii) visa fines.

The complaint further alleges that TEST used consultants in Kazakhstan to assist in obtaining immigration documentation for its expatriate employees and that “one of these consultants did not have a license to perform visa services, but maintained close ties to an employee working at the Kazakh Ministry of Labor, the entity issuing the visas.” According to the complaint, the consultant twice requested cash from TEST to help him obtain the visas and the complaint alleges that the consultant provided TEST with bogus invoices to support the payments.

Based on the above allegations, the SEC charged NATCO with FCPA books and records and internal control violations even though the complaint is completely silent as to any involvement or knowledge by NATCO in the conduct at issue. This action is thus the latest example of an issuer being strictly liable for a subsidiary’s books and records violations (see here for a prior post).

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, NATCO agreed to pay a $65,000 civil penalty. According to the SEC’s findings in a related cease and desist order (here), during a routine internal audit review, NATCO discovered potential issues involving payments at TEST, conducted an internal investigation, and voluntarily disclosed the results to the SEC. The order also lists several other remedial measures NATCO implemented.

I’ve noted in prior posts that one of the effects of voluntary disclosure is that it sets into motion a whole series of events including, in many cases, a much broader review of the company’s operations so that the company can answer the enforcement agencies’ “where else may this have occurred” question.

On this issue, the SEC order states that NATCO “expanded its investigation to examine TEST’s other worldwide operations, including Nigeria, Angola, and China, geographic locations with historic FCPA concerns.” However, the SEC order notes that “NATCO’s expanded internal investigation of TEST uncovered no wrongdoing.”

According to the complaint, at all times relevant to the complaint, NATCO’s stock was listed on the NYSE, but in November 2009 NATCO became a subsidiary of Cameron International Corporation (here) (an NYSE listed company) and NATCO’s NYSE listing ended.

The NATCO enforcement action is “as garden variety” of an FCPA enforcement action as perhaps one will find. Not only does moving product into and out of a country expose a company to FCPA risk, but so too does moving employees into and out of a country.

The NATCO civil penalty also demonstrates that in certain cases, the smallest “cost” of an alleged FCPA violation are the fines or penalties, figures which are so dwarfed by investigative, remedial and resolution costs.

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