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SEC Files Opposition Brief To Jackson and Ruehlen’s Motion To Dismiss

This previous post discussed the February 2012 SEC FCPA enforcement action against Mark Jackson (former Noble Corporation CEO) and James Ruehlen (current Director and Division Manager of Noble’s subsidiary in Nigeria).  The enforcement action is based on the same core set of facts alleged in the 2010 Noble Corporation enforcement action (see here for the prior post).  The February 2012 post noted that unlike the vast majority of FCPA defendants (corporate and individual) charged in an SEC enforcement action, Jackson and Ruehlen appeared poised to launch a defense.

This previous post discussed Jackson’s and Ruehlen’s May 2012 motion to dismiss and noted the significance of the event in terms of the SEC’s FCPA enforcement program as the SEC is rarely put to its burden of proof in FCPA enforcement actions.  To my knowledge, the Jackson and Ruehlen enforcement action represents the first time since the SEC lost the Mattson and Harris individual enforcement actions in 2002 (see here for a prior post discussing the case) that the Commission will be put to its burden of proof in an FCPA enforcement action.

Last Friday the SEC filed its opposition to the motion to dismiss (here) and in summary fashion the SEC’s opposition brief states as follows.

“The Complaint charges defendants Jackson and Ruehlen, a former and current senior officer of Noble Corporation (“Noble”), respectively, with multiple violations of the anti-bribery and accounting provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1, and other violations of the federal securities laws. Noble, an international oil drilling company, used for years an intermediary “customs agent” to pay bribes to government officials of the Nigerian Customs Service and other Nigerian government officials. Jackson and Ruehlen were intimately involved in arranging, approving, falsely booking, and concealing Noble’s bribe payments to foreign officials. Together, the defendants participated in paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to improperly obtain approximately eight illegitimate duty exemptions, known as temporary import permits (“TIPs”), and twenty-two TIP extensions. These TIPs and extensions were obtained illicitly so that Noble’s oil rigs offshore in Nigeria could continue to operate under lucrative drilling contracts. Jackson approved the payments and concealed the payments from Noble’s audit committee and auditors. Ruehlen prepared false documents as to the movement of the rigs, sought approval for the payments from Jackson and others at Noble, and processed and paid the bribe money to the intermediary customs agent.

Defendants contend that the Commission has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(6). They attack the sufficiency of the Complaint in scattershot fashion, but their arguments distilled to their essence advance six primary arguments for dismissal:

First, the defendants argue that the SEC must allege the “specific identity” of Nigerian officials for whom the defendants authorized the payment of bribes. This line of argument finds no support in the text, legislative history, case law, or purposes of the FCPA. Defendants authorized bribes to foreign officials through intermediaries. The Complaint identifies the officials by country and government agency and alleges defendants’ corrupt intent to improperly influence those officials through the payment of money. Neither the FCPA nor the notice pleading standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) require anything more. As the language, text, legislative history and policies of the FCPA confirm, a violation of its provisions rests with the intent of the person authorizing the bribes, not with the identity or role of the official targeted for bribery. The name, title or exact position of the official need not be pleaded or proved, as confirmed by decisions under analogous domestic bribery statutes.

Second, the defendants argue that the Complaint fails to allege facts to support the inference that their payments fell outside of the FCPA’s statutory “routine governmental action” (a.k.a. “facilitating payments”) exception. Yet, the SEC is not required to plead preemptively around a statutory exception that a defendant might invoke. For over a century, including in the securities context, the Supreme Court has held that a pleading based on a general provision that defines the elements of a statutory violation need not negate an exception made by proviso or otherwise to those elements. The “facilitating payments” exception fits that rule. Thus, the defendants, not the SEC, must raise the exception’s application in the pleadings and prove its applicability at trial. Moreover, the Complaint satisfies any purported need to “plead around” the exception. The well-pled facts, such as that the bribes were paid to induce foreign officials to falsely certify facts and accept false paperwork, indicate that defendants’ bribes were not “facilitating payments,” i.e., payments authorized to expedite or secure the performance of an ordinarily or commonly performed official act.

Third, Ruehlen claims that the FCPA’s routine government action exception is unconstitutionally vague as applied to him. Claims of this nature have been soundly rejected by the courts, including by the Fifth Circuit. Also, the Complaint abundantly alleges that Ruehlen sought and obtained authorizations to pay bribes that cannot be understood reasonably as anything other than crossing the line of prohibited conduct.

Fourth, the defendants contend that the Complaint does not allege facts giving rise to the inference that they acted “corruptly.” This attack on the Complaint ignores the well-pled facts and misconstrues the law. The legislative history of the FCPA and the decisions in the Fifth Circuit and elsewhere reject defendants’ definition of “corruptly.” Defendants also overlook that states of mind, such as intent and purposes, may be alleged generally. The Complaint alleges defendants’ corrupt intent, and the allegations are supported by ample facts.

Fifth, the defendants seek to dismiss the Complaint as insufficiently pleading alleged securities violations other than bribery. Defendants, for example, argue that the SEC fails to specify the books and records that were falsified and the internal controls that they evaded. Defendants’ line of arguments directed to these issues are, first, largely premised on their attack on the Commission’s bribery claims – an attack that this Court should reject. In addition, the defendants simply ignore the facts actually pled in the Complaint. The allegations set forth in great detail what Jackson and Ruehlen claim not to find in the Complaint, including identifying the books and records falsified and the internal controls evaded or not implemented.

Sixth, the defendants argue that the Complaint is untimely because the applicable statute of limitations permits relief only for conduct occurring five years before the filing of the Complaint on February 24, 2012. Yet buried in footnotes in their briefs, the defendants admit that they signed tolling agreements extending the statute of limitations. The Complaint alleges violative conduct within the limitations period even absent the tolling agreement. What is more, various equitable doctrines would apply to toll the statute. And the statute of limitations does not apply to claims for equitable relief such as injunctions.

Finally, throughout each of their briefs, defendants intermittently challenge facts asserted in the Complaint, advance facts not alleged in the Complaint but purportedly reflected elsewhere, and argue for inferences favorable to them. At the pleadings stage, these arguments are not a proper basis for granting a motion to dismiss and must be rejected. The Commission has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted for each of Claims One through Seven, and defendants’ motions to dismiss should be denied.”

Will The SEC Be Put To Its Burden Of Proof In The Jackson And Ruehlen Enforcement Action?

As discussed in this previous post, in November 2010, Noble Corporation was one of several companies to resolve FCPA enforcement actions in what I called CustomsGate – enforcement actions largely focused on alleged payments to Nigerian customs officials to receive various permits.  The Noble enforcement action involved both a DOJ and SEC component. Total settlement amount was approximately $8.2 million ($2.6 million criminal fine via a non-prosecution agreement; $5.6 million in disgorgement and interest via a SEC complaint).

As noted in the previous post, in the Noble Corporation enforcement action it was stated, not once but twice, that the payments at issue “would not constitute facilitation payments for routine governmental actions within the meaning of the FCPA.”  I noted then that one can reasonably conclude that if the DOJ felt the need to express such a statement twice, that the FCPA’s facilitating payment exception should probably be on the minds of many in connection with the CustomsGate enforcement  actions.

Against the backdrop of recent and well-deserved scrutiny of the DOJ’s FCPA enforcement program, the SEC reminds us all that it too can enforce the FCPA.  [As an aside, Professor Barbara Black (University of Cincinnati College of Law) recently released her forthcoming scholarship – see here – “The SEC and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act:  Fighting Global Corruption is Not Part of the SEC’s Mission].

Last Friday, the SEC announced here charges against “three oil services executives with violating the FCPA by participating in a bribery scheme to obtain illicit permits for oil rigs in Nigeria in order to retain business under lucrative drilling contracts.”

In this complaint filed in the S.D. of Texas, the SEC charged Mark Jackson (former Noble Corporation CEO) and James Ruehlen (current Director and Division Manager of Noble’s subsidiary in Nigeria) based on the same core set of facts relevant to the prior corporate enforcement action – namely that Noble and its wholly-owned subsidiary (Noble-Nigeria) “authorized its customs agent to pay bribes” on the companies behalf “to Nigerian government officials to influence or induce them to (1) favorably process false paperwork, (2) grant temporary import permits (TIPs) based on the false paperwork, and (3) favorably exercise or abuse their discretion in granting extensions to these illicit TIPs.”

The complaint (a meaty 46 pages) next states, in summary fashion, as follows.

“Defendants approved payment of the bribes.  Defendant Ruehlen also assisted the customs agent in preparing false documents, processed the customs agent’s invoices for the bribes, and signed the checks reimbursing the customs agent for the bribes he paid to Nigerian government officials.  Defendants acted in this way to obtain TIPs and TIP extensions and retain business under drilling contracts in Nigeria.  As a consequence, Defendants violated the anti-bribery provisions [of the FCPA.]  Defendants also took steps to circumvent Noble’s internal controls and to falsely record these bribes as legitimate operating expenses on Noble’s books.  Defendant Jackson failed to implement internal accounting controls to prevent the bribery and false recording of the bribes.  As a consequence, Defendants violated the records falsification and internal control provisions of the Exchange Act and aided and abetted Noble’s violations of the books and records and internal control provisions [of the FCPA].  Defendant Jackson misled Noble’s auditors about the bribes and signed certifications required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 falsely stating that he had created and maintained effective internal controls, and that there were no internal control weaknesses, fraud or FCPA violations.  As a consequence, Jackson violated Rules 13b2-2 and 13a-14 of the Exchange Act.  During the violations, Jackson was Noble’s Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and ultimately President and Chief Executive Officer, and Chairman of the Board of Directors.  Jackson directly or indirectly controlled Noble, Defendant Ruehlen, and others, and therefore is liable as a control person under Section 20(a) of the Exchange Act for all of their violations.”

[For previous Section 20(a) control person (or similar) FCPA enforcement actions – see here and here.]

Unlike the vast majority of FCPA defendants (corporate and individual) charged in an SEC enforcement action, Jackson and Ruehlen appear poised to launch a defense.

Jackson’s lawyer, David Krakoff (here – BuckleySandler) stated as follows.  “We unequivocally deny the SEC’s baseless allegations. Mr. Jackson will vigorously defend himself in court where the evidence will show what the SEC already knows, that at all times Mr. Jackson acted in good faith at Noble. He looks forward to clearing his good name in this proceeding.”

Ruehlen’s lawyer F. Joseph Warin (here – Gibson Dunn & Crutcher) told the Wall Street Journal  that his client was the one who initially raised concerns about the payments and that Ruehlen “fully cooperated throughout the investigation and always acted in an ethical and transparent manner.”  Warin stated that “the claims against Mr. Ruehlen are wrong and they will be proven so at trial.”

This will be most interesting to follow as the SEC is rarely put to its burden of proof in FCPA enforcement actions (or any of its actions for that matter).  This is due to the SEC’s long-standing policy of allowing defendants to settle SEC complaints without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations.  For recent judicial scrutiny of this settlement device, see this prior post.

The last time the SEC is believed to have been put to its burden of proof in an FCPA enforcement action was in the Eric Mattson and James Harris enforcement action also filed in the S.D. of Texas.  Like the Jackson and Ruehlen enforcement action, the Mattson and Harris enforcement action involved conduct outside the context of foreign government procurement.  As detailed in this Memorandum and Order, the SEC had its FCPA anti-bribery charges dismissed in that case.  The case involved alleged goodwill payments to an Indonesian tax official for a reduction in a tax assessment.  The SEC claimed that the FCPA’s unambiguous language plainly encompassed the goodwill payment and the issue before the Court was whether the plain language of the FCPA prohibited goodwill payments for the purpose of reducing a tax assessment.  When Mattson and Harris was decided, the S.D. of Texas in U.S. v. Kay case had already dismissed that case finding that the plain language of the FCPA does not prohibit goodwill payments to foreign government officials to reduce a tax obligation.  The SEC attempted to distinguish the trial court’s Kay ruling by arguing that in the civil enforcement context, the Court should interpret the FCPA’s language more liberally than in criminal cases.  The Court rejected the SEC’s arguments and followed the trial court’s analysis in Kay that the payments at issue to the Indonesian tax official did not violate the FCPA because it did not help Mattson’s and Harris’s employer (Baker Hughes) “obtain or retain business.”

Of course, the 5th Circuit overturned the Kay trial court ruling and held that making payments to a “foreign official” to lower
taxes and custom duties in a foreign country can provide an unfair advantage to the payer over competitors and thereby assist the payer in obtaining and retaining business.  However, the Kay court emphatically 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 5th Circuit then listed several hypothetical examples of how a reduction in custom and tax liabilities could assist a company in obtaining or retaining business in a foreign country. On the other hand, the court also recognized that “there are bound to be circumstances” in which a custom or tax reduction merely increases the profitability of an existing profitable company and thus, presumably, does not assist the payer in obtaining or retaining business.  The court specifically stated:  “[i]f 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.”

The point of this extended discussion in the context of Jackson and Ruehlen is two-fold:  (1) that the SEC has already lost a non-government procurement FCPA case in the S.D. of Texas; and (2) even with the 5th Circuit precedent in Kay, and even taking the SEC’s allegations as true, payments in connection with TIPs would seem to be only to increase the profitability of an existing profitable company and thus – following the logic of the Fifth Circuit – fall outside of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out should the SEC’s FCPA anti-bribery charges be fully litigated in the Jackson and Ruehlen enforcement action.

As noted in the SEC’s release last week, the Noble executive enforcement action also involved a separate complaint (here) against Thomas O’Rourke (the former controller and head of internal audit at Noble).  The complaint alleged that O’Rourke: (1) aided and abetted Noble’s violations of the FCPA anti-bribery provisions, books and records and internal controls provisions; and (2) directly violated the FCPA’s internal controls provisions and false records provisions of the Exchange Act.

Under the heading “defendants’ violations” the SEC alleged, among other things, that O’Rourke: (1) “understood that Noble-Nigeria had used false paperwork to obtain TIPs, and that Noble-Nigeria paid its customs agent for ‘special handling charges’ that were passed through to Nigerian officials; (2) “knew that the ‘special handling charges’ were entered into Noble-Nigeria’s books as legitimate operating expenses, and he knew or was reckless in not knowing that those entries were improper”;  (3) “knowingly allowed TIP-related payments to government officials to be improperly accounted for as legitimate operating expenses.

Like the vast majority of FCPA defendants in SEC enforcement actions, O’Rourke chose to settle the SEC’s complaint without admitting or denying the SEC allegations.  According to the SEC release, O’Rourke consented to entry of a court order requiring him to pay a $35,000 civil penalty and permanently enjoining him from future violations.

*****

Last week I participated in a discussion with Howard Sklar regarding a potential FCPA compliance defense (see here for the webcast.)  In the aftermath of the SEC’s charges against the Noble executives, Sklar penned a Forbes blog (here) and stated as follows.  “One example Mike brings to prove his point [that the FCPA should be amended to include a compliance defense] is the Panalpina line of cases, including Noble.  I don’t think he’ll be able to use the Noble case as an example after today.  These complaints are against the CEO (who formerly held the CFO spot) and the country leader for Nigeria.  Plus, there’s Thomas O’Rourke. Thomas O’Rourke was Noble’s Director of Internal Audit, Controller, and VP of Internal Audit.”

Nice try Howard, but you are off-target.

Sklar is correct that I discuss the Noble Corp. enforcement action (and other related CustomsGate enforcement actions) in my “Revisiting a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Compliance Defense” article (see here at pgs. 9-12 ).  However, that discussion is focused on specific reasons warranting an FCPA compliance defense, including that in many markets, companies subject to the FCPA must navigate challenging environments replete with barriers and other conditions that serve as breeding grounds for payments implicating (at least in the eyes of the enforcement agencies) the FCPA.

In discussing harassment bribes, I then talk about the notoriously corrupt Nigerian Customs Service (“NSC”) and how business interactions with NSC officials have been the basis for several FCPA enforcement actions including the coordinated enforcement actions from November 2010 involving Noble Corp. and others.  Anticipating the counter-argument that the FCPA does not need a compliance defense due to the harassment bribery conditions many companies face in foreign markets because the FCPA already contains a facilitating payments exception, I then stated that so long as the DOJ refuses to recognize a facilitating payments exception to the FCPA, that Congressional intent on the facilitating payments issue is best advanced through an FCPA compliance defense in which a company can assert, as a matter of law, that its pre-existing FCPA policies and procedures sought to prevent such payments in foreign markets.

In short, I was using the Noble Corporation enforcement action in connection with a discussion of facilitating payments, not using that particular enforcement action to support an FCPA compliance defense because it somehow was based on low-level employee conduct.  Indeed, in the DOJ’s non-prosecution agreement (here) which I discussed in this previous post, “Senior Executive,” “Executive A” and “Executive B” are all specifically mentioned as participating in the alleged improper conduct and an FCPA compliance defense would not apply to corporate conduct engaged in by executive officers.

The point of the Noble Corp. reference in my article was that the company should not have been the subject of an FCPA enforcement action based on the alleged conduct because Congress intended to exempt such payments from the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions (regardless of who made, directed, or authorized the payments).

Summer Reading For Representative Conyers

During last week’s FCPA hearing in the House, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) had a contentious Q&A exchange with Shana-Tara Regon (Director, White Collar Crime Policy, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers). See here for the previous post regarding the hearing.

Conyers asked – “give me some examples of overcriminalization of the FCPA.” He repeatedly interrupted Regon and asked “just give me some examples” “give me an instance of where one case was ever brought by the DOJ that would constitute overcriminalization.” Conyers stated, “only 140 cases have been brought in 10 years -that averages 14 cases a year – is that overcriminalization to you?” Regon stated that overcriminlization occurs when a statute provides no reasonable limits and that she is concerned more about prosecutions that may occur in the future more so than prosecutions that have already occurred.

There should be plenty of concern regarding prosecutions that have already occurred, but given the glare of the cameras, the stress of testifying, and the disruption of being interrupted, it would have been difficult for any witness to retrieve from their memory bank specific FCPA enforcement actions.

This post provides a summer reading list of FCPA enforcement actions, commentary and analysis, and legal scholarship for Representative Conyers so that he can best seek answers to the question he posed to Regon.

For starters, what does overcriminalization mean?

To be sure, it can mean different things to different people in different circumstances. In “The Overcriminalization Phenomenon(here) Eric Luna provides this definition – “the overcriminalization phenomenon consists of: (1) untenable offenses; (2) superfluous statutes; (3) doctrines that
overextend culpability; (4) crimes without jurisdictional authority; (5) grossly disproportionate punishments; and (6) excessive or pretextual enforcement of petty violations. In this piece, Jeffrey Parker (while observing that “definitions of “overcriminalization” are a bit fuzzy and debatable”) identifies the following as among the factors that may contribute to overcriminalization: “the vague, arcane, or trivial nature of such prohibitions, as undermining citizens ability to conform, and debasing the moral moment of the criminal sanction” and “the lack of adequate mens rea standards in criminal prohibitions.”

Not all overcriminalization factors are relevant to this “new era of FCPA enforcement” (see here), but in the minds of many, several factors are.

Enforcement Actions

In the 2011 Comverse Technologies enforcement action (see here), the company paid $2.8 million in combined fines and penalties (and no doubt millions more in connection with the investigative and resolution process) to resolve a matter in which the DOJ did not allege that the company even knew about the improper payments at issue. The action was resolved via a non-prosecution agreement meaning there was no judicial scrutiny of the DOJ’s enforcement theory.

In the 2010 Alliance One International enforcement action (see here), the company paid approximately $20 million in combined fines and penalties (and millions more in connection with the investigative and resolution process) to resolve a matter in which it did absolutely nothing wrong. Rather, the entire DOJ enforcement action was based on a successor liability theory. Again, the action was resolved via a non-prosecution agreement meaning there was no judicial scrutiny of the DOJ’s enforcement theory.

In the 2010 Noble Corporation enforcement action (see here), the company paid approximately $8 million in combined fines and penalties (and millions more in connection with the investigative and resolution process) to resolve a matter involving the import and export of goods into Nigeria. When Congress passed the FCPA, its intent as to so-called facilitating or grease payments was clear. Senate Report No. 95-114 (May 2, 1977) states, in pertinent part, as follows. “The statute does not […] cover so-called ‘grease’ payments such as payments for expediting shipments through customs …”. The relevant House Report (No. 95-640, September 28, 1977) similarly states as follows. “The language of the bill is deliberately cast in terms which differentiate between [corrupt payments] and facilitating payments, sometimes called ‘grease payments.’ […] For example, a gratuity paid to a customs official to speed the processing of a customs document would not be reached by this bill. Nor would it reach payments made to secure permits, licenses, or the expeditious performance of similar duties of an essentially ministerial or clerical nature which must of necessity be performed in any event. While payments made to assure or to speed the proper performance of a foreign official’s duties may be reprehensible in the United States, the committee recognizes that they are not necessarily so viewed elsewhere in the world and that it is not feasible for the United States to attempt unilaterally to eradicate all such payments.” The Noble enforcement action was resolved via a non-prosecution agreement meaning, again, there was no judicial scrutiny of the DOJ’s enforcement theory.

And then of course there is the issue of “foreign official” and the fact that most FCPA enforcement actions in this new era are based on alleged improper payments to employees of alleged state-owned or state-controlled enterprises (“SOEs”) on the theory that such business entities are “instrumentalities” of a foreign government and thus all employees, regardless of rank or position, are “foreign officials” under the FCPA. Yet, (1) During its multi-year investigation of foreign corporate payments, Congress was aware of the existence of SOEs and that some of the questionable payments uncovered or disclosed may have involved such entities. (2) In certain of the bills introduced in Congress to address foreign corporate payments, the definition of “foreign government” expressly included SOE entities. These bills were introduced in both the Senate and the House during both the 94th and 95th Congress. (3) Despite being aware of SOEs and despite exhibiting a capability for drafting a definition that expressly included SOEs in other bills, Congress chose not to include such definitions or concepts in what ultimately become the FCPA in 1977. See here for extensive reading on this issue.

Commentary and Analysis

In 2010, Forbes ran a feature article (here) titled “The Bribery Racket” – “How Federal Crackdown on Bribery Hurts Business And Enriches Insiders.” Lucinda Low, a respected FCPA practitioner, notes in the article that “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” and that “you don’t have the checks and balances you would normally have if you had more litigation.” Commenting on the current era of FCPA enforcement, Joseph Covington (who headed the DOJ’s FCPA efforts in the 1980’s) said that the current era “is good business for law firms […] 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.”

Here, Michael Levy (a former Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Columbia and law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.) talks about what he calls prosecutorial common law. Levy states that “prosecutors don’t set out deliberately to interpret criminal statutes in ways that convict hundreds of people on the basis of a standard that not a single Supreme Court Justice finds supportable …”. Levy notes that “we have seen this before in connection with the interpretation of the honest services fraud and obstruction of justice statutes, and it is certainly happening today with the FCPA.”

In this publication, an author group including Philip Urofsky (former Assistant Chief of the DOJ Fraud Section responsible for FCPA enforcement) and Danforth Newcomb (a dean of the FCPA bar) noted that in several recent FCPA enforcement actions “the theories used to hold parents accountable for the acts of subsidiaries and vice versa appear to be unclear.” In other cases, the author group states that in many cases critical elements of the statute were not pleaded or were pled in a way “that is not consistent with established precedent and the language of the statute.”

In a September 10, 2010 interview with the Corporate Crime Reporter, Mark Mendelsohn (the former head of DOJ FCPA enforcement during this era of resurgence who departed the DOJ for private practice in 2010) stated that “some of the factors” the DOJ uses to resolve FCPA cases are transparent, but “there are other factors less easy to see from the outside.” Mendelsohn also noted, in connection with non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements (the common way FCPA enforcement actions are resolved) that the “danger” “is that it is tempting for the Department, or the SEC [to use these vehicles] to seek to resolve cases through DPAs or NPAs that don’t actually constitute violations of the law.”

In this Q&A exchange, Martin Weinstein (a former DOJ FCPA attorney who prosecuted the Lockheed case in the mid-1990’s and is now a prominent FCPA practitioner) stated as follows. “The last decade of FCPA enforcement has seen extraordinary evolution, and I think you have to say that when Congress passed the law in 1977, they did not envision the wide reach of enforcement today and the types of things that the government gets involved in, such as transactions, joint ventures, and successor liability.”

Legal Scholarship

In “Enthusiastic Enforcement, Informal Legislation: The Unruly Expansion of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” (here), Amy Westbrook (Washburn University School of Law) argues that the recent “transformation of the FCPA has been brought about by ad hoc enforcement actions, rather than legislation, judicial decision, or regulation” and that “in the absence of formal process or reasoned articulation, the actual scope of the law is unclear.”

In “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement” (here), I argue that “the FCPA often means what the enforcement agencies say it means” and that “even though the resolution vehicles typically used to resolve an FCPA enforcement action are not subject to judicial scrutiny and [thus] the vehicles do not necessarily reflect the triumph of the enforcement agencies’ theories, in the absence of substantive FCPA case law, these privately negotiated resolution vehicles have come to represent de facto FCPA case law” which breed “inefficient overcompliance by risk averse business actors fearful of enterprise – threatening liability because of the enforcement agencies’ untested and dubious theories.”

“The Payments … Would Not Constitute Facilitation Payments for Routine Governmental Actions Within the Meaning of the FCPA”

The above words are from the DOJ’s non-prosecution agreement with Noble Corporation (“Noble”). The DOJ used this phrase twice in the NPA and one can reasonably conclude that if the DOJ felt the need to express such a statement twice, that the FCPA’s facilitating payment exception is probably on the minds of many in connection with the CustomsGate enforcement actions.

Next up in the analysis of CustomsGate enforcement actions is Noble Corporation (see here). See this prior post for analysis of the GlobalSantaFe enforcement action.

The Noble enforcement action involved both a DOJ and SEC component. Total settlement amount was approximately $8.2 million ($2.6 million criminal fine via a non-prosecution agreement; $5.6 million in disgorgement and interest via a SEC complaint).

During the time period relevant to the enforcement action, Noble was a Cayman Islands company. In March 2009, a new Swiss parent company, also called Noble Corporation, was created and Noble Corporation, the Cayman Islands company, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Swiss parent company.

DOJ

As set forth in the NPA (see here), the DOJ agreed “not to criminally prosecute Noble […] or any of subsidiaries […] related to the making of improper payments by employees and agents of Noble and/or its subsidiaries to officials of the Nigerian Customs Service in connection with Noble’s and/or its subsidiaries’ import and export of goods and items relating to its operations in Nigeria from January 2003 to July 2007, and the accounting and record-keeping associated with these improper payments.”

According to the Statement of Facts in the NPA, a “Nigerian Customs Agent” provided a variety of logistics and customs services for Noble Drilling (Nigeria) Ltd. (“Noble Nigeria”) a wholly-owned subsidiary of Noble and the primary Noble operating company in Nigeria. The Nigerian Customs Agent submitted false documents to Nigerian customs officials on behalf of Noble Nigeria “relating to the temporary importation of rigs owned or operated by Noble Nigeria into Nigerian waters” and the Nigerian Customs Agent invoiced Noble Nigeria and was paid for its services.

The Statement of Facts describes “The Nigerian Temporary Import Process.” As described, if Noble were to “permanently import a rig into Nigerian waters” the customs duties were significant, between 10-20% of the total value of the rig. Alternatively, Noble could import rigs and other items on a temporary basis in which case no customs duties would be assessed. However, as described in the Statement of Facts, “a rig, or other item, could be imported on a temporary basis only if the item: (a) was considered a high valued piece of special equipment, (b) was not available for sale in Nigeria, and (c) was being imported temporarily and was intended to be exported.” If these requirements were met, “a company, through a local customs agent, could apply for a temporary import permit.” (“TIP”).

According to the Statement of Facts, “items imported under a TIP (and TIP extension) could not remain in Nigeria longer than the period allowed for by the TIP and/or TIP extensions. When the TIP (or TIP extension) expired, the owner “could either choose to permanently import the rig … or export the rig and re-import it and obtain a new initial TIP.” According to the Statement of Facts, “the failure to export the rig after the TIP expired could result in the assessment of Nigerian penalties of up to six times its cost.”

The Statement of Facts indicate that Noble Nigeria chose to temporarily import rigs into Nigeria and that Noble Nigeria employed the Nigeria Customs Agent to apply for and secure its TIPs and TIP extension.

According to the Statement of Facts, “whenever a TIP (and related TIP extensions) expired for a rig in Nigeria, the Nigerian Customs Agent, with the knowledge of Noble Nigeria, engaged in a process of submitting false paperwork on Noble Nigeria’s behalf to avoid the time, cost, and risk associated with exporting the rig and reimporting it into Nigerian waters” – the so called “paper process” or a “paper move.” The Statement of Facts further assert that the “Nigeria Customs Agent, with the knowledge of Noble Nigeria, created and caused to be presented to the [Nigeria Customs Service] NCS documents that reflected that the rig had been physically exported and reimported, when, in fact, the rig had remained in Nigeria.”

According to the Statement of Facts, the Nigeria Customs Agent included a line item in its invoices for “special handling charges” and “Noble Nigeria personnel were informed by the Nigerian Customs Agent that all or part of the ‘special handling charges’ would be paid by the Nigeria Customs Agents to NCS officials.” Further, the Statement of Facts assert that “Noble Nigeria personnel approved the payments to the Nigerian Customs Agent with the knowledge that some or all of the payments would be paid to NCS officials.”

The Statement of Facts assert that “certain Noble and Noble Nigeria managers and employees authorized paper moves on five occasions.” In a separate section of the NPA titled, “Corporate Knowledge of the TIP Paper Process” the following statements are made.

“Manager A” (a U.S. citizen and a former manager in Noble’s Internal Audit Department) “interviewed several Noble-Nigeria employees who explained that false paperwork had been created and submitted to NCS officials through the Nigeria Customs Agent in connection with the process of securing TIPs” and that Manager A “also learned that the Nigeria Customs Agent in the past had charged a fee of approximately $75,000 per TIP to secure the TIPS.”

Manager A provided a written summary to Executive A (a U.S. citizen, an officer of Noble, and Head of Internal Audit).

Executive A discussed Manager A’s findings with Executive B (a U.S. citizen, an officer of Noble, and the Vice President-Eastern Hemisphere with management responsibility for Nigerian operations). Executive A then informed the Senior Executive (a U.S. citizen, an officer of Noble, and the former Chief Financial Officer).

The Audit Committee was advised of the “paper process” as was “members of Noble’s senior management.”

Executive B was tasked with “ensuring the Company’s compliance with all applicable rules and regulations related to the importation and exportation of assets in Nigeria…”.

Corrective action was contemplated, such as permanently importing rigs or moving them to a free trade zone, but Manager A and Executive B “decided that due to the time, cost, and risk of permanently importing or moving the rigs, the paper process would be used for three rigs for which TIPs had expired.”

“The Audit Committee was not advised of the decision to resume the paper process.”

Without any elaboration, the Statement of Facts states that the above described payments “would not constitute facilitation payments for routine governmental actions within the meaning of the FCPA.”

The Statement of Facts continue – between May 2005 and March 2006 “a total of five (5) TIPs were obtained through the submission of false documents via the paper process, and each included the payment of ‘special handling fees’ to the Nigeria Customs Agent. The ‘special handling fees’ ranged from approximately $13,800 to $17,000.”

According to the Statement of Facts:

“By their approval of the payments and the process, the Senior Executive, and Executive B caused Noble to inaccurately record in its books, records, and accounts the five (5) “special handling fee” payments paid to the Nigeria Customs Agent in a “facilitation payments” account totaling approximately $74,000, when the Senior Executive, Executive A, and Executive B knew that some or all of these payments would be passed on to NCS officials to obtain TIPs. Thus, such payments could not be facilitation payments for the performance of a “routine governmental action” within the meaning of the FCPA.”

The remainder of the Statement of Facts describes how Executive A failed to advise the Audit Committee and/or concealed from the Audit Committee that the paper process had resumed.

According to the Statement of Facts, “the total benefit received by Noble Nigeria for these payments in avoided costs, duties, and penalties was approximately $2,973,000.”

As noted in the NPA, the DOJ agreed to enter into the NPA based, in part, on the following factors:

“The Department enters into this Non-Prosecution Agreement based, in part, on the following factors: (a) Noble’s discovery of the violations through its own internal investigation; (b) Noble’s timely, voluntary, and complete disclosure of the facts described in [the Statement of Facts]; (c) Noble’s extensive, thorough, real-time cooperation with the Department and the SEC …; (d) Noble’s voluntary investigation of the Company’s business operations throughout the world; (e) the existence of Noble’s pre-existing compliance program and steps taken by Noble’s Audit Committee to detect and prevent improper conduct from occurring; (f) Noble’s remedial efforts to enhance its compliance program and oversight that have already been undertaken; (g) Noble’s agreement to continue to implement enhanced compliance measures …; and (h) Noble’s agreement to provide annual, written reports to the Department on its progress and experience in maintaining and, as appropriate, enhancing its compliance policies and procedures …”.

As is standard process in an NPA, Noble admitted, accepted, and acknowledged its responsibility for the conduct of its employees, agents, and subsidiaries as set forth in a Statement of Facts, and further agreed “not to make any public statement contradicting” the Statement of Facts.

SEC

The SEC’s complaint (here) concerns the same core set of facts as set forth in the DOJ’s NPA.

In summary fashion, the SEC alleges that “through the TIPs obtained using the paper process, Noble obtained profits from continued operations of rigs in Nigeria and avoided the costs of moving rigs out of and back into Nigerian waters.” According to the SEC, “Noble’s total gains from this conduct were at least $4,294,933.”

The SEC charged Noble with violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions, as well as the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions.

As to the FCPA’s books and records charge, the SEC alleges that “Noble Nigeria recorded the portion of the payments it made to its customs agent that certain Noble personnel believed were being passed on to Nigerian government officials in Noble’s ‘facilitating payment’ account and in some cases to other operating expense accounts…” However, without elaborating the SEC states, “because these payments were not qualifying facilitating payments under the FCPA or otherwise legitimate expenses, Noble created false books and records by recording the payments as such.”

As to the internal controls charges, the SEC alleges that “although Noble had an FCPA policy in place, Noble lacked sufficient FCPA procedures, training, and internal controls to prevent the use of the paper process and making of payments to Nigerian government officials to obtain TIPs and TIP extensions.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Noble agreed to agreed to an injunction and will pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest of $5,576,998.

Neither the DOJ nor the SEC resolution require the company to engage a compliance monitor.

Both the DOJ’s NPA and the SEC’s complaint specifically mention that Noble conducted a worldwide review of its operations. That no other conduct was mentioned in either the DOJ’s NPA or the SEC’s complaint, suggests that Noble’s Nigerian import/export issues were an isolated incident, not indicative of systemic issues throughout the company’s other operations.

In a press release (here) Noble’s CEO stated that “ethical business conduct and strict compliance with the law remain central to Noble’s operating philosophy,” that the company “is pleased that these investigations have been concluded and a resolution has been reached,” and that the company “is moving forward with a continuing commitment to ethical business practices and a dedication to compliance, ideas that are reflected in our core values, our policies, our training and our expectations for ethical behavior.” The release notes as follows: “In May 2007, the Company self-reported to the DOJ and the SEC possible improper payments by a customs agent in connection with securing temporary import permits and extensions for the operations of Noble’s rigs in Nigeria. An internal investigation was promptly conducted by independent outside counsel, and the Company has cooperated thoroughly with the independent investigator’s review and the government’s investigation.”

In a 10-K filing yesterday, Noble stated as follows:

“We are currently operating three jackup rigs offshore Nigeria. The temporary import permits covering two of these rigs expired in November 2008 and we have pending applications to renew these permits. We have received notice that we will be allowed to obtain a new temporary import permit for one of the two rigs and are in the process of clarifying this approval. However, as of October 31, 2010, the Nigerian customs office had not acted on our application for the second unpermitted rig, but we are discussing undertaking the same process as for the first rig. We did obtain a new temporary import permit for the third rig in 2009 that had previously been operating with an expired temporary import permit, while the application was pending, by exporting and re−importing the rig. We continue to seek to avoid material disruption to our Nigerian operations; however, there can be no assurance that we will be able to obtain new permits or further extensions of permits necessary to continue the operation of our rigs in Nigeria. If we cannot obtain a new permit or an extension necessary to continue operations of any rig, we may need to cease operations under the drilling contract for such rig and relocate such rig from Nigerian waters. In any case, we also could be subject to actions by Nigerian customs for import duties and fines for these two rigs, as well as other drilling rigs that operated in Nigeria in the past. We cannot predict what impact these events may have on any such contract or our business in Nigeria. Furthermore, we cannot predict what changes, if any, relating to temporary import permit policies and procedures may be established or implemented in Nigeria in the future, or how any such changes may impact our business there.

Mary Spearing, a former DOJ attorney (here), represented Noble.

Major Shipment – Customs Cases Bring In $236.5 Million

The pipeline that contains pending FCPA enforcement actions burst yesterday as the DOJ and SEC announced enforcement actions against 13 separate entities.

In enforcement actions that have long been anticipated, Panalpina entities, as well as several others, settled DOJ and SEC enforcement actions principally focused on customs and related payments in Nigeria, but also including alleged improper conduct in Angola, Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Congo, Libya, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

The combined DOJ/SEC settlement amounts total $236.5 million.

Your FCPA scorecard thus shows that since June 28th, the U.S. government has brought FCPA enforcement actions totaling approximately $1.1 billion. With numbers like these, aggressive FCPA enforcement based on, often times, dubious legal theories (more on that later) seems like the most profitable government program ever conceived.

Set forth below is a basic overview of the settlements. A more thorough review of the hundreds of pages of relevant documents will be forthcoming.

The DOJ resolution documents can be found here, the SEC resolution documents here.

Panalpina Entities

DOJ

Entities: Panalpina World Transport (Holding) Ltd. and Panalpina Inc.

Resolution Vehicles: Criminal information charging Panalpina World Transport(Holding) with conspiracy to violate and violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions. Charges resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement. Criminal information charging Panalpina Inc. with conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s books and records provisions and aiding and abetting certain customers in violating the FCPA’s books and records provisions. Charges resolved through a plea agreement.

Countries: Angola, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, and Turkmenistan

Penalty: Combined $70.56 million

SEC

Entity: Panalpina, Inc.

Resolution Vehicle: Settled civil complaint charging FCPA anti-bribery violations, aiding and abetting FCPA anti-bribery violations, and FCPA books and records and internal controls violations.

Countries: Nigeria, Angola, Brazil, Russia, and Kazakhstan

Disgorgement: $11,329,369

Pride Entities

DOJ

Entities: Pride International Inc. and Pride Forasol S.A.S.

Resolution Vehicle: Criminal information charging Pride International with conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and books and records provisions; violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions; and violating the FCPA’s books and records provisions. Charges resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement. Criminal information charging Pride Forasol with conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions; violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions; and aidng and abetting violations of the FCPA’s books and records provisions. Charges resolved through a plea agreement.

Countries: Venezuela, India and Mexico

Penalty: $32.625 million (combined)

SEC

Entity: Pride International Inc.

Resolution Vehicle: Settled civil complaint charging FCPA anti-bribery violations, FCPA books and records and internal controls violations.

Countries: Venezuela, India, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Republic of Congo, and Libya

Disgorgement and interest: $23,529,718

Tidewater Entities

DOJ

Entities: Tidewater Marine International Inc., Tidewater Inc.

Resolution Vehicle: Criminal information charging Tidewater Marine with conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery and books and records provisions and violating the FCPA’s books and records provisions. Charges resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement with Tidewater that requires, among other things, Tidewater Marine to pay a $7.35 million criminal penalty.

Countries: Azerbaijan and Nigeria

Penalty: $7.35 million

SEC

Entity: Tidewater Inc.

Resolution Vehicle: Settled civil complaint charging FCPA anti-bribery violations, FCPA books and records and internal controls violations

Countries: Nigeria, Azerbaijan

Disgorgement: $8,104,362

Civil Penalty: $217,000

Transocean Entities

DOJ

Entities: Transocean Inc. and Transocean Ltd.

Resolution Vehicle: Criminal information charging Transocean Inc. with conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery and books and records provision; violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions; and aiding and abetting the FCPA’s books and records provisions. Charges resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement with Transocean Ltd. that requires, among other things, Transocean Inc. to pay a $13.44 million criminal penalty.

Countries: Nigeria

Penalty: $13.44 million

SEC

Entity: Transocean Inc.

Resolution Vehicle: Settled civil complaint charging FCPA anti-bribery violations, FCPA books and records and internal controls violations

Countries: Nigeria

Disgorgement and interest: $7,265,080

GlobalSantaFe Corp.

SEC

Entity: GlobalSantaFe Corp.

Resolution Vehicle: Settled civil complaint charging FCPA anti-bribery provisions, FCPA books and records and internal controls violations

Countries: Nigeria, Gabon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea

Disgorgement: $3,758,165

Civil Penalty: $2.1 million

Noble Corporation

DOJ

Entity: Noble Corporation

Resolution Vehicle: Non-proseuction agreement in which Noble Corporation: (i) acknowledged that certain of its employees knew that payments would be passed on as bribes to Nigerian customs officials; and (ii) admitted that the company falsely recorded the bribe payments as legitimate business expenses.

Countries: Nigeria

Penalty: $2.59 million

SEC

Entity: Noble Corporation

Resolution Vehicle: Settled civil complaint charging FCPA anti-bribery violations, FCPA books and records and internal controls violations

Countries: Nigeria

Disgorgement and interest: $5,576,998

Royal Dutch Shell Entities

DOJ

Entities: Royal Dutch Shell plc and Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company Ltd. (“SNEPCO”)

Resolution Vehicle: Criminal information charging SNEPCO with conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery and books and records provisions and with aiding and abetting the FCPA’s books and records provisions resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement with Royal Dutch Shell Plc requiring, among other things, SNEPCO to pay a $30 million criminal penalty

Countries: Nigeria

Penalty: $30 million

SEC

Entity: Royal Dutch Shell plc and Shell International Exploration and Production Inc (“SIEP”).

Resolution Vehicle: Administrative cease and desist order finding FCPA books and records and internal control violations by Royal Dutch Shell and FCPA anti-bribery violations by SIEP

Countries: Nigeria

Disgorgement: $18,149,459

*****

According to the SEC release (here), Cheryl Scarboro, Chief of the SEC’s FCPA Unit stated: “This investigation was the culmination of proactive work by the SEC and DOJ after detecting widespread corruption in the oil services industry. The FCPA Unit will continue to focus on industry-wide sweeps, and no industry is immune from investigation.”

The SEC release further states: [t]his is the first sweep of a particular industrial sector in order to crack down on public companies and third parties who are paying bribes abroad.”

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