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VEON (Formally Known As VimpelCom) Emerges From DPA

veon

As highlighted in this previous post, in February 2016 telecommunications company VimpelCom (now known as VEON) resolved a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action concerning conduct in Uzbekistan.

In resolving the matter through a three-year deferred prosecution agreement, the company agreed to pay a net $397.5 million FCPA settlement and also agreed to engage a compliance monitor.

Veon recently announced that the DPA has concluded. As stated in the release:

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Several FCPA Related Securities Fraud Actions Dismissed

Denied

Sure as dogs bark and the sun rises in the east, in the aftermath of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action or merely an instance of FCPA scrutiny, plaintiffs’ counsel (no doubt representing shareholders on a contingent fee basis) file securities fraud class actions and hope to get some claims past the motion to dismiss stage.

Rarely does this happen and this post highlights three instances, in just the past few weeks, in which federal trial court judges have dismissed FCPA related securities fraud class actions.

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VimpelCom Securities Fraud Case Largely Gets Past The Motion To Dismiss Stage

Judicial Decision

It’s as predictable as the sun rising in the east. In the aftermath of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action (and in some instances after mere FCPA scrutiny is disclosed) a plaintiffs’ lawyer representing a shareholder and working on a contingent fee basis files a securities fraud class action against the company and/or its executives.

Given the legal framework relevant to such actions (that is heightened pleading requirements as well as the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act) few of these actions actually get past the motion to dismiss stage.

Yet, recently a securities class action against VimpelCom (which recently changed its name to VEON Ltd.) did largely get past the motion to dismiss stage. Yet, even in this egregious instance of corporate bribery (see here and here for the prior posts), several of the plaintiffs’ allegations were deemed not viable.

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Potpourri

Potpourri

Disgraceful, scrutiny alerts, resource alert, for the reading stack, and for your consideration.  It’s all here in a potpourri edition of FCPA Professor.

Disgraceful

It’s a disgraceful practice.

A for-profit business invites a high-ranking DOJ official to its private event in which people have to pay to hear the public official speak.

It’s a disgraceful practice.

The for-profit company treats the DOJ official’s comments as if they own his words and then put the words behind a paywall.

Andrew Weissmann, the DOJ’s fraud section chief, recently spoke at GIR Live, an event hosted by a private for-profit company. According to this teaser post Weissmann spoke about issues of public concern including “how the department will factor in compliance, how it intends to reward those that self-report, and how it aims to increase transparency around resolutions and declinations.”

I requested a transcript of Mr. Weissmann’s remarks from the DOJ press office and was told: “[Mr. Weissmann] did not prepare formal remarks but spoke from notes, so I don’t have anything to provide. You’re welcome to check with the event organizers to see if they have a recording of it.”

Thankfully, Carlos Ayres was at the event and publicly posted a summary of Mr. Weisssmann’s remarks on the FCPAmericas website. According to his post:

“Weissmann said that the DOJ will publish in the next weeks a list of questions that companies can expect to be asked when being assessed by the DOJ’s new compliance consultant.”

“Weissmann said that the DOJ will shed more light on declination decisions in the short term, publishing related data with aggregate information.”

“Weissmann stated that DOJ will make an effort to complete cases for companies that self-report within one year.”

Thank you Mr. Ayres for your public service in sharing the comments of a high-ranking DOJ official on matters of public concern.

Scrutiny Alerts

HSBC Holdings

The company recently disclosed:

“Hiring practices investigation

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (the ‘SEC’) is investigating multiple financial institutions, including HSBC, in relation to hiring practices of candidates referred by or related to government officials or employees of state-owned enterprises in AsiaPacific. HSBC has received various requests for information and is cooperating with the SEC’s investigation. Based on the facts currently known, it is not practicable at this time for HSBC to predict the resolution of this matter, including the timing or any possible impact on HSBC, which could be significant.”

Novartis

The Swiss company, which qualifies as an issuer under the FCPA, was recently the focus of news reports. According to this article:

“South Korean authorities raided Novartis offices in search of evidence the company provided bribes to local doctors, according to media reports. The Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office confiscated various documents, including account books, in order to determine whether rebates the drug maker offered physicians may have actually been bribes.”

Mondelēz International, Inc.

Approximately five years ago (see here for the prior post), Kraft Foods disclosed FCPA scrutiny resulting from its acquisition of Cadbury in connection with a manufacturing facility in India.  Kraft, now known as Mondelēz International, Inc., recently disclosed:

“As we previously disclosed, on February 1, 2011, we received a subpoena from the SEC in connection with an investigation under the FCPA, primarily related to a facility in India that we acquired in the Cadbury acquisition. The subpoena primarily requests information regarding dealings with Indian governmental agencies and officials to obtain approvals related to the operation of that facility. We are continuing to cooperate with the U.S. and Indian governments in their investigations of these matters, including through ongoing meetings with the U.S. government to discuss potential conclusion of the U.S. government investigation. On February 11, 2016, we received a “Wells” notice from the SEC indicating that the staff has made a preliminary determination to recommend that the SEC file an enforcement action against us for violations of the books and records and internal controls provisions of the Exchange Act in connection with the investigation. We intend to make a submission to the staff of the SEC in response to the notice.”

So-called Wells Notices are rare in the FCPA context for the simple reason that few issuers actually publicly push back against the SEC.  See here for an example of a company that prevailed against the SEC after receiving a Wells Notice.

Key Energy Services

The company has been under FCPA scrutiny since Spring 2014 and continues to bleed cash in connection with its scrutiny. In this recent filing, the company disclosed $2.7 million “related to” its FCPA scrutiny.

Sweet Group

The U.K. Serious Fraud Office recently announced:

“Construction and professional services company Sweett Group PLC was … sentenced and ordered to pay £2.25 million as a result of a conviction arising from a Serious Fraud Office investigation into its activities in the United Arab Emirates. The company pleaded guilty in December 2015 to a charge of failing to prevent an act of bribery intended to secure and retain a contract with Al Ain Ahlia Insurance Company (AAAI), contrary to Section 7(1)(b) of the Bribery Act 2010. The relevant conduct occurred between 1 December 2012 and 1 December 2015.”

In the release, David Green (Director of the SFO) stated:

“Acts of bribery by UK companies significantly damage this country’s commercial reputation. This conviction and punishment, the SFO’s first under section 7 of the Bribery Act, sends a strong message that UK companies must take full responsibility for the actions of their employees and in their commercial activities act in accordance with the law.”

As further noted in the release:

“His Honour Judge Beddoe described the offence as a system failure and said that the offending was patently committed over a period of time. Referring to Section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010 and to Sweett’s ignorance of its subsidiary’s actions , HHJ Bedoe said:

The whole point of section 7 is to impose a duty on those running such companies throughout the world properly to supervise them. Rogue elements can only operate in this way – and operate for so long – because of a failure properly to supervise what they are doing and the way they are doing it.

The SFO’s investigation into Sweett Group PLC, which commenced on 14 July 2014, uncovered that its subsidiary company, Cyril Sweett International Limited had made corrupt payments to Khaled Al Badie, the Vice Chairman of the Board and Chairman of the Real Estate and Investment Committee of AAAI to secure the award of a contract with AAAI for the building of the Rotana Hotel in Abu Dhabi. The amount is broken down as £1.4m in fine, £851,152.23 in confiscation. Additionally, £95,031.97 in costs were awarded to the SFO.”

Maxwell Technologies

In 2011, Maxwell Technologies (a California-based manufacturer of energy storage and power delivery products) resolved parallel DOJ and SEC FCPA enforcement actions concerning alleged business conduct in China by agreeing to pay approximately $14 million. The company recently disclosed:

“In January 2011, we reached settlements with the SEC and the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) with respect to charges asserted by the SEC and DOJ relating to the anti-bribery, books and records, internal controls, and disclosure provisions of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) and other securities laws violations. We paid the monetary penalties under these settlements in installments such that all monetary penalties were paid in full by January 2013. With respect to the DOJ charges, a judgment of dismissal was issued in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on March 28, 2014.

On October 15, 2013, we received an informal notice from the DOJ that an indictment against the former Senior Vice President and General Manager of our Swiss subsidiary had been filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. The indictment is against the individual, a former officer, and not against the Company and we do not foresee that further penalties or fines could be assessed against us as a corporate entity for this matter. However, we may be required throughout the term of the action to advance the legal fees and costs incurred by the individual defendant and to incur other financial obligations. While we maintain directors’ and officers’ insurance policies which are intended to cover legal expenses related to our indemnification obligations in situations such as these, we cannot determine if and to what extent the insurance policy will cover the legal fees for this matter. Accordingly, the legal fees that may be incurred by us in defending this former officer could have a material impact on our financial condition and results of operation.

Swiss Bribery Matter

In August 2013, our Swiss subsidiary was served with a search warrant from the Swiss federal prosecutor’s office. At the end of the search, the Swiss federal prosecutor presented us with a listing of the materials gathered by the representatives and then removed the materials from our premises for keeping at the prosecutor’s office. Based upon the our exposure to the case, we believe this action to be related to the same or similar facts and circumstances as the FCPA action previously settled with the SEC and the DOJ. During initial discussions, the Swiss prosecutor has acknowledged both the existence of our deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) with the DOJ and our cooperation efforts thereunder, both of which should have a positive impact on discussions going forward. Additionally, other than the activities previously reviewed in conjunction with the SEC and DOJ matters under the FCPA, we have no reason to believe that additional facts or circumstances are under review by the Swiss authorities. In late March 2015, we were informed that the Swiss prosecutor intended to inform the parties in April 2015 as to whether the prosecutor’s office would bring charges or abandon the proceedings. However, to date, the Swiss prosecutor has not issued its formal decision. At this stage in the investigation, we are currently unable to determine the extent to which we will be subject to fines in accordance with Swiss bribery laws and what additional expenses will be incurred in order to defend this matter. As such, we cannot determine whether there is a reasonable possibility that a loss will be incurred nor can we estimate the range of any such potential loss. Accordingly, we have not accrued an amount for any potential loss associated with this action, but an adverse result could have a material adverse impact on our financial condition and results of operation.”

As noted here by Wall Street Journal – Risk & Compliance Journal, in the same disclosure Maxwell disclosed approximately $2.4 million in FCPA professional fees and expenses in 2015.

Resource Alert

As highlighted here, Stanford Law School and Sullivan & Cromwell recently announced the launch of an FCPA clearinghouse –  “a public database that aggregates and curates source documents and provides analytic tools related to enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).”

For the Reading Stack

An informative read here in Bloomberg Law from John Cunningham and Geoff Martin (both of Baker & McKenzie) titled “Casting a Wider Net: Conspiracy Charges in FCPA Cases.”

Another informative read here in the New York Times regarding the DOJ’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.

For Your Consideration

Did U.S. involvement in Afghanistan result in more corruption? Did the U.S. fail to conduct adequate due diligence on intermediaries (a frequent FCPA enforcement theory against companies)? NPR explores the issue here.

Issues To Consider From The VimpelCom Enforcement Action

IssuesThis prior post went in-depth into the recent Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action against VimpelCom (and a related entity) that resulted in a net $397.5 million FCPA settlement – the 5th largest FCPA settlement amount of all-time (see here for the current top-ten list).

This post highlights additional issues to consider.

Did VimpelCom Get Off Too Lightly?

The resolution documents contain numerous allegations about VimpelCom executive officers as well as various VimpelCom corporate committees that were engaged in the improper conduct. The allegations in the VimpelCom action are egregious and paint a picture of a culture of corruption at VimpelCom with high-level executives seeking legal cover at nearly every turn to facilitate the alleged bribery scheme.

Yet VimpelCom was offered a DPA, notwithstanding the fact that it did not voluntarily disclosure.

During last week’s conference call announcing the VimpelCom enforcement action (see here for the transcript), Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell was asked why VimpelCom was offered a DPA while Unitel LLC, a business entity headquartered and incorporated in Uzbekistan, was required to plead guilty. Caldwell generally stated that this resulted from the fact that most of the alleged improper conduct was engaged in Unitel, not VimpelCom.

Having read the DOJ’s resolution documents, I question how Ms. Cadlwell could have made this statement as the documents contain numerous allegations about VimpelCom executive officers as well as various VimpelCom corporate committees that were engaged in the improper conduct. Again, the allegations in this case are egregious and paint a picture of a culture of corruption at VimpelCom with high-level executives seeking legal cover at nearly every turn to facilitate the alleged bribery scheme.

The 2010 article “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement” highlights various pillars that contribute to the facade of FCPA enforcement including how seemingly clear-cut instances of corporate bribery, per the government’s own allegations, are resolved without actual prosecuted anti-bribery violations.

VimpelCom joins other corporate FCPA enforcement actions such as BizJet International, Daimler AG and Siemens AG that also involved egregious instances of corporate bribery, yet did not result in actual prosecuted anti-bribery violations.

Was the Unitel Criminal Charge Even Viable?

A former high-ranking DOJ FCPA enforcement attorney once explained to me that the corporate FCPA resolution process often begins in reverse where the DOJ and the company agree on the end result (i.e., which corporate entity will accept responsibility) and then the negotiating parties work backwards to craft a resolution document that will be acceptable to both parties.

Indeed, the “sausage making” metaphor rightly applies to certain DOJ corporate FCPA enforcement actions as the alleged conduct at issue is “sliced and diced” in a way to yield resolution documents that avoid the potential collateral consequence of debarment from government contracting, both in the United States and elsewhere, as well as other negative collateral consequences.

When it comes to this topic, the issue in the VimpelCom enforcement action is not whether egregious bribery took place, again as stated above, it surely did. Rather the issue is the form of the resolution and whether the Unitel criminal charge was even viable.

As highlighted above, Unitel is a business entity headquartered and incorporated in Uzbekistan. In “FCPA-speak” it is thus a “person other than an issuer or domestic concern” under dd-3 and can only be subject to the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions to the extent “while in the territory of the United States, [there is corrupt] use of the mails or any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce” in furtherance of a bribery scheme.

While the Unitel criminal information does contain allegations regarding “use of the mails or any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce,” is does not contain any “while in the territory of the U.S.” allegations. Perhaps because of this, Unitel was not charged under dd-3, but rather charged with conspiracy (18 USC 371) to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and the information specifically cites dd-1 (the statutory prong applicable to issuers).

The problem with this enforcement theory is that it conflicts with the recent decision in U.S. v. Hoskins (and other decisions both in the FCPA context and otherwise) which hold that a person can not be charged with conspiring to violate a statutory provision that substantively does not apply to the person.

Where Should the Money Go?

This is not so much a legal question, but a policy question that can be asked in connection with FCPA enforcement actions against foreign companies.

Even though the global settlement announced last week involved a Dutch component, the fact remains that net $397.5 million is going into the U.S. treasury because a Bermuda company that was headquartered in Moscow, Russia until 2010 when it moved its headquarters to Amsterdam, the Netherlands (VimpelCom) and an Uzbek entity (Unitel) bribed Uzbek officials.

Against this backdrop, I will repeat what I stated in this 2010 speech: when a non-U.S. company allegedly bribes non U.S. officials, I don’t know exactly where the money should go, but I am pretty sure the best answer is not the U.S. treasury.

Root Causes

An analysis of root causes in FCPA enforcement actions is not meant to excuse the conduct at issue, but rather to better understand why the conduct took place.

The root cause of the VimpelCom enforcement action appears to be that pursuant to local law, or at the very least local practice, VimpelCom needed a local partner in Uzbekistan in order to enter that market. The rest, as they say, is set forth in the resolution documents.

This again demonstrates that trade barriers and distortions are often the root causes of bribery and a reduction in bribery will not be achieved without a reduction in trade barriers and distortions.

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