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Friday Roundup

Roundup

Checking in on Wal-Mart, DOJ “declinations,” another installment of as we say not as we do, and cashing in. It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Wal-Mart

In its recent 2Q FY2017 earnings call presentation Wal-Mart disclosed $28 million in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and compliance related expenses ($23 million for ongoing investigations and inquiries and $5 million for global compliance program and organizational enhancements). The Q2 expenses of $28 million are higher than the Q1 expenses of $25 million.

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Friday Roundup

Roundup

As we say not as we do, scrutiny alerts and updates, and further RIP to the “Arthur Andersen effect.” It’s all here in 200th edition of the Friday roundup.

As We Say, Not As We Do

This previous post highlighted the April Fools’ Day 2015 SEC enforcement action against KBR for its non-existent, theoretical muzzling of individuals in certain employment agreements. According to the SEC, this violated SEC 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.”

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FCPA “Tips” Continue To Be A Minor Component Of The SEC’s Whistleblower Program

whistle

The Dodd-Frank Act enacted in July 2010 contained whistleblower provisions applicable to all securities law violations including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

In this prior post from July 2010, I predicted that the new whistleblower provisions would have a negligible impact on FCPA enforcement.  As noted in this prior post, my prediction was an outlier (so it seemed) compared to the flurry of law firm client alerts that predicted that the whistleblower provisions would have a significant impact on FCPA enforcement.  So anxious was FCPA Inc. for a marketing opportunity to sell its compliance services, some even called the generic whistleblower provision the FCPA’s “new” whistleblower provisions.

So far, there has not been any reported whistleblower award in connection with an FCPA enforcement action.  Given that enforcement actions (from point of first disclosure to resolution) typically take between 2-4 years, it still may be too early to effectively analyze the impact of the whistleblower provisions on FCPA enforcement.

Whatever your view on how the whistleblower provisions may impact FCPA enforcement, it was previously noted that the best part of the whistleblower provisions were that its impact on FCPA enforcement can be monitored and analyzed because the SEC is required to submit annual reports to Congress.

Recently, the SEC released (here) its annual report for FY2015 and of the 3,923 whistleblower tips received by the SEC in FY2015, 4.7% (186) related to the FCPA.

As noted in this similar post from last year, of the 3,620 whistleblower tips received by the SEC in FY2014, 4.4% (159) related to the FCPA. As noted in this similar post from two years ago, of the 3,238 whistleblower tips received by the SEC in FY2013, 4.6% (149) related to the FCPA.  As noted in this similar post from three years ago, of the 3,001 whistleblower tips received by the SEC in FY2012, 3.8% (115) related to the FCPA.  In FY2011 (a partial reporting year)  3.9% of the 334 tips received by the SEC related to the FCPA.

In short, FCPA “tips” have consistently constituted only a minor component of the SEC’s whistleblower program.

Yes, in the future there will be a whistleblower award made in the context of an FCPA enforcement action.  Yes, there will be much ink spilled on this occasion and wild predictions about this “new trend.”

Yet, I stand by my prediction – now 5.5 years old, that Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower provisions will have a negligible impact on FCPA enforcement.

SEC Potpourri

SEC

Last week, the SEC released this document titled “Division of Enforcement Approach to Forum Selection in Contested Actions.”

In Foreign Corrupt Practices Act history, one can count the number of “contested” SEC FCPA enforcement actions on one hand, but the recent document is nevertheless an interesting read as it sets forth the SEC’s approach in determining whether an action proceeds as a civil action in federal court or an SEC administrative proceeding.

According to the document:

“There is no rigid formula dictating the choice of forum.  The Division considers a number of factors when evaluating the choice of forum and its recommendation depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the case.  Not all factors will apply in every case and, in any particular case, some factors may deserve more weight than others, or more weight than they might in another case.  Indeed, in some circumstances, a single factor may be sufficiently important to lead to a decision to recommend a particular forum. While the list of potentially relevant considerations set out below is not (and could not be) exhaustive, the Division may in its discretion consider any or all of the factors in assessing whether to recommend that a contested case be brought in the administrative forum or in federal district court.”

  • The document then sets forth the following factors;
  • The availability of the desired claims, legal theories, and forms of relief in each forum;
  • Whether any charged party is a registered entity or an individual associated with a registered entity;
  • The cost‐, resource‐, and time‐effectiveness of litigation in each forum;
  • Fair, consistent, and effective resolution of securities law issues and matters.

Under the last factors, the document states:

“If a contested matter is likely to raise unsettled and complex legal issues under the federal securities laws, or interpretation of the Commission’s rules, consideration should be given to whether, in light of the Commission’s expertise concerning those matters, obtaining a Commission decision on such issues, subject to appellate review in the federal courts, may facilitate development of the law.”

This statement is beyond concerning.

Unsettled and complex legal issues are deserving of an independent judiciary, not the SEC’s own administrative law judges. Contrary to the SEC’s assertion, the above preference does not facilitate the development of law, it hinders the development of law.

*****

Speaking of SEC administrative actions, no surprise here – the SEC wins a very high percentage of its cases when brought before its own administrative law judges. According to this recent Wall Street Journal article:

“An analysis by The Wall Street Journal of hundreds of decisions shows how much of a home-court advantage the SEC enjoys when it sends cases to its own judges rather than federal courts. That is a practice the agency increasingly follows, the Journal has found.

The SEC won against 90% of defendants before its own judges in contested cases from October 2010 through March of this year, according to the Journal analysis. That was markedly higher than the 69% success the agency obtained against defendants in federal court over the same period, based on SEC data.”

As highlighted in prior posts (see here for instance), the predominate method by which the SEC has brought FCPA enforcement actions over the past few years have been through its own administrative process.  This is against the backdrop of the SEC never prevailing in an FCPA enforcement action when put to its ultimate burden of proof. (See here).

*****

In this recent speech, SEC Chair Mary Jo White talks about the SEC’s whistleblower program:

“There have always been mixed feelings about whistleblowers and many companies tolerate, at best, their existence because the law requires it.  I would urge that, especially in the post-financial crisis era when regulators and right-minded companies are searching for new, more aggressive ways to improve corporate culture and compliance, it is past time to stop wringing our hands about whistleblowers.  They provide an invaluable public service, and they should be supported.  And, we at the SEC increasingly see ourselves as the whistleblower’s advocate.

It has been nearly four years since the SEC implemented its whistleblower program.  While still evolving and improving, we have enough experience now to take a hard look at how the program is working and what we have learned.  Overall, I am here to say that the program is a success – and we will work hard at the SEC to build on that success.

The volume of tips has been greater and of higher quality than expected when the program was first adopted.  We have seen enough to know that whistleblowers increase our efficiency and conserve our scarce resources.  Importantly, internal compliance programs at companies also remain vibrant and effective ways to detect and report wrongdoing.  But despite the success of our program, the decision to come forward, especially in the face of internal pressure, is not an easy one.

The ambivalence about whistleblowers can indeed sometimes manifest itself in an unlawful response by a corporate employer and we are very focused at the SEC on cracking down on such misconduct.  We want whistleblowers – and their employers – to know that employees are free to come forward without fear of reprisals.  In 2014, we brought our first retaliation case and, this month, our first case involving the use of a confidentiality agreement that can impede whistleblowers from communicating with us.  This latter case has generated some controversy, which I will address shortly.  But, first, let’s look a bit closer at the four-year track record of the program.”

A portion of White’s speech also focused on “supporting internal compliance” and she stated:

“Let me say a bit more about company compliance programs.  When the Commission was considering its whistleblower rules, concerns were raised about undermining companies’ internal compliance programs.  Some commenters urged that internal reporting be made a pre-condition to a whistleblower award.  That was not done, but the final whistleblower rules established a framework to incentivize employees to report internally first.  A whistleblower’s participation in internal compliance systems is thus a factor that will generally increase an award, whereas interference with those systems will surely decrease an award. And, a whistleblower who internally reports, and at the same time or within 120 days reports to the Commission, will receive credit for any information the company subsequently self-reports to the SEC.

All indications are that internal compliance functions are as strong as ever – if not stronger – and that insiders continue to report possible violations internally first.  Although there is no requirement under our rules that the whistleblower be a current or former employee, several of the individuals who have received awards were, in fact, company insiders.  Notably, of these, over 80% first raised their concerns internally to their supervisors or compliance personnel before reporting to the Commission.

Many in-house lawyers, compliance professionals, and law firms representing companies have told us that since the implementation of our program, companies have taken fresh looks at their internal compliance functions and made enhancements to further encourage their employees to view internal reporting as an effective means to address potential wrongdoing without fear of reprisal or retaliation.  That is a very good thing, and, so far, we believe that the whistleblower program has achieved the right balance between the need of companies to be given an opportunity to address possible violations of law and the SEC’s law enforcement interests.”

In conclusion, White stated:

“The bottom line is that is that responsible companies with strong compliance cultures and programs should not fear bona fide whistleblowers, but embrace them as a constructive part of the process to expose the wrongdoing that can harm a company and its reputation.  Gone are the days when corporate wrongdoing can be pushed into the dark corners of an organization.  Fraudsters rarely act alone, unobserved and, these days, the employee who sees or is asked to make the questionable accounting entry or to distribute the false offering materials may refuse to do it or just decide that they are better off telling the SEC.  Better yet, either there are no questionable accounting entries or false offering materials to be reported in the first place or companies themselves self-report the unlawful conduct to the SEC.”

*****

If SEC enforcement is an area of interest, you will want to check out this recent article in Securities Regulation Journal about Stanley Sporkin.

Among Sporkin’s other notable accomplishments, he was the Director of Enforcement at the SEC in the mid-1970’s when the so-called foreign corporate payments problem arose and he championed what would become the FCPA’s books and records and internal controls provisions.

Many have called Sporkin the “father of the FCPA” – a label I have always found curious given that Sporkin and his enforcement division were opposed to the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and wanted no part in enforcing those provisions.

To learn more about this, see “The Story of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

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.

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