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Former SEC Enforcement Official Throws The Red Challenge Flag

Today’s post is from Russ Ryan [1] (Partner, King & Spalding).  Prior to joining King & Spalding,  Ryan spent ten years in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, including his last  three years as Assistant Director of the Division.

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Sometimes you see something in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case that’s so inexplicable you wish someone would throw the red challenge flag and have the play reviewed under the hood or up in the booth.  Unfortunately, in the largely-overlooked wind-down phase of the SEC’s FCPA case against several former Siemens executives, the last of the defendants defaulted, so nobody was around to throw the challenge flag – and as a result the SEC seems to have gotten away with a doozy of a blown call.

Recall that this is the same 7-defendant case in which only one – Herbert Steffen – actively contested the SEC’s charges.  Of the other six defendants, the SEC voluntarily dismissed one (Carlos Sergi), three others settled without admitting or denying any wrongdoing (Bernd Regendantz, Andres Truppel, and Uriel Sharef), and the last two defaulted (Ulrich Bock and Stephan Signer).  Steffen, a German citizen and the only defendant who actively contested the charges, was dismissed [2] from the case in February 2013 in a widely-noted decision that found a lack of personal jurisdiction over him.  (See here [3] for my prior guest post).  None of the other defendants in the case were U.S. citizens either, and few if any appear to have had any significant contacts with the United States; the SEC alleged the familiar sporadic touching of U.S. bank accounts, along with a single meeting in Miami during the decade-long alleged bribery scheme, but proffered little else to support personal jurisdiction over any of these foreign nationals.

You might think the court’s dismissal of the only defendant who actively contested personal jurisdiction might have led the SEC to tread carefully when seeking penalties and other sanctions against the defaulting defendants.  Think again.

To the contrary, the SEC took an astonishingly aggressive approach to sanctions against the defaulting defendants, and it got everything it asked for.  The overall case raises legal and policy issues too numerous to address here, but two warrant especially close scrutiny.  First, the SEC convinced the court to impose more than a half-million dollars in civil penalties against each of the two defaulting defendants, despite alleging only four alleged bribes and despite the FCPA’s statutory limit of $10,000 per violation (increased for the relevant period to $11,000 through the SEC’s periodic inflation adjustment as authorized by statute).

How did the SEC get away with a penalty demand more than ten times this apparent $44,000 statutory limit for each defendant?  First, by saying that each of the four alleged bribes should be triple-counted as three separate securities law violations – once as a bribe, again as a books-and-records violation, and yet again as an internal-controls violation – thus artificially multiplying four violations to create twelve.  And as the SEC wonks among us well know, books-and-records and internal-controls violations come with their own separate statutory penalty regime.  But even here the SEC was super aggressive, taking the position that these classically non-fraud violations involved “reckless disregard” of a regulatory requirement, thus allowing the SEC to demand the maximum $60,000  per violation in “second-tier” penalties rather than the $6,000 per violation in the “first-tier” penalties ordinarily associated with non-fraud violations.  (The statutory anomaly that permits dramatically higher civil penalties for books-and-records and internal-controls violations than for bribery violations is another topic beyond the scope of this guest post.)

By triple counting each bribe in this way, the SEC demanded $11,000 + $60,000 + $60,000 ($131,000 total) in penalties against each defaulting defendant, and then multiplied that amount yet again for each of the four alleged bribes in question, arriving at a staggering total penalty of $524,000 per defendant.  This penalty for each of the defaulting defendants was much higher than the total penalties paid by all three of the settling defendants combined (which were only $40,000, $80,000, and $275,000 respectively).

But that’s not even the most bizarre aspect of the SEC’s penalty demand.  Of the four bribes alleged by the SEC against the defaulting defendants, three unquestionably occurred – according to the SEC’s own complaint and penalty motion papers – more than five years before the lawsuit was filed in December 2011, thus raising the obvious question of how the SEC could lawfully request, and how the court could lawfully impose, any penalty at all for those bribes.  By now everyone knows that SEC penalty demands are subject to the 5-year statute of limitations codified at 28 U.S.C. § 2462.  Indeed, just last year the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the SEC in a case that involved the same statute (Gabelli v. SEC), wherein the SEC conceded the statute’s applicability to penalty demands.  (See my prior guest posts here [4] and here [5]).

So how did the SEC overcome this seemingly insurmountable statute of limitations obstacle?  Essentially by ignoring the issue entirely.  Of course, it’s possible the SEC got a tolling agreement from these two foreign nationals who later decided to ignore the ensuing lawsuit altogether, but that seems improbable. In any event, neither the SEC’s complaint nor its penalty motion mentioned any tolling agreement.  Of the $524,000 in penalties demanded and imposed against each of the defaulting defendants, nearly $400,000 seems obviously barred by the statute of limitations, yet neither the SEC nor the court appears to have acknowledged this issue at all.

One final oddity in this case warrants a separate challenge flag.  On top of the $524,000 in penalties imposed against defaulting defendant Bock, the SEC was awarded another $316,000 against him in what the agency euphemistically styled as “disgorgement” of ill-gotten profits from the bribery scheme.  But as described by the SEC, this money bore no resemblance to profits derived from any of the alleged bribes.  The SEC described it as hush money allegedly paid to Bock (and his wife) to buy his silence and false testimony in two arbitration proceedings that occurred long after he had retired from the company and that, according to the SEC, helped prevent the bribery scheme from being uncovered.

In my recent article, The Equity Façade of SEC Disgorgement [6], I wrote at length about how disgorgement in SEC cases, as a general matter, is often stretched beyond its proper limits.  The default judgment against Bock reflects many of the concerns I raised in that article, but it also reflects an even more fundamental disconnect under settled disgorgement law.  Characterizing the kind of hush money allegedly paid to Bock as ill-gotten profits caused by his alleged securities law violations seems a stretch to say the least.  The SEC’s theory was that the money was paid to induce and reward Bock’s false testimony in two arbitration proceedings – not as his share of any alleged bribes, not as extra compensation he was paid for his securities law violations, and not as his share of profits earned by Siemens as a result of the bribes.  Here too, neither the SEC nor the court addressed the obvious causation issue, and the SEC got the full amount it demanded.

One can only hope that neither the SEC nor the courts will view these default judgments as models for similar treatment of individuals in future FCPA cases.  This case illustrates the oft-lamented perils presented by the multitude of SEC cases that are decided each year without any effective advocacy on behalf of the defendant – typically due to the defendant’s default, pro se status, lack of adequate financial resources, or counsel possessing little or no expertise in securities law.  The perils run not only to the hapless defendants who invariably get steamrolled in such cases, but sometimes also to the credibility and ultimate enforceability of the resulting judgments.

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See here [7] for original source documents relevant to the above issues.