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U.K. Sentencing Guidelines For Organizations: Implications For Violators Of The U.K. Anti-Bribery Regime

Today’s post is from Karlos Seeger, Matthew Getz and Robin Lööf (all from the London office of Debevoise & Plimpton).

As regular readers of FCPA Professor will no doubt be aware, the UK legislative regime in relation to bribery and corruption, foreign as well as domestic, has changed dramatically in recent years, both in terms of substance and procedure.  These changes are particularly important for commercial organisations and, what is more, are all linked.  To re-cap:

  • The Bribery Act 2010 (“the Bribery Act”) did away with the patch-work of late 19th and early 20th century statutes which until recently, with some amendments and complemented by the common law, constituted the UK’s substantive anti-bribery laws.  It criminalises active and passive bribery both in the private and public sectors, and also creates a new, specific “FCPA offence” of bribing a foreign public official.  The most revolutionary aspect of the Bribery Act, however, is that in relation to activities on or after 1 July 2011, organisations will be held criminally liable for failing to prevent bribery by their employees, or other persons associated with them, unless they can prove that they had an effective compliance programme in place (the so-called “corporate offence”).
  • The Crime and Courts Act 2013 introduced Deferred Prosecution Agreements (“DPAs”) into UK law.  Previously, although plea agreements were possible and covered by specific guidance, attempts by prosecutors and defendants to present courts with agreed sentences had been deprecated by the judiciary on the basis that for an English prosecutor to agree on a sentence with a defendant would be contrary to “the constitutional principle that … the imposition of a sentence is a matter for the judiciary.” (Lord Justice Thomas [since appointed Lord Chief Justice] in R v Innospec Limited; see below)  DPAs will make this possible and will be available to organisations suspected of, inter alia, offences under the Bribery Act.  DPAs come into force on 24 February 2014.
  • On 31 January 2014, the Sentencing Council, the independent body responsible for developing guidelines for courts in England & Wales to use when passing sentence, issued a definitive guideline for sentencing organisations convicted of, inter alia, offences under the Bribery Act (“the Guideline”).  The Guideline will also constitute the basis for calculating the financial penalties levied under a DPA.

In this post, we look first at previous English practice in relation to sentencing for organisations convicted of bribery offences.  We then describe the new Guideline, draw comparisons with US practice, and attempt to assess what changes, if any, it will bring for organisations convicted of bribery.  Finally, we seek to predict how the Guideline will be used to calculate the financial penalties due under a DPA, with particular focus on the corporate offence.

Analysis of the Current State of the Law

Unlike in the US where the application of the principle of respondeat superior makes organisations vicariously liable for many criminal acts of their employees, English prosecutors seeking to hold organisations responsible for most criminal offences, including bribery, have had to prove that some part of the organisation’s “directing mind” – a director or senior executive, was involved in the wrongdoing.  As a result, few prosecutions have been brought and there are, consequently, very few examples of criminal fines imposed on organisations guilty of foreign corruption.  In addition, as a likely consequence of the uncertainty surrounding agreements between prosecutors and offending organisations, particularly as regards sentencing, a number of instances of corporate foreign corruption were dealt with civilly with Civil Recovery Orders which can be agreed between the investigating body and the corporate concerned.  With the introduction of DPAs, however, similar certainty of outcome can now be achieved through the criminal process which should reduce the need to resort to civil procedures to deal with criminal behaviour.

The Existing Case Law

In September 2009, engineering company Mabey & Johnson Ltd was sentenced for having sought to influence decision makers in relation to the award of public contracts in Ghana, Jamaica, and Iraq.  The company had paid some £832,000 in bribes in return for contracts worth approximately £44 million.  It was agreed between the Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”) and the company that there was a maximum of £4.65 million (ca. $7.4 million) available for confiscation and/or fines.  On its guilty pleas, the company was sentenced to pay confiscation of £1.1 million, and fines of £3.5 million.  The company also committed to paying reparations to the three countries concerned of, in total, £1,415,000.  There was a joint submission by the SFO and the company that the £4.65 million maximum was the most the company could afford to pay and still stay in business.  His Honour Judge Rivlin QC endorsed this sum, stating that he found it “realistic and just”.

In March 2010, Innospec Ltd was sentenced by Lord Justice Thomas (since appointed Lord Chief Justice) in respect of “systematic and large-scale corruption of senior Government officials” in Indonesia.  Innospec manufactured a fuel additive (TEL) which had been banned in most countries on environmental grounds and in order to preserve one of the few remaining markets for TEL, it had paid an estimated $8 million in bribes in order, as Thomas LJ found, to “block legislative moves to ban or enforce the ban of TEL on environmental grounds in Indonesia.”  As part of a global settlement between the company, on the one hand, and the SFO, as well as the US DoJ, SEC, and OFAC, on the other, a figured had been arrived at which represented the maximum the company could afford to pay and stay in business.  Before Thomas LJ, it was submitted that there was only $12.7 million available for confiscation and/or fines in the UK if the company was to survive.  This represented roughly one third of the global settlement sum.  Thomas LJ noted that the benefit from this campaign may have been as high as $160 million and that the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines indicated a sentencing range in respect of the company’s offending in Iraq (“no more serious than the Indonesian corruption”) would have been between $101.5 and $203 million.  In terms of what the appropriate UK fine would have been, Thomas LJ confined himself to indicating that it “would have been measured in the tens of millions.”  However, “with considerable reluctance”, Thomas LJ ordered that the sterling equivalent of $12.7 million be paid as a fine.  His Lordship explained his decision: “in all the circumstances and given the protracted period of time in which the agreement had been hammered out, I do not think it would have been fair to impose a penalty greater than that.”  Importantly, Thomas LJ made it clear that “the circumstances of this case are unique.  There will be no reason for any such limitation in any other case and the court will not consider itself in any way restricted in its powers by any such agreement.”  In fact, in His Lordship’s view, the division of the global sum between the UK and the US was not “one which on the facts of the case accorded with principle.” 

Finally, in December 2010, as part of a global settlement with the SFO and the US DoJ, BAE Systems plc pleaded guilty to a failure to keep adequate accounting records in relation to a contract worth $39.97 million for the provision of a radar system to Tanzania.  BAE accepted that there was a high probability that part of $12.4 million paid to a local adviser, Mr. Vithlani, had been used to favour BAE in the contract negotiations.

An agreement between the SFO and BAE was presented to the court under which BAE undertook to pay £30m to Tanzania, less any financial orders imposed by the court.  In his sentencing remarks, Mr. Justice Bean made no reference to this agreement.  His Lordship did however state that he was “astonished” at the SFO’s approach to the evidence and, in particular, branded the SFO’s preparedness to accept that Mr. Vithlani was simply a well-paid lobbyist as “naïve in the extreme”.  Whilst refusing to accept this interpretation of the evidence, Mr. Justice Bean pointed out that “I … cannot sentence for an offence which the prosecution has chosen not to charge.  There is no charge of conspiracy to corrupt …”  Noting that there were no relevant sentencing precedents for the offence charged, Mr. Justice Bean fined BAE £500,000.

Assessment of the Existing Case Law

Two things are noteworthy from the above sentences:

First, the recognised lack of precedent for UK sentences in foreign bribery cases.  In only one of the cases (Mabey & Johnson) did the sentencing judge indicate that the sentence passed was appropriate.  Having no doubt carefully studied the “success” of the approach in that case, the lawyers involved in Innospec approached the sentencing exercise in a structurally very similar manner only to be faced with the ire of one of the most senior judges in the country.  Disapproving of every aspect of the situation in which the sentencing court found itself, Thomas LJ made it very clear that the result in Innospec was in no way to be seen as a precedent for the future.

Second, the comparison with the US is instructive.  In Innospec, US prosecutors obtained $26.7 million compared to the SFO’s $12.7 million.  As far as BAE is concerned, however, in March 2010, prior to being fined £500,000 in the UK, BAE had agreed a settlement with the US DoJ including a $400 million criminal fine in respect of virtually identical conduct as that charged in the UK, albeit in a different jurisdiction.

This disparity in relation to BAE led to criticisms of the UK sentencing regime for organisations.  Notably, the UK Labour party included it in its Policy Review on Serious Fraud and White Collar Crime as an example of the apparent comparative laxity of the UK regime.  However, in the most authoritative ruling on these matters we have, Lord Justice Thomas’s sentencing of Innospec Ltd, there is the following statement of principle: “there is every reason for states to adopt a uniform approach to financial penalties for corruption of foreign government officials so that the penalties in each country do not discriminate either favourably or unfavourably against a company in a particular state.

In any event, whatever the theoretical position might be under existing English case law, from 1 October 2014, courts will sentence organisations convicted of bribery offences under the Guideline which puts in place a sentencing system which should feel familiar to US lawyers.

The New Guideline:  Background and Context

Offences under the Bribery Act are covered by the new DPA regime.  This is seen as particularly significant in relation to the corporate offence which, with its lower evidential threshold for conviction, is expected to make prosecutions of organisations for bribery offences easier and therefore, potentially, more common.  The Act introducing DPAs provides that the financial penalty agreed under a DPA “must be broadly comparable to” the fine the organisation would have received had it pleaded guilty and been convicted.  However, as is apparent from the review of the authorities above, there is not much by way of guidance in this regard, in case law or otherwise.

Recognising this lack of guidance which risked introducing unnecessary but critical additional uncertainty into initial DPA negotiations, the Sentencing Council, which had been working on it for years, expedited its work on sentencing guidelines for corporates convicted of fraud, bribery, and money laundering.

The Basic Fine Calculation

The basic principle of the Guideline for calculating the fine is that the “[a]mount obtained or intended to be obtained (or loss avoided or intended to be avoided)” from the offence (the “harm figure”) is multiplied by a figure based on the corporate offender’s culpability (the “harm figure multiplier”).

For bribery offences, the harm figure “will normally be the gross profit from the contract obtained, retained or sought as a result of the offending.”  For the corporate offence, an alternative measure is suggested, namely “the likely cost avoided by failing to put in place appropriate measures to prevent bribery.

Culpability is assessed with reference to the offender’s “role and motivation” in the offence(s) and categorised as “high”, “medium”, or “lesser”, depending on the characteristics and circumstances of the offending.  Characteristics indicating high culpability include the corruption of governmental or law enforcement officials, and factors indicating lesser culpability include the existence of some, but insufficient, bribery prevention measures.

Each culpability level has both a starting point for the harm figure multiplier (100% for lesser, 200% for medium, and 300% for high culpability) and a range: 20-150% for lesser, 100-300% for medium, and 250-400% for high.  The presence of aggravating and mitigating factors (of which the Guideline provides non-exhaustive lists) will determine where within the relevant range a defendant organisation falls.  Listed factors increasing seriousness, and thus raising the harm figure multiplier, include corporate structures set up to commit offences and cross-border offending.  Mitigating factors that lower the harm figure multiplier include co-operation with the investigation, self-reporting and early admissions.

Having applied the relevant multiplier to the harm figure, a sentencing court would have to take into account further factors such as discounts due on account of guilty pleas (up to one third, according to the current guidance), particularly valuable co-operation, and the consequences on third parties of the proposed totality of the financial orders.  The court could then adjust as appropriate.

In setting out this basis for the calculation of fines, the Sentencing Council acknowledged having considered Chapter 8 of the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  US lawyers will recognise in the harm figure the UK equivalent of the “base fine” in §8C2.4, and in the harm figure multiplier the equivalent of the “culpability score” multipliers pursuant to §§8C2.5 to 8C2.8.

The Guideline – What Likely Changes in Practice?

Although a highly hypothetical exercise, it may be illustrative to seek to predict what fines would be imposed under the Guideline on the facts of some of the cases discussed above.

On the facts of Mabey & Johnson, the following can be deduced:

  • The contracts obtained as a result of the offending were said to be worth some £44 million.  Included in that figure was the £2.56 million Iraqi contract for which the “gross margin” was said to be approximately £700,000.  If the same rate of gross profit to contract value (approximately 27%) is applied to the totality of the offending, the harm figure would be approximately £12 million.
  • In terms of culpability, the company’s accepted behaviour included the organised and planned corruption of government officials over a sustained period of time.  Therefore the culpability level under the Guideline would likely be deemed “high”, establishing the range for the harm figure multiplier of 250-400%.
  • In terms of the appropriate harm figure multiplier within that range, account would have to be taken of the many facts presented to the court and not disputed which, under the Guideline, would constitute factors increasing seriousness: The company had set up the “Ghana Development Fund” in order to make corrupt payments; fraudulent activity could be said to have been endemic within the company; the revelations caused considerable political fall-out in both Ghana and Jamaica; the offences were committed across borders in that many of the payments were made to officials while they were in the UK.  In terms of factors reducing seriousness, the main one would be that the offending was committed under the previous management.  Taken together, a harm figure towards the top end of the range would be likely.

If the harm figure multiplier chosen had been, say, 350%, the starting point for the appropriate fine for offending like that in Mabey & Johnson would be £42 million.  Even if a court had found that a reduction of the maximum of one third for the company’s guilty plea was due, as well as some further reduction on account of its co-operation, on the facts in Mabey & Johnson, the resulting fine of £20-25 million would be many times higher than the fine (£3.5) the court found “realistic and just”.

Taking the facts of Innospec and applying them to the Guideline the result is staggering: If it a court had found that the benefit to the company was indeed $160 million, and that the conduct was as serious as in Mabey & Johnson, the resulting fine under the Guideline could very well be upwards of £190 million; considerably more than the “tens of millions” Thomas LJ indicated would have been appropriate, and even higher than the top of the US range in that case.  Even so, however, it needs to be borne in mind that in both Mabey & Johnson and Innospec the sentencing courts took into account the fact that if higher fines had been imposed, the companies concerned would have been made bankrupt to the detriment of current employees and other third parties.  Such considerations along with the resulting adjustments remain possible under the Guideline.

Likely Approach to Financial Penalties Under a DPA – Focus on the Corporate Offence

A UK-based organisation faced with evidence of bribes paid by, for example, one of its agents after 1 July 2011 will have some difficult decisions to make.  On the assumption that it reports this evidence to the SFO, it would risk being charged with the corporate offence.  If charged the organisation could seek to rely on the defence, created by the Bribery Act, of adequate procedures to prevent bribery and even if those procedures are ultimately found insufficient to shield the organisation from liability, their presence would still be an indicator of “lesser” culpability for the purposes of the Guideline.  However, having run an unsuccessful defence on the merits, the organisation would not benefit from the substantial reduction in fines it would have been due had it pleaded guilty.

Assuming, however, that the organisation indicated a willingness to admit to not having adequate anti-bribery procedures in place, and entered into negotiations with the SFO to conclude a DPA, how would the Guideline be used to calculate the financial penalty?

The assessment of the organisation’s culpability would not be affected by being conducted in the context of the negotiation of a DPA.  However, the presence of some, albeit insufficient, anti-bribery procedures would be an indicator of “lesser” culpability.  Further, the very fact that the organisation was considered for a DPA would imply that a number of factors tending to lower the reference fine under the Guideline were present:

First, among the mitigating factors lowering the harm figure multiplier is co-operation with the investigation, the making of early admissions and/or voluntary self-reporting.  Under the DPA Code of Practice (published on 14 February 2014), pro-active and early co-operation with the authorities is one of the public interest factors weighing in favour of entering into a DPA (and against a full prosecution) in the first place.  There will therefore be a strong mitigating factor already assumed.  Consequently, absent extraordinary circumstances, the tops of the ranges for the harm figure multiplier ought not to be applied in the context of DPAs.

Second, as already mentioned, the final figure could be adjusted with reference not only to the totality of the various financial orders, but also on account of the nature and extent of the organisation’s overall assistance to the authorities and admissions of offending.  Applying the Sentencing Council overarching guideline on reductions in sentence for guilty pleas, an organisation that co-operates with the authorities and is convicted on its guilty plea can expect a reduction of a third.  In Innospec, Thomas LJ held that the company was entitled to a reduction in sentence of “well in excess of 50%” on account of its guilty plea and cooperation with the authorities.  Following this logic, organisations negotiating a DPA might be able to persuade prosecutors (and the courts) that a further “DPA discount” should apply on account of the substantial cost savings their co-operation has entailed, and the good faith they have shown.

All in all, it is not unreasonable to assume that an organisation facing charges under the corporate offence could benefit from a reduction of any financial penalties of between 50-75% under a DPA compared to the fine it would face if it lost a trial on the adequacy of its anti-bribery programme.  Add to that the legal costs avoided and the greater ability to manage the outcome and we entertain some doubt whether many conscientious organisations that discover bribery in its business would risk a trial.

Conclusion

No organisation has yet been prosecuted under the new corporate offence in the Bribery Act but the SFO has publicly indicated that several organisations are being investigated in circumstances where – the SFO hopes – such prosecutions may well result.  If that were to happen, the first applications of the Guideline may take place sooner rather than later.

The director of the SFO, David Green QC, is a vocal advocate of extending the principle of the corporate offence in the Bribery Act to other corporate offending such as fraud and market manipulation.  The government is understood to be consulting internally on such a reform.  If enacted, prosecutions and convictions of organisations can be expected to cease to be a curiosity and potentially become as common as in the US and under the Guideline, the resulting fines could well equal those in the US.

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