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Friday Roundup

Roundup

Scrutiny alerts and updates, former Bio-Rad general counsel prevails, and light FCPA sentences. It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Scrutiny Alerts and Updates

USANA Health Sciences

When putting together a list of companies that are likely to become the subject of FCPA scrutiny, small Utah-based companies that sell healthcare products is surely to be at the bottom of the list.

Yet, Nu Skin Enterprises resolved an FCPA enforcement action in 2016 and Nature’s Sunshine Products resolved an FCPA enforcement action in 2009.

In the latest instance of FCPA scrutiny involving this unique group, USANA Health Sciences Inc., a Utah based nutritional company that manufacturers supplements, personal care and healthy food products, recently disclosed:

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Friday Roundup

Roundup2

Save the date, scrutiny updates, coming attraction, job alert, and for the reading stack. It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Save the Date

An event notice for East Coast readers.

On Friday, March 6th, the Fordham Law Review is hosting a free symposium opened to the public titled “Fighting Corruption in American and Abroad.”

To learn more about the event click here.

Preet Bharara (U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York) will be delivering a keynote address and symposium panels will explore the following topics.

(i) What is Corruption?—How Should We Define It, and Why Is It Bad?

(ii) Landmark Domestic Bribery Prosecutions

(iii) Corruption Regulation in Practice via the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; and

(iv) The Political Economy of Global Corruption Regulation

I will be appearing on the third panel along with: Lanny Breuer (Partner, Covington & Burling LLP);  Jay Holtmeier (Partner, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP); and Lucinda Low (Partner, Steptoe & Johnson LLP).

I have previously written about FCPA enforcement during Mr. Breuer’s tenure as Assistant Chief of the DOJ Criminal Division, but my panel presentation will concern a different topic – my forthcoming article:  “The Uncomfortable Truths and Double Standards of Bribery Enforcement.”  The article explores how the U.S. crusade against bribery suffers from several uncomfortable truths, including a double standard regarding corporate interaction with “foreign officials” under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and corporate interaction with U.S. officials under the U.S. laws.

Scrutiny Updates

General Cable Corp.

The company initially disclosed FCPA scrutiny in September 2014 and recently disclosed:

“As we previously reported, we have been reviewing, with the assistance of external counsel, certain commission payments involving sales to customers of our subsidiary in Angola. The review has focused upon payment practices with respect to employees of public utility companies, use of agents in connection with such payment practices, and the manner in which the payments were reflected in our books and records. We have determined at this time that certain employees in our Portugal and Angola subsidiaries directly and indirectly made or directed payments at various times from 2002 through 2013 to officials of Angola government-owned public utilities that raise concerns under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and possibly under the laws of other jurisdictions.

On February 20, 2015, based on the analysis completed at that time with the assistance of our external counsel and forensic accountants, we concluded that we were able to reasonably estimate the amount of profit derived from sales made to the Angolan government-owned public utilities in connection with the payments described above, which we believe are likely to ultimately be disgorged. As a result, we have recorded an estimated charge in the amount of $24 million as an accrual as of December 31, 2014. The accrued amount reflects only an estimate of the Angola-related profits reasonably likely to be disgorged, and does not include provision for any fines, civil or criminal penalties, or other relief, any or all of which could be substantial.”

Cobalt

As highlighted in this prior post, the company recently prevailed over the SEC regarding the company’s FCPA scrutiny.  Set forth below is what Cobalt’s CEO (Joe Bryant) said during a recent investor conference call.

ANALYST: [J]ust one additional question for you. Back in January, you mentioned or had a press release that the SEC terminated its investigation; but the Department of Justice was still going forward with its parallel investigation into activities in Angola. Where does that stand now, Joe?

JOE BRYANT: Darn it […]. I was hoping to get through this conference without anybody bringing up any FCPA questions.

ANALYST: Sorry about that.

JOE BRYANT: No, I would — it’s pretty simple, really. Our focus in the past several years has obviously been with the SEC; and we brought the DOJ into the investigation early on to make sure that they could run a parallel investigation, if that was what they wanted. By the way, I will say that throughout this entire period, I can’t say enough about the working relationship we developed with the SEC and trying to make sure they understood what we did and they had everything we had in terms of the issue at question.

So we got the SEC out of the way. The DOJ is an independent agency, and it will run its process according to its measures. But I do think that we consider this issue largely behind us.”

Juniper Networks

The company disclosed FCPA scrutiny in August 2013 (albeit in short fashion – see here) and recently disclosed as follows.

“The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) are conducting investigations into possible violations by the Company of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The Company is cooperating with these agencies regarding these matters. The Company’s Audit Committee, with the assistance of independent advisors, has been investigating and conducting a thorough review of possible violations of the FCPA, and has made recommendations for remedial measures, including employee disciplinary actions in foreign jurisdictions, which the Company has implemented and continues to implement. The Company is unable to predict the duration, scope or outcome of the SEC and DOJ investigations, but believes that an adverse outcome is reasonably possible. However, the Company is not able to estimate a reasonable range of possible loss. The SEC and/or DOJ could take action against us or we could agree to settle. In such event, we could be required to pay substantial fines and sanctions and/or implement additional remedial measures; in addition, it may be determined that we violated the FCPA.”

Mondelez International

Kraft Foods long ago disclosed FCPA scrutiny resulting from its acquisition of Cadbury (see here).  Kraft, currently known as Mondelēz International, Inc., recently disclosed as follows.

“[A]fter we acquired Cadbury in February 2010 we began reviewing and adjusting, as needed, Cadbury’s operations in light of applicable standards as well as our policies and practices. We initially focused on such high priority areas as food safety, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) and antitrust. Based upon Cadbury’s pre-acquisition policies and compliance programs and our post-acquisition reviews, our preliminary findings indicated that Cadbury’s overall state of compliance was sound. Nonetheless, through our reviews, we determined that in certain jurisdictions, including India, there appeared to be facts and circumstances warranting further investigation. We are continuing our investigations in certain jurisdictions, including in India, and we continue to cooperate with governmental authorities.

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.”

Coming Attraction

This recent post highlighted judicial rejection of a deferred prosecution between the DOJ and Fokker Services.

Fokker recently announced:

“After careful review of the Court’s decision, Fokker Services decided to file a Notice of Appeal. Fokker Services has noticed recent press articles which contain highly speculative assumptions and amounts, not based on facts. Fokker cannot run ahead of the outcome of its appeal and will make further announcement only if and when applicable.”

While the case is outside the FCPA context, this appeal will certainly be one to follow as DPAs (as well as NPAs) are a prominent feature of FCPA enforcement.

Job Alert

Avon Calling!  Avon Colombia S.A.S., a subsidiary of Avon Products, Inc., based in Medellin, Colombia, is looking for an attorney to join the Ethics & Compliance team.  The Compliance Counsel has day-to-day operational responsibility for managing the compliance program in the Andean Cluster (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela).  The program seeks to minimize risk exposure of corporate and regulatory law through company guidance and controls.  A primary activity of the Compliance Counsel is to provide operational advice and interpretation of company policies and procedures, including but not limited to the company’s anti-corruption policy.  As part of the program, the Compliance Counsel supports corporate, regional and local governance, monitoring, auditing, training and communication initiatives.  A primary goal for the Compliance Counsel is to enhance the culture of awareness and adherence to company policies.  Prospective candidates should apply via the Avon website.

Reading Stack

Third parties are not just a corruption risk in the global marketplace, but the domestic marketplace as well.  See here for the New York Daily News article about so-called “expediters” who assist developers navigate bureaucracy “to speed their projects to approval — getting permits faster, addressing violations and filling out key paperwork. It’s an arrangement critics have long slammed as corrupt.”

The most recent edition of the always information Debevoise & Plimpton FCPA Update is here.  Regarding the recent rejection of a DPA in the Fokker Services action (see here) the Update states:

“In the FCPA context and beyond, the Fokker Services decision is a reminder that increased judicial scrutiny of proposed settlement agreements with law enforcement agencies may be the “new normal.” Although the outcome of Fokker Services’ appeal remains to be seen, Judge Leon’s decision may entice prosecutors in future cases to seek harsher terms in DPAs out of concern for heightened judicial scrutiny of proposed DPAs, or instead shy away from DPAs entirely and attempt to achieve sufficient punishment and deterrence through Non-Prosecution Agreements (“NPAs”). In addition, Judge Leon’s concern that no individuals were charged in Fokker Services may further embolden prosecutors to demand individual accountability as part of proposed settlements or in the lead-up to such settlements.”

Some are still drinking the Kool-Aid regarding Morgan Stanley’s so-called declination.  (See here – “A robust compliance program spared Morgan Stanley from prosecution under the FCPA”).  Just goes to show that once a narrative is cast, nothing else seems to matter.

A recent Q&A in the Wall Street Journal’s Risk & Compliance Journal with Pascale Hélène Dubois (the World Bank’s chief suspension and debarment officer).

*****

A good weekend to all.

Cobalt International Prevails Over SEC

cobalt

Attention general counsel, audit committee members and board of directors.  Just because the SEC thinks your company has violated the FCPA, it isn’t necessarily so and you don’t have to roll over and write a check.  To state the obvious, unless a company caves, the SEC actually has to prove an FCPA violation and history has demonstrated that when forced to do, the SEC often fails.

Cobalt International has been under FCPA scrutiny since March 2011.  As highlighted in this prior post, the company’s initial disclosure stated:

“In connection with entering into our RSAs for Blocks 9 and 21 offshore Angola, two Angolan-based E&P companies were assigned as part of the contractor group by the Angolan government. We had not worked with either of these companies in the past, and, therefore, our familiarity with these companies was limited. In the fall of 2010, we were made aware of allegations of a connection between senior Angolan government officials and one of these companies, Nazaki Oil and Gáz, S.A. (“Nazaki”), which is a full paying member of the contractor group. Nazaki has repeatedly denied the allegations in writing. In March 2011, the SEC commenced an informal inquiry into these allegations. To avoid non-overlapping information requests, we voluntarily contacted the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) with respect to the SEC’s informal request and offered to respond to any requests the DOJ may have. Since such time, we have been complying with all requests from the SEC and DOJ with respect to their inquiry. In November 2011, a formal order of investigation was issued by the SEC related to our operations in Angola. We are fully cooperating with the SEC and DOJ investigations, have conducted an extensive investigation into these allegations and believe that our activities in Angola have complied with all laws, including the FCPA. We cannot provide any assurance regarding the duration, scope, developments in, results of or consequences of these investigations.”

During its FCPA scrutiny, Cobalt experienced the “front-page effect” (see here for the prior post) and its stock price dropped approximately 10%. Cobalt fought back against the media article as highlighted in the post.

Cobalt’s FCPA scrutiny escalated in August 2014 when the company disclosed it received a Wells Notice from the SEC, a rare occurrence in the FCPA context.  (See here for the prior post).  The disclosure stated:

“As previously disclosed, the Company is currently subject to a formal order of investigation issued in 2011 by the SEC related to its operations in Angola.  […] In connection with such investigation, on the evening of August 4, 2014, the Company received a “Wells Notice” from the Staff of the SEC stating that the Staff has made a preliminary determination to recommend that the SEC institute an enforcement action against the Company, alleging violations of certain federal securities laws. In connection with the contemplated action, the Staff may recommend that the SEC seek remedies that could include an injunction, a cease-and-desist order, disgorgement, pre-judgment interest and civil money penalties. The Wells Notice is neither a formal allegation nor a finding of wrongdoing. It allows the Company the opportunity to provide its reasons of law, policy or fact as to why the proposed enforcement action should not be filed and to address the issues raised by the Staff before any decision is made by the SEC on whether to authorize the commencement of an enforcement proceeding. The Company intends to respond to the Wells Notice in the form of a “Wells Submission” in due course.

The Company has fully cooperated with the SEC in this matter and intends to continue to do so. The Company has conducted an extensive investigation into these allegations and the receipt of the Wells Notice does not change the Company’s belief that its activities in Angola have complied with all laws, including the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Company is unable to predict the outcome of the SEC’s investigation or any action that the SEC may decide to pursue.”

The prior post also contained detailed comments from Cobalt’s CEO during an investor conference call regarding the SEC’s position.

Yesterday in this release, Cobalt stated:

“[The Company] has received a termination letter from the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) advising Cobalt that the SEC’s FCPA investigation relating to Cobalt’s operations in Angola has concluded and that the Staff does not intend to recommend any enforcement action by the SEC. This formally concludes the SEC’s investigation, which began in 2011 in response to allegations of a connection between senior Angolan government officials and Nazaki Oil and Gaz, S.A., an Angolan company that, until 2014, held a working interest alongside Cobalt on Blocks 9 and 21 offshore Angola. As previously disclosed, Cobalt received a formal investigative order from the SEC in November 2011 and a Wells Notice on August 4, 2014. Joseph H. Bryant, Cobalt’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, stated, “We are of course pleased with the closure of the SEC’s investigation. We have the utmost respect for the SEC and its investigative process, and cooperated fully with the SEC. Cobalt remains committed to conducting operations and creating shareholder value transparently and in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.” Cobalt continues to cooperate with the United States Department of Justice with regard to its parallel investigation.”

What would this new era of FCPA enforcement look like if more companies did what Cobalt did?  It’s a good question.

*****

Curiously, some are suggesting that Cobalt received a “declination” from the SEC.  This is like suggesting that the loser of this Sunday’s Super Bowl “declined” to win.

Friday Roundup

Roundup2

A double standard dandy, scrutiny alerts, when the dust settles, quotable, asset recovery, protection money, and for the reading stack.  It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Double Standard Dandy

Numerous prior posts have highlighted the double standard between enforcement (or lack thereof) of the U.S. domestic bribery statute (18 USC 201) and the FCPA.  (See here for the double standard tag with approximately 40 posts).

A leading FCPA practitioner sent me the following lead paragraphs in reaction to this recent New York Times article about alleged corruption in connection with state attorney generals offices.

“Media reports this week exposed widespread practices in which U.S.-based issuers have allegedly retained paid lobbyists to wine, dine, and make huge campaign contributions to the chief prosecutors in numerous foreign countries in hopes of obtaining favorable prosecutorial decisions in those countries, often with apparent success.  The DOJ and SEC have immediately launched one of the largest investigations in history to determine whether these activities violated the FCPA, which forbids U.S. companies from giving or promising anything of value to a foreign official in order to gain an improper advantage.  If found guilty, these companies could face multi-million-dollar fines and any implicated executives could face years of incarceration.

Oh wait.  Never mind.  It turns out the chief prosecutors work only for domestic U.S. state governments rather than foreign governments, and thus any tainted decisions would betray U.S. citizens rather than non-citizens living in foreign locations.  Nothing to worry about here after all – just keep moving along, citizens.”

Well said.

Scrutiny Alerts

Qualcomm

Qualcomm’s FCPA scrutiny has been interesting to follow as it represents a rare instance of a company receiving a Wells Notice from the SEC.  In its annual report, the company disclosed:

“Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Formal Order of Private Investigation and Department of Justice Investigation : On September 8, 2010, we were notified by the SEC’s Los Angeles Regional office of a formal order of private investigation. We understand that the investigation arose from a “whistleblower’s” allegations made in December 2009 to the audit committee of our Board of Directors and to the SEC. In 2010, the audit committee completed an internal review of the allegations with the assistance of independent counsel and independent forensic accountants. This internal review into the whistleblower’s allegations and related accounting practices did not identify any errors in our financial statements. On January 27, 2012, we learned that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California/Department of Justice (collectively, DOJ) had begun an investigation regarding our compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The audit committee conducted an internal review of our compliance with the FCPA and its related policies and procedures with the assistance of independent counsel and independent forensic accountants. The audit committee has completed this comprehensive review, made findings consistent with our findings described below and suggested enhancements to our overall FCPA compliance program. In part as a result of the audit committee’s review, we have made and continue to make enhancements to our FCPA compliance program, including implementation of the audit committee’s recommendations.

As previously disclosed, we discovered, and as a part of our cooperation with these investigations informed the SEC and the DOJ of, instances in which special hiring consideration, gifts or other benefits (collectively, benefits) were provided to several individuals associated with Chinese state-owned companies or agencies. Based on the facts currently known, we believe the aggregate monetary value of the benefits in question to be less than $250,000, excluding employment compensation.

On March 13, 2014, we received a Wells Notice from the SEC’s Los Angeles Regional Office indicating that the staff has made a preliminary determination to recommend that the SEC file an enforcement action against us for violations of the anti-bribery, books and records and internal control provisions of the FCPA. The bribery allegations relate to benefits offered or provided to individuals associated with Chinese state-owned companies or agencies. The Wells Notice indicated that the recommendation could involve a civil injunctive action and could seek remedies that include disgorgement of profits, the retention of an independent compliance monitor to review our FCPA policies and procedures, an injunction, civil monetary penalties and prejudgment interest.

A Wells Notice is not a formal allegation or finding by the SEC of wrongdoing or violation of law. Rather, the purpose of a Wells Notice is to give the recipient an opportunity to make a “Wells submission” setting forth reasons why the proposed enforcement action should not be filed and/or bringing additional facts to the SEC’s attention before any decision is made by the SEC as to whether to commence a proceeding. On April 4, 2014 and May 29, 2014, we made Wells submissions to the staff of the Los Angeles Regional Office explaining why we believe we have not violated the FCPA and therefore enforcement action is not warranted.

We are continuing to cooperate with the SEC and the DOJ, but are unable to predict the outcome of their investigations or any action that the SEC may decide to file.”

Cobalt International

The other instance of FCPA scrutiny involving an SEC Wells Notice is Cobalt International.  Earlier this week, the company disclosed:

“As previously disclosed, the Company is currently subject to a formal order of investigation issued in 2011 by the SEC related to its operations in Angola. On August 4, 2014, the Company received a Wells Notice from the Staff of the SEC with respect to such investigation. On September 24, 2014, the Company responded to the Wells Notice in the form of a Wells Submission. The Company is unable to predict the outcome of the SEC’s investigation or any action that the SEC may decide to pursue.”

When the Dust Settles

It is always interesting to see what happens when the dust settles from an FCPA enforcement action (see here for the prior post). The recent Bio-Rad enforcement action concerned conduct in, among other places, Vietnam.

According to this source:

“The [Vietnam] Ministry of Health has called on police to investigate an American medical equipment manufacturer that has admitted to bribing Vietnamese officials. Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien filed a formal request on Wednesday with the Ministry of Public Security that asked investigators to determine whether anyone had accepted kickbacks from Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc. On the same day, the ministry’s inspectors instructed government hospitals to review any purchases from from Bio-Rad since 2005 and submit a report on the issue by November 15.”

Quotable

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Yates v. United States, the case involving a fisherman who was criminally charged with violating the anti-shredding provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley (i.e. “altered, destroyed, mutilated, concealed, covered up, falsified, or made a false entry in a record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation”) for disposing of some fish.

In this Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bill Shepherd, a partner in Holland & Knight LLP and lead counsel for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers which filed an amicus brief in the Yates case, states:

“[C]reativity in law enforcement should be confined to new strategies for undercover operations, not new, tortured interpretations of laws on the books. […]  Congress is often criticized for overregulating and overcriminalizing. But the Yates case is a dramatic example of executive branch overreaching. Just because a prosecutor can file a charge doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Prosecutors everywhere struggle with the burden of teaching new prosecutors how to recognize the appropriate use of their authority. Professional groups like the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section work to help foster that dialogue. Success among colleagues in prosecutors’ offices is measured, as it should be, by the number of convictions and the length of sentences handed down. But the other part of success—more difficult to measure—is the courage to close unfounded investigations or dismiss cases because they are not supported by the evidence, or don’t match an American sense of justice. The ultimate measure of success is the ability to live, work and raise a family in a safe environment—secure in the knowledge that government will not abuse that power with which we entrust it. This must be our universal goal.”

For coverage of oral argument in the Yates case, see here from the New York Times.

Asset Recovery

Deputy Attorney General James Cole recently delivered this speech at the Third Annual Arab Forum on Asset Recovery.

“Corruption undermines and weakens that which is the basis of modern society – the rule of law.  Corrupt officials who put their personal enrichment before the benefit of their citizenry create unstable countries.  Corruption siphons precious resources away from those in need at a time when such resources could hardly be more scarce and when the world economy could hardly be more vulnerable.  The repercussions of corruption – the hospitals left unbuilt, the roads still unpaved, the medicine undelivered – undermine the integrity of democratic institutions, creating gaps in government structures that organized criminal groups exploit.  And as we have seen time and again, countries plagued with corruption become breeding grounds and havens for other criminals and terrorist groups who threaten global security.”

[…]

“To underscore the U.S.’s commitment to asset recovery, Attorney General Holder established a Kleptocracy Initiative in the Department of Justice.  The Kleptocracy Team includes dedicated prosecutors working to forfeit corruption proceeds and, whenever we can, return those proceeds to benefit the people harmed by the corruption.  The Kleptocracy prosecutors are soon to be paired with a dedicated Kleptocracy squad of FBI agents and analysts, and this squad will enhance the capacity of the United States to respond rapidly in investigating and locating corruption proceeds.

The Kleptocracy Initiative seeks to deliver on our responsibility to protect the integrity of the U.S. financial system and its institutions from the destructive influence of corruption proceeds and to deny kleptocrats safe haven to hide and enjoy their ill-gotten gains.”

Speaking of asset recovery, the DOJ announced that it filed a civil forfeiture complaint seeking the forfeiture of $106,488.31 in allegedly laundered funds traceable to a $2 million bribe payment made by a Canadian energy company to Chad’s former Ambassador to the United States and Canada and his wife.

According to the release:

“From 2004 to 2012, Mahamoud Adam Bechir, 49, served as Chad’s Ambassador to the United States and Canada.  According to the forfeiture complaint, Bechir agreed to use his position to influence the award of oil development rights in Chad in exchange for $2 million and other valuable interests from Griffiths Energy International Inc., a Canadian company.  In order to conceal the bribe, Bechir and his wife, Nouracham Niam, 44, allegedly entered into a series of agreements with Griffiths Energy that provided for the payment of a $2 million “consulting fee” if the company secured the oil rights in Chad.  After securing these oil rights in February 2011, Griffiths Energy allegedly transferred $2 million to an account located in Washington, D.C. held by a shell company created by Niam.  In 2013, Griffiths Energy pleaded guilty in Canadian court to bribing Bechir. The complaint further alleges that, after commingling the bribe payment with other funds and laundering these funds through U.S. bank accounts and real property, Bechir transferred $1,474,517 of the criminal proceeds traceable to the bribe payment to his account in South Africa, where he is now serving Chad’s Ambassador to South Africa.  The current action seeks forfeiture of $106,488.31, which is the current balance of Bechir’s accounts in South Africa.  Those funds have been seized pursuant to the complaint unsealed today.  The Department of Justice is also seeking additional assets from Bechir and Niam.”

See here for the prior post highlighting the Canadian enforcement action against Griffiths Energy and pondering whether there would be a U.S. enforcement action.

Protection Money
Is paying “protection money” to tribal leaders in Egypt an FCPA issue?  (See here from National Geographic).
“No US firm will speak publicly of the measures they take to avoid open appeasement of Bedouin claims, but in private conversations, employees of American and European oil giants have spoken of hiring tribesmen for non-existent or unnecessary jobs. Usually they’re listed as security guards or dump truck drivers ferrying sand and gravel, but they seldom turn up to except to collect their monthly salaries. This arrangement has afforded most energy firms a largely hassle-free hand to work in the vast, poorly policed expanses that flank the Nile river.”
Reading Stack
Professor Brandon Garrett’s – “Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations.”
*****
A good weekend to all.

Friday Roundup

Scrutiny alerts and updates, an FCPA fumble, checking in with the SFO, and for the reading stack.  It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Scrutiny Alerts and Updates

Cobalt International Energy

Cobalt has been under FCPA scrutiny since 2011 for its alleged business relationships in Angola.  (See here and here for prior posts).

In this recent SEC filing, the company states:

“As previously disclosed, the Company is currently subject to a formal order of investigation issued in 2011 by the SEC related to its operations in Angola.  […] In connection with such investigation, on the evening of August 4, 2014, the Company received a “Wells Notice” from the Staff of the SEC stating that the Staff has made a preliminary determination to recommend that the SEC institute an enforcement action against the Company, alleging violations of certain federal securities laws. In connection with the contemplated action, the Staff may recommend that the SEC seek remedies that could include an injunction, a cease-and-desist order, disgorgement, pre-judgment interest and civil money penalties. The Wells Notice is neither a formal allegation nor a finding of wrongdoing. It allows the Company the opportunity to provide its reasons of law, policy or fact as to why the proposed enforcement action should not be filed and to address the issues raised by the Staff before any decision is made by the SEC on whether to authorize the commencement of an enforcement proceeding. The Company intends to respond to the Wells Notice in the form of a “Wells Submission” in due course.

The Company has fully cooperated with the SEC in this matter and intends to continue to do so. The Company has conducted an extensive investigation into these allegations and the receipt of the Wells Notice does not change the Company’s belief that its activities in Angola have complied with all laws, including the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Company is unable to predict the outcome of the SEC’s investigation or any action that the SEC may decide to pursue.”

Rare are so-called Wells Notices in the FCPA context for the simple reason that few issuers actually publicly push back against the SEC.  However, this is the second instance in the past four months of the SEC sending an issuer a Wells notice in connection with an FCPA inquiry. (See here for the prior post regarding Qualcomm).

As highlighted by the below excerpts, the Wells notice was a hot topic during Cobalt’s most recent quarterly earnings call.  The below excerpts also capture the candid statements of Cobalt’s CEO concerning the SEC’s position.

Joseph Bryant – Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Before we get into the Q&A, let me say a few words about our 8-K disclosure from earlier this morning. As it noted, last evening, less than 24 hours ago, we received a Wells Notice from the Securities and Exchange Commission related to the investigation the agency has been conducting relating to Cobalt’s operations in Angola and the allegations of Angolan government official ownership of Nazaki Oil and Gas, one of the other working interest owners in Blocks 9 and 21 offshore Angola. In the notice, the staff of the SEC stated that it had made a preliminary and, in our view erroneous, determination to recommend that the SEC move forward with an enforcement action against the company. I think it’s important to point out that the Wells Notice is neither a formal allegation nor a finding of wrongdoing. It merely allows Cobalt the opportunity to provide its reasons of law, policy and fact as to why the proposed enforcement action should not be filed before any enforcement decision is made by the SEC. As you know, we have fully cooperated with the SEC and the investigation since it began nearly 3.5 years ago. And we will continue to do so. In the same vein, we will, of course, take this opportunity and respond to the SEC as part of the Wells process. But let me be very clear. This Wells Notice does nothing to change our prior conclusion that our activity in Angola have fully complied with all laws, including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and Cobalt continues to strongly refute any allegation of any wrongdoing.”

[…]

Evan Calio – Morgan Stanley, Research Division

I appreciate your comments on the Wells Notice and underlying FCPA claims. Is there any — can you comment if there’s any potential collateral effect in a negative outcome scenario, meaning other than a potential fine? Could it affect your career or anything in your leases?

Bryant

Well, good question, Evan. We obviously disagree with the staff’s position in the Wells Notice and we’ll respond to the notice in due course. As we’ve stated repeatedly over the past several years, Cobalt has and always will conduct all aspects of our business to the highest ethical standards and in full compliance with all laws and regulations in all jurisdictions, not just Angola, where we operate. This is the case of all of our Angolan operations. We fully plan and expect to pursue the exploration, appraisal and development of all of our Angolan assets, including Cameia development in a timely manner as we’ve previously discussed. And that’s about all I can say, Evan.

Calio

Okay, that’s great. And do you have a hearing date on the Wells Notice? Or is that — just not at this time?

Bryant

No. There’s a process, but to be honest, it’s just like some other things, it can just wander on.

[…]

Joseph Allman – JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

So just back to the Wells Notice for a few minutes, John. Are you planning on taking a reserve? I assume it’s not estimable at this point if there is any fine, so I assume the answer is no. And then just — could you just describe the next steps a little bit? I think you guys have to write a response. If I’m not mistaken, you’ve got about 2 weeks to file that response. Is that correct? Could you just give us some more details on that?

John Wilkerson – Chief Financial Officer, Principal Accounting Officer and Executive Vice President

We are not planning on taking a reserve.

Bryant

And yes, there is a formal process that we respond to. Our view of the facts — and of course, we know the facts incredibly well since we’ve been investigating this for a very long time, and so we will submit our facts to the SEC here in the next several weeks.

[…]

Edward Westlake – Crédit Suisse AG, Research Division

Let’s then get into the Wells Notice as well. So I mean, my understanding, which may be incorrect, of the FCPA is that one aspect of it is doing due diligence, which is the standard of reasonable inquiries, and then the other aspect of it is if some exchange took place in order to get access to the block. It seems from the outside to me that perhaps some disagreements with you and the SEC on how much due diligence was needed could be a civil sort of issue whereas if there was some exchange, that seem to me would be more criminal. So I’m just trying to get a sense of what it is that the SEC, if you know, disagree with you on in terms of their assessment as to why they’d want to go towards an enforcement.

Bryant

Well, the way the process works is it’s somewhat opaque, to be honest with you, on one side, but it’s fully transparent on our side. So we know all the facts, we know them very well. And I’ve said many times that we built Cobalt the right way from day 1 before we ever considered leases in Angola. All of our FCPA, all of our compliance, all of our due diligence systems were built into the company from day 1. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday and neither did any of these guys around the table. We know all about FCPA and we weren’t about to wander into anything there unknowingly. So all I can say for sure is we know what we’ve done. We know what compliance is required. We’ve gone above and beyond that and we’ll stand firm on our actions.

Westlake

Okay. And all of the due diligence which I’ve done also suggests that your staff has done a very good job in terms of doing their due diligence. But maybe a different way of asking the question, do you think it’s just the level of due diligence which the SEC disagree with you on? Or do you think that there has been some exchange? I understand that Nazaki is a full paying member of the consortium, in fact, was imposed on you rather than something that you chose. But I’m just trying to get some understanding as to what it is you think they disagree with you on.

Bryant

Ed, I appreciate your probing nature, but I really can’t answer that. Again, what I can tell you is, again, we understand the requirements. We understand the law, we understand compliance, we understand due diligence. And we have gone above and beyond in every case. And we sit here today confident in our position, and I cannot and will not speculate on what the SEC’s views are.

Westlake

Okay. And then have there been any inquiries from the DOJ?

Bryant

We have — at every step of the last 3.5 years, we have managed both the SEC and the DOJ simultaneously to make sure that both of those federal agencies are fully up to speed on what we’ve done and what we know about. So I would say constant communication with both agencies has been a routine over the past 3 years.

[…]

Westlake

Right. And maybe just a follow-up on the Wells Notice. Will we ever see the actual SEC letter? Is that a public domain or is it private in terms of their allegations, when eventually they make them.

Bryant

It’s currently private, and we’ll — I hope we’re demonstrating how transparent we are. When we know something, we’ll tell you. And when we have something we can release, we’ll release it. That’s about all really I can say about it.

Westlake

I mean, it would be helpful, I think, for investors to see what the allegation specifics are to be able to make a judgment call but, obviously, I leave that up to you.

Bryant

Got it.

[…]

Al Stanton – RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Research Division

[J]ust back to the Wells notice. Can I ask whether the letters are addressed to the company or do they actually name specific individuals?

Bryant

The company.

Staying with Cobalt-related issues, Global Witness recently issued this press release stating:

“BP and its partners including Houston-based Cobalt have contributed US$175 million over the past two-and-a-half years to fund a project in Angola known as the Sonangol Research and Technology Center (SRTC), with another US$175 million due to be paid by January 2016. Global Witness asked BP and Cobalt to provide any information that confirms the SRTC exists. The companies did not provide this information in their responses. BP stated that Sonangol, Angola’s state-owned oil company, “has informed BP that the SRTC is still in planning stage.” Cobalt said they “monitor the progress of our social contributions in Angola, including the Research and Technology Center” but did not provide any further information about the project. Global Witness asked Sonangol for information to confirm the existence of the SRTC, but the company did not respond. We commissioned interviews with well-placed industry insiders, but none of them could confirm that the SRTC exists.  Global Witness is calling on the Angolan authorities to disclose where this money has gone.”

SBM Offshore

The company has been under FCPA (and related scrutiny) since 2012 concerning allegations primarily in Equatorial Guinea and Angola and disclosed in this press release as follows.

“As previously disclosed in various press releases, SBM Offshore voluntarily reported in April 2012 an internal investigation into potentially improper sales practices involving third parties to the relevant authorities, and has since been in dialogue with these authorities. SBM Offshore is discussing a potential settlement of the issues arising from the investigation. While these discussions are ongoing, it is sufficiently clear that a resolution of the issues will have a financial component, and consequently SBM Offshore has recorded a non-recurring charge of US$240 million in the first half of 2014, reflecting the information currently available to the Company. Until the matter is concluded, SBM Offshore cannot provide further details regarding a possible resolution of the issues arising from the investigation, and no assurance can be given that a settlement will actually be reached. As always, the Company will inform the market as soon as further information can be provided.”

FCPA Fumble

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) is not the first member of Congress to fumble an FCPA issue, just the latest.  As noted in this Radio Free Europe article:

“A U.S. senator has asked federal authorities to investigate whether a powerful Russian media mogul seen as the mastermind behind the Kremlin-funded RT network used dirty money to purchase pricey California real estate.   U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-Mississippi) has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Mikhail Lesin, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former press minister, violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or laundered money by acquiring multimillion-dollar homes in the Los Angeles area.”  [See here for Senator Wicker’s letter to the DOJ].

Dear Senator Wicker, alleged “foreign officials” are not subject to the FCPA.  See U.S. v. Castle, 925 F.2d 831 (5th Cir. 1991).

Checking In With the SFO

The U.K. Serious Fraud Office recently announced the following sentences of individuals in connection with the Innospec prosecution.

Dennis Kerrison, 69, of Chertsey, Surrey, was sentenced to 4 years in prison. Paul Jennings, 57, of Neston, Cheshire, was sentenced to 2 years in prison. Miltiades Papachristos, 51 of Thessaloniki, Greece, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. David Turner, 59, of Newmarket, Suffolk, was sentenced to a 16 month suspended sentence with 300 hours unpaid work

Mr Kerrison and Dr Papachristos were convicted of conspiracy to commit corruption in June 2014 in relation to Indonesia only. Mr Jennings pleaded guilty in June 2012 to two charges of conspiracy to commit corruption and in July 2012 to a further charge of conspiracy to commit corruption in relation to Indonesia and Iraq. Dr Turner pleaded guilty to three charges of conspiracy to commit corruption in January 2012 in relation to Indonesia and Iraq.

Further information on the guilty verdict delivered in the trial of Mr Kerrison and Dr Papachristos can be found here, while information on the guilty pleas entered into by Dr Turner and Mr Jennings can be found here and here.

Upon sentencing the defendants, HHJ Goymer said:

“Corruption in this company was endemic, institutionalised and ingrained… but despite being a separate legal entity it is not an automated machine; decisions are made by human minds.

“None of these defendants would consider themselves in the same category as common criminals who commit crimes of dishonesty or violence….. but the real harm lies in the effect on public life, the effect on community and in particular with this corruption, its effect on the environment.  If a company registered or based in the UK engages in bribery of foreign officials it tarnishes the reputation of this country in the international arena.”

Concerning the sentencing of Dr Turner, the Judge also said:

“It is necessary to give encouragement to those involved in serious crime to cooperate with authorities.  You [Dr Turner] very narrowly indeed escaped going to prison.”

David Green CB QC, Director of the SFO said:

“This successful conclusion to a long-running investigation demonstrates the SFO’s ability and determination to bring corporate criminals to justice.”

Innospec itself pleaded guilty in March 2010 to bribing state officials in Indonesia and was fined $12.7 million in England with additional penalties being imposed in the USA.

Dr Turner was also ordered to pay £10,000 towards prosecution costs and Mr Jennings was ordered to pay £5000 towards these costs.  Dr Turner and Mr Jennings have already been subject to disgorgement of benefit by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.  The matter of costs for Mr Kerrison and Dr Papachristos has been adjourned pending the hearing of confiscation proceedings against them.”

For more on the sentences, see here from thebriberyact.com.

Reading Stack

Professor Stephen Bainbridge knows Delaware corporate law and related corporate governance issues as well as anyone.  In regards to the Wal-Mart Delaware action (see here for the prior post noting that despite the hype, the decision was much to do about little), Professor Bainbridge writes:

“There’s been a fair bit of blawgosphere chatter about [the Wal-Mart Delaware action].”  […]  Personally, it just doesn’t seem that big a deal. Somebody want to explain to me why I should care more?”

Spot-on.

*****

Sometimes a suitable proxy for potential red flags may be whether, upon reading a certain set of facts and circumstances, one becomes dizzy.  This recent New York Times article regarding former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair may make you dizzy.

*****

A good weekend to all.

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