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Cobalt Experiences The Front Page Effect As Well

Wal-Mart’s stock is not alone in experiencing a wild ride based on recent front page news coverage of FCPA issues.  Last week, Cobalt International (a Houston based oil exploration and production company) experienced a wild ride as well.

On Friday, April 13th, Cobalt’s shares closed at $28.38.

On Sunday, April 15th, the Financial Times (“FT”) published two articles: “Spotlight Falls on Cobalt’s Angola Partner” and “Angola Officials Held Hidden Oil Stakes” that spooked investors the following day.  Never mind that, as in Wal-Mart’s case, Cobalt disclosed FCPA scrutiny weeks earlier – see here for the prior post.  (Point taken that market reaction to Wal-Mart – the stock was down an additional 3% yesterday, down approximately 8% this week – is likely not just based on Wal-Mart’s potential FCPA scrutiny, but Wal-Mart’s response (or lack thereof) to the payments since 2005 and the impact this could have for senior leadership at the company).

The FT articles document how in 2008 Cobalt was looking to obtain rights to drill for oil in Angolan waters.  According to the FT, an Angolan government stipulation was that Cobalt would have partner with Nazaki Oil & Gaz, described by the FT as “an obscure local company.”  According to the articles, FT confirmed that “three of the most powerful figures in the Angolan regime have held interests in Nazaki.”  The FT stated that these individuals “interests in Cobalt’s local partner could raise questions about compliance with U.S. anti-corruption laws, which make it a crime to pay or offer anything of value to foreign officials to win business.”  For its part, Cobalt stated in the articles that its extensive and ongoing due diligence “has not found any credible support for the central allegation that Angolan government officials, and specifically the officials identified … have any ownership in Nazaki” and that the company “has at all times complied fully with both U.S. and Angolan laws.”

Nevertheless, in mid-day trading on Monday, April 16th, the company’s stock plunged approximately 11% and closed at $26.35, down approximately 7% from its previous close.

After watching its stock dive based on the FT article, Cobalt issued a release (here) strongly refuting “any allegations of wrong doing and once again stood behind its principles of full compliance with all laws in all jurisdictions in which it operates.”  According to Cobalt’s release, “prior to publication of [the FT] articles, Cobalt went on the record asking for any documentation that the Financial Times could offer which was at  odds with its position. The Financial Times declined Cobalt’s repeated requests for supporting documentation. In fact, in the course of these communications, Cobalt informed the Financial Times of certain egregious, demonstrably false allegations that it provided to Cobalt.”  As noted in the release, “Cobalt began its investigation into its Angola business relationships in 2007. Cobalt has based its decisions and actions on the results of these  extensive investigations and will continue to maintain rigorous due diligence in all of its worldwide activities. Cobalt remains confident that it has not violated any US or Angolan Law and will vigorously defend its reputation and legal rights in this matter.”

On Tuesday April 17th, as if on cue, a plaintiff shareholder firm announced (here) that it is investigating “potential claims on behalf of purchasers of the securities of Cobalt International Energy Inc. concerning whether the company and certain of its officers and directors have violated federal securities laws.”  Other shareholder firms have joined in as well – see here.

Also on Tuesday April 17th, Morgan Stanley, in a morning equity summary, said that the “market is overreacting to worries of alleged” Cobalt violations and that Cobalt “has no risk of losing” its interest in the Angola blocks.  The company’s shares climbed approximately 4% and closed at $27.44.  Since then the company’s stock has generally trended downward, yesterday it closed at $26.41.

What to make of Cobalt’s potential FCPA exposure?

Time will tell of course, but the DOJ has previously brought FCPA enforcement actions where the thing of value given to the “foreign official” was provided in the context of a business relationship with a company owned or controlled by a “foreign official” or family members.

For instance, in both the Charles Jumet and John Warwick (these individuals were employed by Ports Engineering Consultants Corporation) charging documents (here and here) the DOJ generally alleged as follows.

“Government Official A was the Administrator of Panama’s National Maritime Ports Authority (APN), the Panamanian governmental entity responsible for operating and maintaining the lighthouses and buoys in the waterways near the Panama Canal.” “Government Official B” was at various times the Deputy Administrator or Administrator of APN.  “Government Official C was a very high-ranking executive official of the Republic of Panama.”

According to the charging documents, Government Official A owned a shell corporation, Soderville Corporation, which become a majority shareholder of Ports Engineering Consultants Corporation (PECC).  Government Official B’s relatives were corporate officers of Warmspell Holding Corporation, which became a shareholder of PECC.

The DOJ alleged a conspiracy “to pay money secretly to Panamanian government officials in return for awarding PECC contracts to maintain lighthouses and buoys along Panama’s waterways.”  According to the DOJ, part of the conspiracy was that Government Official A and Government Official B received “corrupt payments” in the form of purported ‘dividends’ and that Government Official C received “bearer” shares from PECC as part of the conspiracy.

Doing business with a “foreign official” of course is not per se illegal under the FCPA and several FCPA Opinion Procedure Releases discuss the issue – see here, here and here for instance.

Yet one of the red flags when engaging foreign partners is when a company is told by the foreign government who to do business with.  In such a situation, a company needs to ask itself – why are we being told to do business with this company?  A company needs to do sufficient pre-engagement due diligence, as Cobalt claims it did in Angola, to understand who the owners are to be satisfied that it is not being told to do business with the particular entity simply as an indirect way of enriching foreign officials.

Friday Roundup

The Chamber and others weigh in on the DOJ’s promised FCPA guidance, a re-run worth watching, the DOJ dismisses its FCPA case against defunct Cinergy Telecommunications, this week’s FCPA disclosure, a World Bank debarment, and reflecting on this “new era” of FCPA enforcement.  It’s all here in a souped-up version of the Friday roundup.

Guidance

The conventional wisdom is that when the DOJ announced in November 2011 (see here for the prior post) that it would be issuing FCPA guidance in 2012, that this stalled introduction of an FCPA reform bill.  The current conversation thus seems to be focused on DOJ’s promised guidance.

This prior post highlighted how Senator Charles Grassley is curious about DOJ’s guidance and this prior post highlighted how Senators Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons are as well.

Earlier this week, the Chamber of Commerce (and approximately 30 other trade associations or councils ranging from the American Gaming Association, the Financial Services Roundtable, the Poultry Federation, and the West Virginia Bankers Association) sent a letter (here) to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer and SEC Director of Enforcement Robert Khuzami titled “Guidance Concerning the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

The letter begins as follows.  “On behalf of the more than three million businesses and organizations whose interests we represent, we the undersigned organizations, write to request that this guidance address several issues and questions of significant concern to businesses seeking in good faith to comply with the FCPA. Detailed, authoritative guidance on these matters will enhance companies’ compliance with the FCPA by clarifying the “rules of the road” and by mitigating the significant interpretive challenges that companies face when applying the text of the statute to complex real-world circumstances.”

Topics addressed in the letter include:  “definitions of ‘foreign official’ and ‘instrumentality'”; “consideration of compliance programs in enforcement decisions”; “parent-subsidiary liability”; “successor liability”; “de minimis gifts and hospitality”; “mens rea standard for corporate criminal liability”; and “declination issues.”

In this previous post regarding the DOJ’s promised guidance I commented that while a welcome development, DOJ’s promise of FCPA guidance in 2012 will not cure many of the issues that are being debated in good faith during this new era of FCPA enforcement.  Furthermore, I expect DOJ’s guidance to be little more than a compilation in one document of information that is already in the public  domain for those who know where to look.  The Chamber letter similarly states as follows concerning compliance programs.  “If the forthcoming guidance on this issue consists merely of a recitation in summary form of specific corporate compliance programs that have been adopted pursuant to deferred prosecution agreements, non-prosecution agreements or SEC settlements, the marginal utility of such guidance to the cause of FCPA compliance in the business community will be limited.”

Whenever released and whatever it says, the DOJ’s guidance will be merely that – guidance.  What the FCPA needs is not guidance, but limited structural reforms  (such as a compliance defense) as well as a change in DOJ policy (such as  elimination of non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements).

A Re-Run Worth Watching

If you missed “The FCPA Compliance: Yes Or No” debate between Howard Sklar and I earlier this week on Securities Docket, here is the audio replay (approximately 70 minutes) along with the presentation slides.  At the end of the presentation participants were asked to vote “yes” or “no” and the vote tally was 68% “yes” 32% “no.”  Many thanks to Bruce Carton at Securities Docket for hosting.

Cinergy Telecommunications

In July 2011, Cinergy Telecommunications was added to the Haiti Teleco enforcement action (see here for the prior post).  In a superceding indictment, the privately-held telecommunications company incorporated in Florida was charged
with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA and to commit wire fraud, six counts of FCPA violations, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and 19 counts of money laundering.  In addition, Washington Vasconez Cruz (the president of Cinergy) was also charged as was Amadeus Richers (a former director of Cinergy).  As noted in this January post by Samuel Rubenfeld (Wall Street Journal Corruption Currents) in a second superceding indictment Cecilia Zurita (a former vice president of Cinergy as well as Cruz’s wife) was also added to the case.

Earlier this week, the DOJ moved to dismiss (see here) its case against Cinergy.  The motion states as follows.  “The government has recently learned that defendant Cinergy Telecommunications, Inc. is a non-operational entity that effectively exists only on paper for the benefit of two fugitive defendants, Washington Vasconez Cruz and Cecilia Zurita.  For several years, these defendants took actions making it appear as though Cinergy was an on-going operational company.”  The motion states that “defense counsel recently confirmed that Cinergy is in fact now non-operational, has no employees, and has no assets of any real value.”  The motion concludes as follows.  “In light of persuasive information the government has developed that Cinergy no longer exists in any real sense and that it was portrayed as existing at least in part to further fugitive defendants’ litigation strategy, the government in its discretion and under the circumstances presented has elected not to proceed with a trial against Cinergy.”

Joel Hirschhorn (here – Hirschhorn & Bieber P.A.) represents Cinergy as well as certain individual defendants in the case.

This Week’s FCPA Disclosure

In this prior post, I commented (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that every week another company seems to be disclosing FCPA scrutiny.  So far so good.  This week’s disclosure is from Cobalt International Energy which disclosed as follows in its recent annual report.

“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.”

World Bank Debarment

Earlier this week, the World Bank announced (here) “debarment of Alstom Hydro France and Alstom Network Schweiz AG (Switzerland) – in addition to their affiliates – for a period of three years following Alstom’s  acknowledgment of misconduct in relation to a Bank-financed hydropower  project.”  According to the release, “in 2002, Alstom made an improper payment of €110,000, to an entity controlled by a  former senior government official for consultancy services in relation to the  World Bank-financed Zambia Power Rehabilitation Project.”  The release further states as follows. “The  debarment is part of a Negotiated Resolution Agreement between Alstom and the  World Bank which also includes a restitution payment by the two companies  totaling approximately $9.5 million. The debarment can be reduced to 21 months –  with enhanced oversight – if the companies comply with all conditions of the  agreement.”

What to make of the debarment based on conduct 10 years ago is a bit difficult.  This Wall Street Journal Story by Dionne Searcey and David Crawford states as follows.  “There was some confusion about the company’s official response. Early Wednesday, Alstom spokesman Patrick Bessy said Alstom didn’t admit guilt in its settlement with the World Bank. “The World Bank made assumptions which were not proved,” he said, adding that because the matter was so old, “Alstom was unable to find evidence it could present in its own defense so we decided to settle.”  Mr. Bessy said the blacklisting won’t affect Alstom Group, which has had only one project that involved World Bank funding since 2007. He said the company has several other subsidiaries engaged in hydroelectric projects that aren’t affected by the ban and will be eligible for World Bank funding of their projects. In all only about 5% of Alstom sales are in the hydroelectric field, Mr. Bessy said. In a later statement, the company rejected Mr. Bessy’s comments: “Alstom’s general counsel … stated that any comments that were previously made by Alstom are not valid.”

Reflecting On The New Era of FCPA Enforcement

As discussed in this previous post, in November 2010 Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer declared as follows.  “We are in a new era of FCPA enforcement’ and we are here to stay.”  Thomas Gorman (Dorsey Whitney) runs the always informative SEC Actions blog – see here.  In this post, titled “The New Era of FCPA Enforcement:  A Time For Reflection” Gorman hit the ball out of the park when he states as follows.

“Perhaps now is a good time to stop and reflect on what the courts and jurors have said about the “new era” of FCPA enforcement. Surely that era should be more than a dazzling array of ever increasing monetary payments by corporations or actions against individuals built on questionable blue collar tactics. Surely it should be more than business organizations spending ever increasing sums to conduct far reaching and perhaps at times unnecessary investigations at huge expense in a effort to win cooperation credit. Surely it should be more than brining increasing numbers of charges against individuals and demanding longer and longer prison terms. Perhaps now is the time to craft meaningful reform to the Act and enforcement policy to ensure clearer guidance and a more balanced application of the statutes to ensure that the laudable goals of the statute in a fair and balanced manner in the future. That would truly be a “new era” of FCPA enforcement.”

For additional reflections on this “new era” of FCPA enforcement, see this piece I published with the ABA Global Anti-Corruption Task Force.

*****

A good weekend to all.

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