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SEC Examination Leads To Criminal FCPA Charges Against Bond Traders

It is one of the more unusual origins of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action.

In November 2010, the SEC conducted a periodic examination of Direct Access Partners LLC (“DAP”), a broker-dealer registered with the SEC.  DAP’s Global Markets Group (“DAP Global”) primarily executed fixed income trades for customers in foreign sovereign debt.  One of its customers was Bandes, an alleged Venezuelan state-owned banking entity that acts as the financial agent of the state to finance economic development projects.

According to the DOJ and SEC, the SEC examination lead to the discovery of a “fraud that was staggering in audacity and scope” (see here for the SEC release).  A component of the alleged fraud included payments by Tomas Clarke (a DAP Executive Vice President who worked out of the company’s Miami office) and Alejandro Hurtado (a back-office employee of DAP in Miami) to Maria Gonzalez (V.P. of Finance / Executive Manager of Finance and Funds Administration at Bandes).  According to this DOJ criminal complaint, Gonzalez oversaw Bande’s trading by DAP.

According to the criminal complaint, Clarke, Hurtado and others “directed kickback payments” to Gonzalez “in exchange for Gonzalez steering Bandes business to [DAP] and authorizing Bandes to execute bond trades with [DAP].  According to the complaint, between 2008 and 2010 “Gonzalez received at least $3.6 million in payments through insiders and affiliates of [DAP].  According to the complaint, during this time period, “with Gonzalez both acting as the authorized trading contact in regard to [DAP] and managing the relationship between Bandes and [DAP], Bandes directed substantial business to [DAP] and carried out bond transactions that resulted in [DAP] generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue.”  The criminal complaint alleges various payments made or authorized by Clarke and Hurtado to an account in Switzerland held in the name of Gonzalez and/or a company owned in part by Gonzalez.

Based on the above core set of conduct, the criminal complaint charges Clarke and Hurtado with the following offenses:  conspiracy to violate the FCPA, substantive FCPA violations, conspiracy to violate the Travel Act, substantive Travel Act violations, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and substantive money laundering violations.

Gonzalez, the alleged “foreign official,” was charged with conspiracy to violate the Travel Act, substantive Travel Act violations, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and substantive money laundering violations.  (For other examples of “foreign officials” being criminally charged with non-FCPA offenses in connection with an FCPA enforcement action, see here and here).

In this DOJ release, Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman stated as follows.  “Today’s announcement is a wake-up call to anyone in the financial services industry who thinks bribery is the way to get ahead.  The defendants in this case allegedly paid huge bribes so that foreign business would flow to their firm.  Their return on investment now comes in the form of criminal charges carrying the prospect of prison time.  We will not stand by while brokers or others try rig the system to line their pockets, and will continue to vigorously enforce the FCPA and money laundering statutes across all industries.”

As noted in the DOJ release, “the government [also] filed a civil forfeiture action … seeking the forfeiture of assets held in a number of bank accounts associated with the scheme, including several bank accounts located in Switzerland.  The forfeiture complaint also seeks the forfeiture of several properties in the Miami area related to Hurtado that were purchased with his proceeds from the scheme.”

The above core conduct also resulted in this SEC civil complaint against Clarke and Hurtado (and others) charging a variety of non-FCPA securities law violations.

Pride – A Little Bit Of Nigeria, And A Whole Lot Else … Plus It Pays To Assist the DOJ!

Next up in the analysis of CustomsGate enforcement actions is Pride International.

As described below, the Pride enforcement action includes not only Nigeria – Panalpina related conduct, but also conduct relating to contract extensions in Venezuela, bribing an administrative law judge in India, customs duties in Mexico, as well as other improper conduct in other countries.

See here for the prior post on the Shell enforcement action, here for the prior post on the Transocean enforcement action, here for the prior post on the Tidewater enforcement action here for the prior post on the Noble enforcement action and here for the prior post on the GlobalSantaFe enforcement action.

The Pride enforcement action involved both a DOJ and SEC component. Total settlement amount was approximately $56.2 million ($32.6 million criminal fine via a DOJ plea agreement and deferred prosecution agreement; $23.5 million in disgorgement and prejudgment interest via a SEC settled complaint).

DOJ

The DOJ enforcement action involved a criminal information against Pride International Inc. (“Pride International”) resolved through a deferred prosecution agreement and a criminal information against Pride Forasol S.A.S. (“Pride Forasol”), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pride International resolved through a plea agreement.

Pride International Inc. Criminal Information

Houston based issuer Pride International Inc. (here) is one of the world’s largest offshore drilling companies.

The criminal information (here) alleges bribery schemes in Venezuela, India and Mexico.

Venezuela

According to the information, “Pride International owned and operated numerous oil and gas drilling rigs throughout South America, including in Venezuela.” In Venezuela, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (“PDVSA”), “a Venezuelan state-owned oil company,” leased “the semi-submersible rig Pride Venezuela from Pride Foramer Venezula.” Pride Foramer is described as a branch of Pride Forasol’s wholly-owned subsidiary Prime Foramer operating in Venezuela. According to the information, PDVSA “also contracted with Pride Foramer Venezuela to operate two jackup rigs, the GP-19 and the GP-20.”

The information alleges that between February 2003 and July 2003 Country Manager 1 [a U.S. citizen who was the Country Manager in Venezuela], the Marketing Manager [a Venezuelan citizen working for Pride Foramer Venezuela in Venezuela], the Operations Manager [a French citizen working for Pride Foramer Venezuela in Venezuela], and others known and unknown agreed to pay $120,000 to the Venezuela Intermediary [a company that provided catering services to Pride Foramer Venezuela] with the intent that the money would be paid to the PDVSA Director [a Venezuelan citizen appointed by the President of Venezuela as a member of the PDVSA Board of Directors] to secure a contract extension for the Pride Venezuela.”

According to the information, “in order to conceal and to generate money to pay the bribes to the PDVSA Director” the above named individuals “agreed and instructed one of Pride Foramer Venezuela’s vendors, Vendor A, to inflate certain of its invoices for its services” that “Pride Foramer Venezuela then paid Vendor A for the undelivered services relating to the inflated invoices” and that “Vendor A delivered the excess money it received from Pride Foramer Venezuela to the Venezuela Intermediary with the intent that it would be provided to the PDVSA Director.”

According to the information, “on behalf of Pride International and Pride Foramer Venezuela, Vendor A wire transferred bribe payments of at least $120,000 to, or for the benefit of, the PDVSA Director to an account at a bank in Miami, Florida in the name of the Venezuelan Intermediary.” According to the information, “in exchange for the corrupt payments, the Pride Venezuela contract was extended for approximately three months” and “the profits Pride International derived from extending the contract were approximately $2.45 million.”

As to GP-19 and GP-20, the information alleges that between April 2004 and November 2004 “the Marketing Manager, the Operations Manager, and others known and unknown also agreed to pay at least $114,000 to the Venezuelan Intermediary with the intent that the money would be paid to the PDVSA Director to secure contract extensions for the GP-19 and GP-20.” The information describes a similar payment scheme and payments made to an account in Miami, Florida in the name of the Venezuela Intermediary. According to the information, “in exchange for the corrupt payments, the PDVSA Director caused PDVSA to extend the GP-20 contract from July 2004 through June 2005 and the GP-19 contract from February 2005 through June 2005.”

According to the information “the profits that Pride International derived from the contract extensions for the GP-20 were approximately $596,000” however, the “GP-19 extension was not profitable.” The information further alleges that Senior Executive A [a U.S citizen located in Houston] “concealed information relating to the bribe payments to the PDVSA Director from reports submitted to Pride International auditors.”

India

The information alleges that between January 2003 and July 2003, “Senior Executive B [a French citizen who served as the Director of International Finance for Pride International], the Legal Director [a French citizen who served as the Director of Legal Affairs for Pride Forasol], the Base Manager [a Canadian citizen working for Pride India], the Area Manager [a U.S. citizen with responsibility for the Asia Pacific region], the India Customs Consultant [an individual who provided customs consulting services to Pride India], and others known and unknown agreed to pay $500,000 into bank accounts in Dubai in the names of third party entities with the intent that it would be passed on to an Indian CEGAT [Customs, Excise, and Gold Appellate Tribunal – an Indian administrative judicial tribunal] judge to secure a favorable judicial decision for Pride India [a branch of Pride Forasol’s wholly-owned subsidiary Pride Foramer] relating to a litigation matter pending before the official involving the payment of customs duties and penalties owed for a rig, the Pride Pennsylvania.”

According to the information, “to pay the bribe, employees of Pride Forasol, including Senior Executive B and the Legal Director, caused false invoices for agent and consulting services to be created and submitted to Interdrill [a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pride International organized under the laws of the Bahamas] for payment.” The invoices were processed, the payment was made and on June 30, 2003″Pride India received a favorable ruling from CEGAT” resulting in an “estimate gain to Pride Forasol” of “at least $10 million.”

According to the information, “to conceal the bribe, the Finance Manager [a British citizen who was the Eastern Hemisphere Finance Manager for Pride International], who was located in Houston, Texas, with knowledge of the scheme to bribe the Indian CEGAT judge, sent an e-mail to the Assistant Controller [a U.S. citizen], who was located in Houston, Texas, authorizing the booking of the bribe payments by Pride International’s subsidiary, Interdrill, as a ‘regular fee’ in a newly created ‘miscellaneous fees’ account.”

Mexico

The information alleges that around December 2004, “Senior Executive A, the Logistics Coordinator [a U.S. citizen who was the Logistics Coordinator for Pride Mexico], Country Manager 2 [a U.S. citizen who was the Country Manager in Mexico], and others known and unknown agreed to pay approximately $10,000 to the Mexican Marketing Agent [an individual who provided marketing services to Pride Mexico] to avoid taxes and penalties for alleged violations of Mexican customs regulations relating to a vessel leased by Pride International.”

According to the information, “to conceal the payments, the Mexico Marketing Agent caused false invoices purportedly for electrical maintenance services to be submitted to Pride Mexico [collectively Mexico Drilling Limited LLC, Pride Central America LLC, and Pride Drilling LLC – wholly owned subsidiaries of Pride International] in support of the payment.”

The information then alleges that all of the above-described payments were falsely characterized in the books and records of various subsidiaries or branches that were consolidated into the books, records, and accounts of Pride International for purposes of financial reporting.

Under the heading “total corrupt payments paid and improper benefits received,” the information alleges that between January 2003 through December 2004 “certain Pride International subsidiaries and their branches paid at least $804,000 in bribes to foreign government officials in Venezuela, India, and Mexico to extend contracts, secure a favorable judicial decision, and avoid the payment of customs duties and penalties.”

According to the information, “the benefit that Pride International received as a result of these payments was at least $13 million.”

Based on the above allegations, the DOJ charged Pride International with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and to knowingly falsify books and records as to the Mexico payments; one count of violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions as to the Venezuela payments; and one count of FCPA books and records violations as to the India payments.

Pride International Inc. DPA

The DOJ’s charges against Pride International were resolved via a deferred prosecution agreement (see here).

Pursuant to the DPA, Pride International admitted, accepted and acknowledged that it was responsible for the acts of its officers, employees, subsidiaries, and agents as set forth above.

The term of the DPA is three years and seven months and it states that the DOJ entered into the agreement “based on the individual facts and circumstances” of the case and Pride International. Among the factors stated are the following.

(a) during a routine audit, Pride International discovered an allegation of bribery;

(b) Pride International voluntarily and timely disclosed to the Department and the SEC the misconduct;

(c) Pride International conducted a thorough internal investigation of that misconduct;

(d) Pride International voluntarily initiated a comprehensive anti-bribery compliance review of Pride International’s business operations in certain other high-risk countries [as to this broader compliance review, this Joint Motion to Waive Presentence Investigation notes that the review included a number of “high-risk countries including Angola, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, and Saudi Arabia” and that outside counsel with assistance from forensic accounting professionals were involved in the review of approximately 20 million pages of electronic and hard copy documents gathered from approximately 350 custodians, and that more than 200 interviews of employees and agents took place;

(e) Pride International regularly reported its findings to the Department;

(f) Pride International cooperated in the Department’s investigation of this matter, as well as the SEC’s investigation;

(g) Pride International undertook, of its own accord, remedial measures, including the enhancement of its FCPA compliance program, and agreed to maintain and enhance, as appropriate, its FCPA compliance program; and

(h) Pride International agreed to continue to cooperate with the Department in any ongoing investigation of the conduct of Pride International and its employees, agents, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, and subsidiaries relating to violations of the FCPA.

As stated in the DPA, the fine range for the above describe conduct under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines was $72.5 million to $145 million. Pursuant to the DPA, Pride International agreed to pay a monetary penalty of $32.625 million – approximately 55% below the minimum guideline amount.

Pursuant to the DPA, Pride International agreed to a host of compliance undertakings and to report to the DOJ on an annual basis (during the term of the DPA) “on its progress and experience in maintaining and, as appropriate, enhancing its compliance policies and procedures.”

As is standard in FCPA DPAs, Pride International agreed not to make any public statement “contradicting the acceptance of responsibility by Pride International as set forth” in the DPA and Pride International further agreed to only issue a press release in connection with the DPA if the DOJ does not object to the release.

Pride Forasol Criminal Information

The Pride Forasol criminal information (here) alleges the same scheme to bribe an administrative judge in India as described in the Pride International information. The information charges one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and to knowingly falsify books and records; one count of violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions; and one count of aiding and abetting the creating of false books and records.

Pride Forasol Plea Agreement

The above described charges against Pride Forasol were resolved via a plea agreement (see here). Even though the Pride Forasol information is limited to India conduct, the sentencing guidelines range, $72.5 million to $145 million, is the same as set forth in the above described Pride International DPA.

The agreement sets forth factors motivating the DOJ to resolve the criminal charges in the manner in which they were resolved.

Such factors include: “Pride International’s and Pride Forasol’s substantial assistance with other related Department investigations regarding the bribery of foreign government officials in Venezuela and Mexico, including providing: (1) the names of individuals involved; and (2) contact information for the individuals” and “Pride International’s and Pride Forasol’s substantial assistance with other Department investigations regarding the bribery of foreign government officials in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, including providing documentation and access to individuals.”

The above referenced Joint Motion to Waive Presentence Investigation states that Pride Forasol and Pride International “developed and timely provided detailed and significant information regarding third parties, including Panalpina Word Transport (Holding) Ltd. […] that was used to pay bribes to foreign government officials by numerous companies around the world.” The Joint Motion states that “the information provided by the Companies substantially assisted the Department because the extent of Panalpina’s conduct was unknown by the Department at the time of the Companies’ disclosure. It was only through the extensive, worldwide investigative efforts of the Companies that these complex criminal activities were uncovered and reported to the Department.”

SEC

The SEC’s civil complaint (here) alleges the same Venezuela, India, and Mexico payments described above.

As to Venezuela, the complaint alleges as follows:

“From approximately 2003 to 2005, Joe Summers, the country manager of the Venezuelan branch of a French subsidiary of Pride, and/or certain other managers authorized payments totaling approximately $384,000 to third-party companies believing that all or a portion of the funds would be given to an an official of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company in order to secure extensions of three drilling contracts. In addition, Summers authorized the payment of approximately $30,000 to a third party believing that all or a portion of the funds would be given to an employee of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company in order to secure an improper advantage in obtaining the payment of certain receivables.” (See this prior post for a summary of the Summers enforcement action).

“In or about 2003, a French subsidiary of Pride made three payments totaling approximately $500,000 to third-party companies, believing that all or a portion of the funds would be offered or given by the third-party companies to an administrative judge to favorably influence ongoing customs litigation relating to the importation of a rig into India. Pride’s U.S.-based Eastern Hemisphere finance manager had knowledge of the payments at the time they were made.”

“In or about late 2004, Bobby Benton, Pride’s Vice President, Western Hemisphere Operations, authorized the payment of $10,000 to a third party, believing that all or a portion of the funds would be given by the third party to a Mexican customs official in return for favorable treatment by the official regarding certain customs deficiencies identified during a customs inspection of a Pride supply boat.” (See here for a summary of the Benton enforcement action).

Based on these allegations, the SEC charged Pride International with FCPA anti-bribery violations. Based on these allegations, as well as the below allegations, the SEC charged Pride International with FCPA books and records and internal control violations.

The SEC’s complaint also describes certain other “transactions entered into by wholly or majority owned Pride subsidiaries operating in Mexico, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Congo, and Libya [that] were not correctly recorded in those subsidiaries’ books.”

As to Mexico, the complaint alleges that a $15,000 payment was made to a “Mexican customs official during the course of the export [of certain rigs] to ensure that the export of the rig would not be delayed due to claimed violations relating to non-conforming equipment on board the rig.”

As to Kazakhstan, the complaint alleges that the Kazakhstan affiliate of Panalpina informed a Pride Forasol logistics manager “that Kazakh customs officials had identified irregularities during a customs audit of Pride Forasol Kazakhstan, but that the issue could be resolved by making a cash payment of approximately $45,000 and paying substantially reduced monetary penalties.” According to the complaint, “certain Pride Forasol managers authorized the cash payment by [Panalpina] to resolve the customs irregularities.” The complaint further alleges that Pride Forasol Kazakhstan made “three payments totaling approximately $204,000” to a Kazakh Tax Consultant while “knowing facts that suggested a high probability that the Kazakh Tax Consultant would give all or a portion of the payments to Kazakh tax officials” who previously threatened to levy substantial taxes and penalties against Pride Forasol Kazakhstan.

As to Nigeria, the complaint alleges that “certain Pride Forasol Nigeria and Pride Forasol managers were aware of information suggesting a high probability that [Panalpina] would give all or a portion of the lump-sum payments charged in connection with obtaining or extending Pride Forasl Nigeria temporary importation (“TI”) permits to Nigerian customs officials in exchange for their cooperation in issuing the TI permits on favorable terms and/or without completing certain legally required steps.” The complaint further alleges that Pride Forasol Nigeria records were incompete and that Pride Forasol Nigeria “did not have adequate assurances” that certain tax payments were not paid directly to tax officials. In addition, the complaint alleges that Pride Forasol Nigeria “authorized the payment of $52,000 to a Nigeria Tax Agent while knowing facts that suggested a high likelihood that the Nigeria Tax Agent would give all or a portion of the money to a Nigerian tax official.”

As to Saudi Arabia, the complaint alleges that the Saudi Arabian affiliate of Panalpina informed a Pride Forasol Arabia manager that expedited customs clearance of a rig could be assured for a payment of $10,000. The complaint alleges that the manager “took $10,000 in cash from Pride Forasol Arabia’s petty cash fund, describing on the petty cash voucher the purpose of the payment as ‘freight forwarding services,’ and gave the money to a Saudi customs official.”

As to Congo, the complaint alleges as follows. “An inspection by the Congo Merchant Marine revealed that certain personnel abroad [a Pride Congo rig] lacked required maritime certification. A Merchant Marine official proposed that Pride Congo could resolve the paperwork defiiciency by making a payment for his personal benefit. A Pride Congo manager agreed to pay the Merchant Marine official $8,000 in lieu of an official penalty.” According to the complaint, the “payments were recorded as travel expenses in Pride Congo’s books and records.”

As to Libya, the complaint alleges that Pride Forasol managers authorized payments to a Libya Tax agent in connection with unpaid social security taxes and penalties against Pride Forasol Libya “without adequate assurances that the Libyan Tax Agent would not pass some or all of these fees to” officials of Libya’s social security agency.

According to the complaint, “Pride obtained improper benefits totaling approximately $19,341,870 from the conduct” described in the complaint. “Prejudgment interest on this amount is $4,187,848.”

Without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Pride agreed to an injunction prohibiting future FCPA violations and agreed to pay disgorgement and prejudgment interest of $23,529,718.

Pride’s press release (here) notes, among other things, as follows: “In addition to self-reporting in February 2006 and voluntarily cooperating with the government, we have greatly strengthened and enhanced our antibribery compliance program and policies. Our current management and board are strongly committed to conducting the company’s business ethically and legally, and we seek to instill in our employees the expectation that they uphold the highest levels of honesty, integrity, ethical standards and compliance with the law.”

Martin Weinstein (here) and Jeffrey Clark (here) both former DOJ enforcement attorneys with Willkie Farr & Gallagher, as well as Samuel Cooper (here) of Baker Botts, represented the Pride entities.

Paying to Secure Receivables Is Now Bribery?

Attention to companies (and employees) operating around the world.

If you are party to a contract, and a mid-level employee at the entity receiving services under the contract holds up payment of money the company is legitimately entitled to receive, but the mid-level employee requests payment in order to release the funds, and you make the requested payment, you are violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

That at least seems to be the message the SEC is sending in the Joe Summers enforcement action made public yesterday (see here and here)>

How such payments to receive what one is owed under a contract satisfies the FCPA’s “obtain or retain business” element is sure to be a question asked in light of this enforcement action.

According to the SEC complaint, Summers “was nominally employed by Pride International Personal Ltd. – a wholly owned subsidiary of Pride International Inc.” and “was responsible for managing the operations of Pride Foramer de Venezuela S.A.” The SEC complaint alleges however that Summer “functioned” as an employee or agent of Pride in that “Summers reported to, and was controlled by, Houston-based Pride officers” and further states that “Summers was responsible for, among other things, ensuring that Pride conducted its Venezuelan operations in compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, that adequate controls were in place to prevent illegal payments, and that the company’s books and records were accurate.”

According to the SEC complaint:

“Following widespread strikes and civil unrest in Venezuela in late 2002, Pride […] and other companies performing work for PDVSA (PDVSA is the Venezuela state-owned oil company) had difficulty collecting outstanding receivables from PDVSA. By early 2003, Pride […] had significant unpaid receivables for services that it had provided to PDVSA. In or around March or April 2003, Pride […] received information that a mid-level PDVSA accounts payable employee was holding up the payment of funds owed to Pride […] and wanted a payment of approximately $30,000 in order to release the funds due. In or around March or April 2003, Summers authorized a payment of approximately $30,000 to a third party, believing that all or a portion of the funds would be offered or given by the third party to an employee of PDVSA for purposes of securing an improper advantage in receiving payment from PDVSA. Shortly thereafter, in or around April 2003, Pride […] received overdue payments from PDVSA for work that Pride […] had performed.”

The above paragraph from the SEC complaint, while the most noteworthy, is not the only reason the SEC charged Summers with violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions, among other charges.

According to the SEC, Summers also authorized payments totaling approximately $120,000 through a vendor to a Miami bank account in the name of a Venezuela Intermediary who purported to represent a PDVSA official and who indicated he could assist Pride in obtaining an extension of a drilling contract.

Based on this core conduct, the SEC alleged that “Summers, by authorized or allowing his subordinates to execute the bribery scheme involving vendors, caused Pride […] to inaccurately record those payments as payments for goods and services received from the vendors.”

In addition to charging Summers with FCPA anti-bribery violations, the SEC also charged Summers with: (i) knowingly circumventing or knowingly failing to implement a system of internal accounting controls or knowingly falsifying books and records; (ii) aiding and abetting FCPA anti-bribery violations; and (iii) aiding and abetting violations of the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions.

According to the SEC release, without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, Summers consented to entry of a permanent injunction and agreed to pay a $25,000 civil penalty.

According to the SEC’s complaint, “when subpoenaed to testify by the Commission’s staff during its investigation, Summers asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.”

The enforcement action was prosecuted by the SEC’s Fort Worth, Texas branch office.

In December 2009, the SEC brought a related enforcement action against Bobby Benton (the former Vice President, Western Hemisphere Operations for Pride International, Inc.). See here.

For on Pride see here.

In its recent 10-Q filing, Pride had this to say regarding its FCPA exposure in connection with Venezuela and several other countries:

“We are engaged in discussions with the DOJ and the SEC regarding a potential negotiated resolution of these matters, which could be settled during 2010 and which, as described above, could involve a significant payment by us. We believe that it is likely that any settlement will include both criminal and civil sanctions. We have accrued $56.2 million in anticipation of a possible resolution with the DOJ and the SEC of potential liabilities under the FCPA.”

Lack of Pride (And That CITGO Sign Too)

If the SEC were to put titles on its complaints, the above may be fitting for the complaint released (see here) earlier this week against Bobby Benton (the former Vice President, Western Hemisphere Operations for Pride International, Inc.).

In its complaint (see here), the SEC alleges that “Benton was responsible for, among other things, ensuring that Pride conducted its Western Hemisphere operations in compliance with the FCPA, that adequate controls were in place to prevent illegal payments, and that the company’s books and records were accurate.”

Despite this position, the SEC alleges that: (i) “Benton authorized the payment of $10,000 to a third party, believing that all or a portion of the funds would be given by the third party to a Mexican customs official in return for favorable treatment by the official regarding certain customs deficiencies identified during a customs inspection of a Pride supply boat; (ii) “Benton learned that a customs agent engaged by Pride’s Mexican subsidiaries paid approximately $15,000 to a Mexican customs official to ensure that the export of a rig would not be delayed due to customs violations; and (iii) Benton concealed the bribe payments made by the manager of the Venezuelan branch of a French subsidiary of Pride from Pride’s internal and external auditors by “redact[ing] references to the Venezuelan payments in an action plan responding to an internal audit report.”

The SEC further alleges that “[d]espite his knowledge, and in one instance authorization, of the Venezuelan and Mexican bribes, Benton signed two false certifications in connection with audits and reviews of Pride’s financial statements denying any knowledge of bribery.” The financial results of the Mexican and Venezuelan entities were consolidated with Pride’s for purposes of financial reporting.

The “foreign officials” involved are Mexican customs officials / customs agents and an official of Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), the Venezuelan state-owned oil company.

Based on the above conduct, the SEC charged Benton with violating the FCPA’s antibribery provisions, aiding and abetting FCPA violations, and aiding and abetting violations of the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions.

Most SEC FCPA enforcement actions (whether against a company or an individual) are settled on the same day the civil complaint is filed. Not so in this case and the SEC complaint notes that Benton asserted his 5th amendment privilege against self-incrimination when subpoenaed to testify by the SEC. Will the SEC actually be put to its burden of proof in an FCPA case?

Pride International’s most recent disclosure on this issue is in its 10-Q filed on November 2, 2009 (see here – pgs. 17-18). As noted in the disclosure, what began as an inquiry into Latin America operations has spawned into a substantial worldwide review of the company’s operations.

*****

The Benton complaint mentions Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), the Venezuelan state-owned oil company.

The DOJ/SEC’s interpretation of the “foreign official” element of an FCPA anti-bribery violation is well known by now – all employees of state-owned or state-controlled entities (SOEs), such as PDVSA, are “foreign officials” regardless of title or position.

Further, all employees of SOE wholly-owned subsidiaries are considered “foreign officials” under this interpretation. In fact, a business entity does not even need to be majority owned by a SOE for its employees to be considered “foreign officials” by DOJ/SEC (see the KBR/Halliburton enforcement action (see here paras 13-14) where officers and employees of Nigeria LNG Limited (NLNG) are deemed “foreign officials” despite the fact that NLNG is owned 51% by a consortium of private multinational oil companies (see here).

Applying DOJ/SEC’s untested and unchallenged interpretation to PDVSA can, well, let’s just say it can lead to some rather weird results.

Why?

One of PDVSA’s wholly-owned subsidiaries is Citgo Petroleum Corporation (“CITGO”) (see here).

Thus, under DOJ/SEC’s view, all CITGO employees are “foreign officials” under the FCPA regardless of title or position.

This despite the fact that CITGO is a Delaware corporation based in Houston.

In other words, CITGO is both subject to the FCPA and all of its employees (under the DOJ/SEC interpretation) are “foreign officials.” How’s that for a little mental gymnastics.

At the very least, this gives readers something to think about the next time they attend a ball game at Fenway Park (see here).

FCPA Aches and “Payne”s

Helmerich & Payne Inc. (“H&P”) is an international drilling contractor headquartered in Tulsa. It has land and offshore operations in South America. To operate in that region, H&P must import and export equipment and materials. According to the DOJ and SEC, therein lies the problem.

H&P recently settled a DOJ and SEC FCPA enforcement action based on the conduct of two wholly-owned second tier subsidiaries, Helmerich & Payne (Argentina) Drilling Company (“H&P Argentina”) and Helmerich & Payne de Venezuela, C.A. (“H&P Venezuela”).

Pursuant to a two-year DOJ non-prosecution agreement, H&P acknowledged responsibility for the conduct of H&P Argentina and H&P Venezuela in making various improper payments to officials of the Argentine and Venezuelan customs services. According to a DOJ release (see here), the payments “were made in order to import and export goods that were not within regulations, to import good that could not lawfully be imported, and to evade higher duties and taxes on the goods.” Pursuant to the agreement, H&P will pay a $1 million penalty.

In a parallel action, H&P agreed to an SEC settlement under which it agreed to pay approximately $375,000. The SEC cease-and-desist order (“Order”) (see here) finds that: (i) “H&P Argentina paid Argentine customs officials approximately $166,000 to permit the importation and exportation of equipment and materials without required certifications, to expedite the importation of equipment and materials, and to allow the importation of materials that could not imported under Argentine law; and (ii) “H&P Venezuela paid Venezuelan customs officials approximately 19,673 either to permit the importation and exportation of equipment and materials that were not in compliance with Venezuelan importation and exportation regulations or to secure a partial inspection, rather than a full inspection, of the goods being imported.”

According to the Order, the payments were “falsely, or at least misleadingly” described as “additional assessments,” “extra costs,” “extraordinary expenses,” “urgent processing,” “urgent dispatch,” or “customs processing.” The SEC found that as a result of the payments, H&P avoided approximately $320,000 in expenses it would have otherwise incurred had it properly imported and exported the equipment and materials. The subsidiaries’ financial results were included in H&P’s filings with the SEC and, based on the above conduct, the SEC found that H&P violated the FCPA books and records and internal control provisions.

The Order is silent as to H&P’s knowledge of or involvement in the above described payments.

No doubt H&P received an SEC cease and desist order (the least harsh SEC sanction) and a DOJ non-prosecution agreement because of its conduct upon learning of the payments. As described in the Order, during an FCPA training session, an employee voluntarily disclosed some potentially problematic payments, through a customs broker, in Argentina to customs officials. Thereafter, H&P hired FCPA counsel, conducted an internal investigation, and voluntarily reported the conduct at issue to the government.

According to H&P’s Form 8-K filed on July 30, 2009 (see here), “[t]here are no criminal charges involved in the settlements and disciplinary action has been taken by the company with respect to certain employees involved in the matter, including in some cases, termination of employment.” The 8-K also notes that both settlements “recognize the company’s voluntary disclosure, cooperation with both agencies, and its proactive remedial efforts.”

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