Including the first time I proposed this concept in 2010, this is the 9th time I have written this general post (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for the previous versions) and until things change I will keep writing it which means I will probably keep writing this same general post long into the future.
The proposal is this: when a company voluntarily discloses an FCPA internal investigation to the DOJ and/or SEC and when one or both of the enforcement agencies do not bring an enforcement action, have the enforcement agency publicly state, in a thorough and transparent manner, the facts the company disclosed and why the enforcement agency did not bring an enforcement action based on those facts.
As highlighted in this prior post, in late 2016 Misonix made a voluntary disclosure to the DOJ and SEC to “inform both agencies that the Company may have had knowledge of certain business practices of an independent Chinese entity that distributes its products in China, which practices raise questions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”
In early 2019, Misonix disclosed:
“Although the Company’s investigation is complete, additional issues or facts could arise which may expand the scope or severity of the potential violations. The Company has no current information derived from the investigation or otherwise to suggest that its previously reported financial statements and results are incorrect.
At this stage, the Company is unable to predict what, if any, action the DOJ or the SEC may take or what, if any, penalties or remedial measures these agencies may seek. Nor can the Company predict the impact on the Company as a result of these matters, which may include the imposition of fines, civil and criminal penalties, which are not currently estimable, as well as equitable remedies, including disgorgement of any profits earned from improper conduct and injunctive relief, limitations on the Company’s conduct, and the imposition of a compliance monitor. The DOJ and the SEC periodically have based the amount of a penalty or disgorgement in connection with an FCPA action, at least in part, on the amount of profits that a company obtained from the business in which the violations of the FCPA occurred. During its distributorship relationship with the prior Chinese distributor from 2010 through 2016, the Company generated revenues of approximately $8 million.
Further, the Company may suffer other civil penalties or adverse impacts, including lawsuits by private litigants in addition to the lawsuits that already have been filed, or investigations and fines imposed by local authorities. The investigative costs to date are approximately $2.8 million, of which approximately $0.1 million and $0.3 million was charged to general and administrative expenses during the three and six months ended December 31, 2017, respectively, compared with $0.6 million and $1.4 million for the three and six months ended December 31, 2016.”
Recently, Misonix disclosed:
“that it has received a letter from the Division of Enforcement of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) on June 18, 2019, stating that the SEC has concluded its investigation of Misonix and that, based on the information it has as of the date of the letter, it does not intend to recommend an enforcement action by the SEC against Misonix with respect to the matters described below.
As previously disclosed, with the assistance of outside counsel, Misonix conducted a voluntary investigation into the business practices of the independent Chinese entity that previously distributed Misonix’s products in China and Misonix’s knowledge of those business practices, which may have had implications under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as well as into various internal controls issues identified during the investigation. On September 27, 2016 and September 28, 2016, Misonix voluntarily contacted the SEC and the Department of Justice, respectively, to advise both agencies of these potential issues and has fully cooperated with those agencies in their subsequent inquiry and investigation relating to these matters.”
If the FCPA enforcement agencies are sincere about transparency in their FCPA enforcement programs as enforcement officials frequently mention, the public (not to mention Misonix shareholders who shelled out millions in connection with the investigation) have a right to know the facts the company disclosed and why the enforcement agency did not bring an enforcement action based on those facts.
Here is why the proposal makes sense and is in the public interest.
For starters (as I first wrote in 2010 and even more relevant today), the DOJ and the SEC are already wildly enthusiastic when it comes to talking about FCPA issues. Enforcement attorneys from both agencies are frequent participants on the FCPA conference circuit and there seems to be no other single law that is the focus of more DOJ or SEC speeches than the FCPA. Thus, there is clearly enthusiasm and ambition at both agencies when it comes to the FCPA.
Further (as I first wrote in 2010 and even more relevant today), both the DOJ and the SEC have the resources to accomplish this task. Both agencies have touted the increased FCPA resources in their respective offices and the new personnel hired to focus on the FCPA. Combine enthusiasm and ambition with sufficient resources and personnel and the proposal certainly seems doable considering that there are likely less than 10 relevant examples per year.
In addition, the DOJ is already used to this type of exercise. It is called the FCPA Opinion Procedure Release (see here), a process the DOJ frequently urges those subject to the FCPA to utilize. For instance, as highlighted in this prior post Deputy Assistant AG Matthew Miner stated: “not enough companies are taking advantage of this process” and that “the opinion process is a tremendous resource and we want to encourage greater use of it going forward.” Under the Opinion Procedure regulations, an issuer or domestic concern subject to the FCPA can voluntarily disclose prospective business conduct to the DOJ which then has 30 days to respond to the request by issuing an opinion that states whether the prospective conduct would, for purposes of the DOJ’s present enforcement policy, violate the FCPA. The DOJ’s opinions are publicly released and the FCPA bar and the rest of FCPA Inc. study these opinions in advising clients largely because of the general lack of substantive FCPA case law.
If the DOJ is able to issue an enforcement opinion as to voluntarily disclosed prospective conduct there seems to be no principled reason why the enforcement agencies could not issue a non-enforcement opinion as to voluntarily disclosed actual conduct. If the enforcement agencies are sincere about providing guidance on the FCPA, as they presumably are, such agency opinions would seem to provide an ideal platform to accomplish such a purpose.
Requiring the enforcement agencies to disclose non-enforcement decisions after a voluntary disclosure could also inject some much needed discipline into the voluntary disclosure decision itself – a decision which seems to be reflexive in many instances any time facts suggest the FCPA may be implicated. For instance, the initial disclosure by Misonix stated that the company “may have had knowledge of certain business practices of an independent Chinese entity that distributes its products in China, which practices raise questions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”
Why a company would disclose certain activities that “raise questions” under the FCPA is beyond me, but then again see this prior post regarding the role of FCPA counsel in voluntary disclosures. Or as stated by the DOJ’s former fraud section chief: “if you get two of these [FCPA investigations] a year as a partner, you’re pretty much set.” (See here).
Notwithstanding the presence of significant conflicting incentives to do otherwise, it is hoped that FCPA counsel would advise clients to disclose only if a reasonably certain legal conclusion has been reached that the conduct at issue actually violates the FCPA. Accepting this assumption, transparency in FCPA enforcement would be enhanced if the public learned why the enforcement agencies, in the face of a voluntary disclosure, presumably disagreed with the company’s conclusion as informed by FCPA counsel. If the enforcement agencies agreed with the conclusion that the FCPA was violated, but decided not to bring an enforcement action, transparency in FCPA enforcement would similarly be enhanced if the public learned why.
A final reason in support of the proposal is that it would give the disclosing companies (and others similarly situated) a benefit by contributing to the mix of public information about the FCPA.
In most cases, companies spend millions of dollars investigating conduct that may implicate the FCPA and on the voluntary disclosure process. When the enforcement agencies do not bring an enforcement action, presumably because the FCPA was not violated, these costs are forever sunk and company shareholders can legitimately ask why the company just spent millions investigating and disclosing conduct that the DOJ and the SEC did not conclude violated the FCPA.
However, if the enforcement agencies were required to publicly justify their decision not to bring an enforcement action after a voluntary disclosure, the company would achieve, however small, a return on its investment and contribute to the mix of public information about the FCPA – a law which the company will remain subject to long after its voluntary disclosure and long after the enforcement agencies no enforcement decision. Thus, the company, the company’s industry peers, and indeed all those subject to the FCPA would benefit by learning more about the DOJ and the SEC’s enforcement conclusions.
Transparency, accountability, useful guidance, a return on investment.
All would be accomplished by requiring the enforcement agencies to publicly justify a non-enforcement decision after a voluntary disclosure.
All points to ponder … until the next time I write this same general post.
FCPA Institute - Zoom (April 12-14)
Elevate your FCPA knowledge and practical skills. Nine hours of integrated and cohesive instruction led by Professor Koehler (an FCPA expert with teaching experience). Learn more, spend less. Professional credential available.