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SEC releases 2018 report on whistleblower program
On November 15, the SEC released its 2018 Annual Report to Congress on its Whistleblower Program, as required under § 924(d) of the Dodd-Frank Act and § 21(F)(g)(5) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The Report, which covers October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2018, indicates that the SEC received 202 FCPA-related whistleblower tips during the reporting year. Those 202 FCPA tips account for only 3.82% of the tips received in that period. While the overall number of whistleblower tips has steadily risen over the past 4 years, the number of FCPA tips has remained fairly steady. In 2015, there were 186 (4.74% of the tips received); in 2016 there were 238 (5.64% of the tips received); and in 2017 there were 210 (4.68% of the tips received). This relative consistency contrasts with the number of offering fraud tips, which jumped from 758 in 2017 to 1,054 in 2018.
In addition to providing statistics and background on the whistleblower program, the Report discusses rule amendments proposed earlier this year. In particular, the Report reviews proposed amendments to SEC Rule 21F-2 (Whistleblower Status and Retaliation Protection) that are intended to bring the rules in line with the Digital Realty Trust v. Somers decision. The proposed amendments would include instituting a uniform definition of whistleblower that requires the individual to have submitted the information “in writing” to the SEC.
9th Circuit hears oral arguments on overturning FCPA whistleblower retaliation award
On November 14, 2018, a three judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in Sanford Wadler v. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., et al. Bio-Rad, a life science research and diagnostics company, is hoping to overturn a February 2017 jury verdict ordering the company to pay its former General Counsel and Secretary, Sanford Wadler, $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages. Wadler’s complaint alleged that the company had fired him for being an FCPA whistleblower. As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, Bio-Rad paid $55 million in November 2014 to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Wadler’s report to the Audit Committee had involved separate allegations that the company violated the FCPA in China, allegations that did not result in additional penalties against Bio-Rad.
Bio-Rad appealed the Wadler award on the grounds that the jury was erroneously instructed that the SEC’s rules or regulations forbid bribery of a foreign official; that the company’s alleged FCPA violations were the result of Wadler’s lack of due diligence; that the trial court wrongly excluded certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to the timing of Wadler’s pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that Wadler did not qualify as a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank in light of his reporting only internally and not to the SEC (pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers, No. 10-1276, 583 U.S. ___ (2018)). During the argument, one member of the circuit panel reportedly expressed doubt concerning Bio-Rad’s jury instruction argument, and another told counsel for Bio-Rad, “I don’t see how this can be reversed on the theory you’re offering.”
For prior coverage of the Bio-Rad matter, please see here and here.
U.S. announces charges and guilty plea stemming from Malaysian development fund scheme
The DOJ unsealed two indictments and a guilty plea related to the sprawling 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fraud on November 1 in the Eastern District of New York. Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho (also known as Jho Low) and former banker Ng Chong Hwa (also known as Roger Ng) were charged with conspiring to launder billions of dollars embezzled from 1MDB, Malaysia’s investment development fund, and conspiracy to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA. Ng was also charged with conspiring to violate the FCPA by circumventing the internal accounting controls of a U.S. financial institution, which underwrote $6 billion in bonds issued by 1MDB. Ng was a managing director at the bank. Tim Leissner, another former banker at the same financial institution, pleaded guilty to the same charges. Leissner has been ordered to forfeit $43.7 million.
Low, Ng, Leissner, and others allegedly conspired to bribe Malaysian and Abu Dhabi officials to obtain business for the financial institution, including the 1MDB bond deals. They also allegedly conspired to launder the proceeds through purchasing luxury New York real estate, artwork, and financing major Hollywood films, such as The Wolf of Wall Street.
For prior coverage of the 1MDB scheme, please see here.
CEO of Haitian development & reconstruction company charged in bribery scheme
On October 30, the DOJ charged Roger Richard Bouncy, a dual U.S.-Haitian citizen, with conspiracy to violate the FCPA, commit money laundering, and violate the Travel Act, as well as substantive Travel Act violations. Bouncy is a licensed attorney and the CEO of Haiti Invest, LLC, a Haitian development and reconstruction company. The indictment is part of an ongoing case against retired U.S. Army Colonel, Joseph Baptiste, who was indicted in 2017 related to an alleged plan to solicit bribes from potential investors for infrastructure projects in Haiti. (For prior coverage of the charges against Baptiste, please see here.) According to the indictment, at a meeting in 2015, Bouncy and Baptiste met with undercover FBI agents posing as potential investors in the development project, and allegedly asked the agents to invest $84 million in the project. Baptiste told them that 5% of that total would be paid to Haitian officials to secure approval for the project. Baptiste allegedly planned to disguise the funds through a non-profit he controlled. The FBI then wired money to the non-profit.
SEC enforcement director gives remarks on FCPA compliance
On October 3, 2018, Steven Peiken, Co-Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, offered remarks at a white collar crime conference in New York City, discussing a range of issues related to FCPA compliance and enforcement. For example, likely responding to increasing criticism about the relatively few enforcement cases that have been brought by the SEC in recent years, Peiken addressed questions regarding the Enforcement Division’s effectiveness and efficiency metrics, noting that the Division is moving away from quantitative measurements of success to more qualitative metrics, such as whether retail investors are adequately protected and whether the agency is “keeping pace with technological change.”
In addition, Peiken addressed the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Kokesh v. SEC, which held that disgorgement awards are punitive in nature and subject to a five year statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 2462. Peiken stated: “The impact of Kokesh has been felt across our enforcement program. A few months ago, we calculated that Kokesh led us to forego seeking approximately $800 million in potential disgorgement in filed and settled cases. That number continues to rise.”
Peikin concluded his remarks by noting that the Enforcement Division cannot continue to rely upon quantitative metrics to determine success, such as the size of awards and penalties. Instead, the Division must adopt “a nuanced and qualitative evaluation of our overall impact on achieving our investor and market integrity protection mission.” These remarks suggest that the rate of new actions and investigations filed by SEC’s Enforcement Division may not keep pace with recent years, and that the Division may instead be relying on impact cases or those that satisfy the more qualitative metrics Peikin described, when measuring success going forward.
DOJ provides further guidance on FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy in speech
On September 27, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matthew Miner gave a speech that provided clarification of DOJ enforcement policies, continuing to emphasize voluntary disclosure and underscoring the notion that companies should view DOJ “as partners, not adversaries.” In his speech, Miner announced that DOJ’s FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy is not limited to just FCPA violations, and that DOJ “will also look to these principles in the context of mergers and acquisitions that uncover other types of potential wrongdoing,” encouraging companies that discover such wrongdoing to voluntarily disclose it. Miner also pointed to recent published declinations, and noted that declinations under DOJ’s Policy can still be appropriate even when “aggravating circumstances” are present. Miner also referenced the increase in “global enforcement and cooperation with foreign authorities” and emphasized DOJ’s “Anti-Piling On Policy.”
DOJ reportedly investigating Major League Baseball for potential FCPA violations
Based on media reports, DOJ’s Fraud Section is reportedly investigating some part of Major League Baseball (MLB) for possible FCPA violations related to recruitment of international players, particularly related to immigration issues for players from Latin America. Reports indicate that the investigation was initiated when a MLB whistleblower provided the FBI with information and documents last year during spring training. Since then, several witnesses have reportedly already been subpoenaed and testified before a federal grand jury in connection with the investigation.
A spokesperson for the MLB stated that the organization had not been contacted by federal authorities regarding an investigation, and the two franchises that appear to be most at issue declined to comment to the media on the matter.
SBM CEO and executive sentenced to prison for conspiracy to bribe foreign officials
On September 28, the DOJ announced that a former CEO and a former executive of oil services company SBM Offshore, N.V. (SBM) had been sentenced to prison and fined for their roles in a scheme to bribe foreign government officials in Brazil (at Petrobras), Angola (Sonangol), and Equatorial Guinea (GEPetrol) in exchange for oil-services contracts. In November 2017, the former CEO of SBM, Anthony “Tony” Mace, and a former sales and marketing executive at SBM USA, Robert Zubiate, each had pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA. Mace was sentenced to 36 months in prison and a fine of $150,000 for authorizing payments in furtherance of the bribery scheme, and Zubiate was sentenced to 30 months in prison and a fine of $50,000 for using a third-party sales agent to pay bribes to Petrobras officials.
SBM itself entered into a $238 million three-year deferred prosecution agreement and its subsidiary, SBM USA, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA.
Prior Scorecard coverage of the company can be found here.
Petrobras settles FCPA violations for $853 million to U.S. and Brazil
On September 27, 2018, the DOJ announced that Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company, had entered into a Non-Prosecution Agreement with the DOJ, as well as settlement agreements with the SEC and Brazilian authorities, and agreed to pay a total $853.2 million in penalties to all jurisdictions. Under the terms of the settlement, DOJ and SEC will each receive 10 percent of the penalty amount, with Brazilian authorities receiving the remaining 80 percent.
As part of the settlement, Petrobras admitted that its Executive Board members “were involved in facilitating and directing millions of dollars in corrupt payments to politicians and political parties in Brazil,” while directors were “involved in facilitating bribes that a major Petrobras contractor was paying to Brazilian politicians.” The conduct included bribes related to several refineries, as well as shipyard and drillship contracts, as well as payments to “stop a parliamentary inquiry into Petrobras contracts.”
Petrobras’ penalty reflects a 25 percent discount off the low end of the applicable U.S. Sentencing Guidelines due to its cooperation and remediation. While the company did not voluntary disclose its conduct, it cooperated with authorities by disclosing the findings of its internal investigation, providing document discovery, and facilitating the interview of foreign witnesses. It also took remedial measures by replacing its Board of Directors and Executive Board, as well as implementing reforms in its policies and procedures.
In addition to the criminal penalty, the SEC announced that Petrobras agreed to an administrative order requiring it to pay almost $1 billion in disgorgement and prejudgment interest. However, Petrobras received full credit for payments it already made to resolve a class action for $2.95 billion earlier this year. The net result is that Petrobras will not have to pay any additional funds to the SEC in the separate disgorgement action.
Prior ScoreCard coverage of the Petrobras and related investigations can be found here.
SEC settles FCPA charges with former CEO of Chilean mining company
On September 25, 2018, the SEC announced a settlement of FCPA charges against the former CEO of Chilean-based chemical and mining company Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile, S.A. (SQM) for $125,000. According to the SEC, over the course of seven years, SQM’s then-CEO Patricio Contesse González “caused SQM to make nearly $15 million in improper payments to Chilean political figures and others connected to them.” Contesse agreed to the settlement without admitting the findings in the SEC’s order. According to the SEC’s order, Contesse signed false certifications related to financial reporting in the United States.
Last year, SQM agreed to pay $30 million to settle parallel DOJ and SEC charges against the company. That settlement demonstrated the jurisdictional reach of U.S. government enforcement of the FCPA – while SQM is a Chilean company with no U.S. operations, it is registered with the SEC as a foreign private issuer.
- Keisha Whitehall Wolfe to discuss “Tips for successfully engaging your state regulator” at the MBA's State and Local Workshop
- Max Bonici to discuss “Enforcement risk and trends for crypto and digital assets (Part 2)” at ABA’s 2023 Business Law Section Hybrid Spring Meeting
- Jedd R. Bellman to present “An insider’s look at handling regulatory investigations” at the Maryland State Bar Association Legal Summit