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Brazilian telecom settles World Cup ticket bribery charges for $4.125 million
On May 9, Telefônica Brazil S.A. settled SEC charges that it spent $621,756 on 2014 World Cup tickets and hospitality for Brazilian and foreign government officials. The company will pay $4.125 to settle SEC claims that it violated internal accounting controls and recordkeeping requirements connected to providing 124 World Cup tickets and hospitality to 93 government officials at an average cost per guest of $3,204. The SEC took Telefônica Brazil’s remediation efforts into account, including “enhanced internal accounting controls” and “adopting a new anti-corruption policy and compliance structure.”
Malaysian national extradited to the United States on embezzlement and FCPA charges in 1MDB Fund scheme
On May 6, the DOJ announced that a Malaysian national was extradited to the United States from Malaysia on charges of conspiracy to embezzle and to violate the FCPA’s bribery and accounting provisions in connection with a scheme relating to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) Fund. Ng Chong Hwa, also known as Roger Ng, was a former Managing Director at a financial institution. The indictment against him alleges that between 2009 and 2014, he conspired with others to launder billions of dollars embezzled from 1MDB, including money from three bond offerings underwritten by the financial institution in 2012 and 2013, and that he conspired to bribe government officials in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi to obtain and retain business for the financial institution, including the bond transactions. DOJ alleges that the financial institution received approximately $600 million in fees and revenues from its work for 1MDB, and that Ng and his co-conspirators embezzled more than $2.7 billion from the 1MDB bond deals. In his first court appearance, Ng pleaded not guilty to the charges, and press coverage reported a federal magistrate judge’s statement that DOJ and Ng are engaged in plea negotiations, but Ng’s defense counsel denied the judge’s characterization.
As detailed in prior FCPA Scorecard coverage, alleged co-conspirator and former managing director of the same financial institution, Tim Leissner, pleaded guilty in November 2018 to conspiracy to violate the FCPA and to commit money laundering. Another charged co-conspirator, Low Taek Jho, has not appeared in court.
Buckley Special Alert: DOJ issues updated guidance for corporate compliance programs
On April 30, 2019, the Department of Justice Criminal Division released updated guidance on the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs (the “Guidance”). The Guidance sets forth the non-binding factors that DOJ prosecutors utilize to evaluate a company’s compliance program and consequently determine the “(1) form of any resolution or prosecution; (2) monetary penalty, if any; and (3) compliance obligations contained in any corporate criminal resolution (e.g., monitorship or reporting obligation.” The Guidance is, therefore, significant to companies seeking to understand what the DOJ considers to be best practices for compliance programs, as well as to mitigate against criminal penalties resulting from potential wrongdoing.
The Guidance builds upon a prior version released in February 2017 and does not indicate any major policy changes. Instead, this update provides further explanation of the factors DOJ uses to evaluate companies’ compliance programs and contextualize those factors within the enforcement framework of the Justice Manual and Sentencing Guidelines.
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Click here to read the full special alert.
If you have questions about the DOJ’s new guidance or other related issues, please visit our White Collar practice page or contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.
Ninth Circuit denies rehearing in Bio-Rad FCPA whistleblower retaliation case
On April 8, the Ninth Circuit denied a petition to rehear its February order affirming most of the jury’s award – $8 million of the original $11 million – in a landmark FCPA whistleblower-retaliation case, Wadler v. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc. The court denied Bio-Rad’s petition without explanation.
For prior coverage of the matter, including an analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s February opinion, please see here, here, here, and here.
Micronesian official pleads guilty to FCPA money laundering conspiracy
On April 3, the DOJ announced that a Micronesian government official, Master Halbert, pleaded guilty in the District of Hawaii to a money laundering conspiracy “involving bribes made to corruptly secure engineering and project management contracts from the government of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), in violation of the” FCPA. Halbert was arrested in February after Frank James Lyon, a Hawaiian executive, pleaded guilty to a related FCPA conspiracy charge the prior month (see previous FCPA Scorecard coverage here).
According to the DOJ, “Halbert was a government official in the FSM Department of Transportation, Communications and Infrastructure who administered FSM’s aviation programs, including the management of its airports.” Halbert admitted that, between 2006 and 2016, Lyon’s engineering and consulting company “paid bribes to FSM officials, including Halbert, to obtain and retain contracts with the FSM government valued at nearly $8 million.” Halbert’s sentencing is scheduled for July 29.
German medical equipment provider settles FCPA claims for $230 million
On March 29, DOJ publicly released a non-prosecution agreement it had entered into in late February with Fresenius Medical Care AG & Co. KGaA (“FMC”), a Germany-based provider of medical equipment and services, in which FMC agreed to pay over $230 million to settle claims that it violated the anti-bribery, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the FCPA. The alleged misconduct, which included various schemes to pay bribes to public and/or government officials in exchange for business opportunities, occurred over the course of at least a decade and spanned 17 or more countries in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. On the same day, FMC also entered into an administrative order with the SEC. The SEC stated that the company had failed to timely address “numerous red flags of corruption in its operations” that were known to the company as far back as the early 2000s, and that FMC “failed to properly assess and manage its worldwide risks, and devoted insufficient resources to compliance.”
While FMC received credit for making a voluntary disclosure to DOJ in April 2012 and for remedial measures undertaken since that time, DOJ stated that the company failed to timely respond to certain of its requests and, at times, provided incomplete responses to those requests. Accordingly, the company did not receive full credit for cooperation and did not qualify for a declination under the FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy. In its non-prosecution agreement, among other things, FMC agreed to: (i) the appointment of an independent compliance monitor for a two-year term, followed by one year of self-reporting, (ii) continuation of its efforts to cooperate with the DOJ’s investigation, and (iii) disgorgement of approximately $147 million to the SEC and payment of approximately $85 million in fines to the U.S. Treasury. The fine amount was calculated with a 40% discount off of the bottom of the United States Sentencing Guidelines fine range based on $141 million in profits from the alleged misconduct.
Notably, the alleged misconduct involved no U.S.-based conduct, individuals, subsidiaries, or third parties. Instead, the individuals alleged to have engaged in misconduct apparently used internet-based email accounts hosted by service providers in the U.S. (and therefore utilized means and instrumentalities of U.S. interstate commerce), and FMC’s American Depository Shares trade on the NYSE so the company files periodic reports with the SEC.
SEC announces $37 million whistleblower award, third-largest in program history
The SEC announced this week that it had awarded a whistleblower $37 million for providing “smoking gun” evidence that led to a successful enforcement action; the substance of the underlying case was not described. This was the third largest whistleblower award given since the SEC’s first award in 2012. A second whistleblower received $13 million. The largest whistleblower award remains the one granted in March 2018, $50 million awarded to two banking employees.
The SEC’s whistleblower award order from March 26, 2019 can be seen here.
Hong Kong energy executive sentenced to three years in prison for Chad and Uganda bribes
According to the DOJ, on March 25 a Hong Kong executive, Chi Ping Patrick Ho, was sentenced in the SDNY to a 36-month prison sentence. Ho headed up CEFC China Energy Company Limited and was sentenced “for his role in a multi-year, multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe top officials of Chad and Uganda in exchange for business advantages.”
Ho was convicted of money laundering, violating the FCPA, and conspiracy after a week-long trial in December 2018. The DOJ alleged that starting in the fall of 2014, Ho used his US-based NGO to cover up a scheme in which Ho offered $2 million in cash to Idriss Déby, the President of Chad, concealed in gift boxes, in exchange for CEFC receiving oil rights from the government; the President rejected the bribe. In Uganda, the DOJ alleged that Ho gave $1,000,000 in cash payments to Sam Kutsea, the Foreign Minister of Uganda, and Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda.
DOJ amends its FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy, softens disappearing messaging ban
In March 2019, the DOJ amended its FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy, including to clarify the agency’s position on the use of ephemeral messaging apps by companies seeking full cooperation credit under the policy. Ephemeral messaging apps such as Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram, now common in many workplaces, allow users to send messages that may not be preserved and retrievable later in the same way as e-mails. To the DOJ, the impermanence of ephemeral messaging makes uncovering details about past events more difficult. Prior to the amendments, the DOJ’s initial Corporate Enforcement Policy had indicated that full cooperation credit would not be available to companies which allowed employees to use “software that generates but does not appropriately retain business records or communications.”
The updated policy softens this position and specifically addresses ephemeral messaging platforms. Companies using the platforms may now be eligible for full cooperation credit, provided that they “implement appropriate guidance and controls on the use of personal communications and ephemeral messaging platforms that undermine the company’s ability to appropriately retain business records or communications or otherwise comply with the company’s document retention policies or legal obligations.” While the amendment may allow companies to take advantage of the beneficial aspects of ephemeral messaging, it also begs new questions as to what constitutes “appropriate” guidance and controls.
The March 2019 amendments also provide additional clarification on de-confliction; add a new comment explaining how the DOJ will implement a presumption of a declination in cases where a company involved in a merger or acquisition “uncovers misconduct through thorough and timely due diligence . . . and voluntarily self-discloses,” with the potential for a declination for the acquiring company even where there are aggravating circumstances regarding the acquired company; and enlarge the voluntary self-disclosure of individuals category to include information not just about “all individuals involved in the violation,” but “all individuals substantially involved in or responsible for the violation.”
In his March 8, 2019 remarks to the American Bar Association’s National Institute on White Collar Crime, Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski referenced the updates and emphasized the importance of reviewing the 12 previous case declinations made under the policy as supplemental guidance in understanding the policy.
Ninth Circuit issues opinion in Wadler v. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., remands for possible new trial
On February 26, 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued a long-awaited opinion in Sanford Wadler v. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc., et al. The 23-page opinion, slated for publication, takes a mixed view of the trial outcome, vacating in part, affirming in part, and remanding for the district court to determine whether to hold a new trial.
Two years ago, following a $55 million civil and criminal FCPA settlement by Bio-Rad, a jury awarded Wadler (the company’s former General Counsel) $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages, including double back-pay under Dodd-Frank, in his whistleblower retaliation case against his former employer. Bio-Rad appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the district court erroneously instructed the jury that SEC rules or regulations prohibit bribery of a foreign official; that the company’s alleged FCPA violations resulted from Wadler’s own failure to conduct due diligence as the company’s General Counsel; that the district court should have allowed certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to Wadler’s pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that Wadler was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank because he only reported internally and did not report out to the SEC. The Court heard arguments on November 14, 2018.
Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, codified as 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, protects whistleblowers from retaliation under certain circumstances, including reporting violations of “any rule or regulation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.” Bio-Rad alleged, and the Ninth Circuit agreed, that the district court’s jury instructions incorrectly stated that Section 806 encompasses reports of FCPA violations. The Court ruled that “statutory provisions of the FCPA, including the three books-and-records provisions and anti-bribery provision . . . are not ‘rules or regulations of the SEC’ under SOX § 806.” However, the Court found that with the right instructions, a jury could have still ruled in Wadler’s favor. Accordingly, the Court vacated the Section 806 verdict and remanded to the district court for consideration of a new trial. On the other hand, the Court held that the same jury instruction error was harmless for the purposes of Wadler’s California public policy claim, so the Court upheld that verdict and its associated damages. The Court also rejected Bio-Rad’s claims of evidentiary error. Finally, the Court ruled that under Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers, 138 S. Ct. 767, 778 (2018), Dodd-Frank does not apply to people who only report misconduct internally, and vacated the Dodd-Frank claim. As for damages, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Wadler’s compensatory and punitive damages award but vacated the double back-pay associated with the Dodd-Frank claim.
This decision is likely the first circuit court opinion to cite Digital Realty in an FCPA case for its holding that individuals who only report violations internally do not hold “whistleblower” status under Dodd-Frank.
For prior coverage of the Bio-Rad matter, please see here, here, and here.