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UK SFO declines to prosecute individuals in British aviation company and British pharmaceutical company corruption investigations
The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced on February 22 that it was ending two long-running corruption-related investigations – one of a aviation company and the other of a pharmaceutical giant – without bringing charges against any individuals.
In 2017, the aviation company paid $650 million to settle an SFO investigation into a government kickbacks scheme. In connection with the resolution of the SFO’s charges, the aviation company admitted to bribing government officials in Russia, India, China, Nigeria, and elsewhere in exchange for contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The aviation company also paid $170 million to resolve related charges brought by the DOJ, with the DOJ later charging five individuals for their alleged participation in the bribery scheme.
Although the SFO announced in 2014 that the pharmaceutical company was under investigation, the SFO never disclosed the subject matter of that investigation. In its only announcements about the case, the SFO has noted simply that the investigation concerned the company’s “commercial practices.” In 2012, the pharmaceutical company had paid $3 billion in the U.S. to settle charges brought by U.S. prosecutors concerning alleged off-label marketing, and in 2014 was convicted in China of bribing doctors and hospitals to improve sales, but it remains unknown whether the SFO’s investigation related to one of these known issues or something different.
The SFO director explained in a public statement that the decision to decline prosecution of any individuals in connection with these investigations was because “there is either insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, or it is not in the public interest to bring a prosecution in these cases.”
On December 26, 2018, an American communication technology company (the company) entered into an administrative order to settle claims by the SEC that the company violated the books and records and internal accounting controls provisions of the FCPA. The alleged conduct involved improper payments made through distributors and resellers its subsidiary in China (the subsidiary) to Chinese government officials from 2006 through 2014 in an effort to obtain business from public sector customers.
According to the administrative order, at the instruction of the Vice President of the subsidiary, sales personnel used a sales management system outside of the U.S.-based company-approved database to parallel-track sales to public sector customers in China. The scheme involved providing discounts to distributors and resellers that were used to cover the costs of payments to Chinese government officials. These discounts were not passed on to the end customer, and the purpose of those discounts was not tracked in the company-approved database. The subsidiary's sales personnel were also instructed by the VP to use non-company email addresses when discussing and arranging these deals.
Pursuant to the administrative order, the company will pay to the SEC approximately $10.7 million in disgorgement, $1.8 million in prejudgment interest, and a $3.8 million civil monetary penalty.
On the same day, DOJ released a December 20, 2018 declination letter settling its investigation of the same conduct. Pursuant to the declination letter, the company agreed to disgorge approximately $10.15 million to the U.S. Treasury Department and $10.15 to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service Consumer Fraud Fund.
In settling these matters, both the SEC and DOJ cited the company’s identification of the misconduct, thorough internal investigation conducted by outside counsel, prompt voluntary disclosure, full cooperation, and remediation efforts. The company’s lauded cooperative efforts included making certain employees available for interviews, as well as producing all requested documents and translating large volumes of those documents from Mandarin to English. The remedial efforts cited included termination of eight employees and discipline of eighteen others, termination or reorganization of certain channel partner relationships, enhancement of third party oversight, and improvements to anticorruption and related trainings provided to China-based employees (certain materials of which had previously not been translated into Mandarin, the first language of many of the subsidiary employees).
On December 12, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced a $2,774,972 settlement with a Chinese oilfield services company and its affiliated companies and subsidiaries (collectively, the “group”) for 11 alleged violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations. According to OFAC, the settlement resolves potential civil liability for the group’s alleged involvement in exporting or re-exporting, or attempts to export or re-export, U.S.-based goods to end-users in Iran through China.
In arriving at the settlement amount, OFAC considered the following as aggravating factors: (i) the group “willfully violated U.S. sanctions on Iran by engaging in and systematically obfuscating conduct it knew to be prohibited by company policy and economic sanctions, and continued to engage in such conduct even after the U.S. Government began to investigate the conduct”; (ii) employees, including management, were aware of the transactions and concealed the nature of the transactions from the U.S.; (iii) the group falsified information and provided false statements to the U.S. during the course of the investigation; (iv) the group’s conduct, which occurred over a period of years, provided economic benefits to Iran; and (v) the group is a commercially sophisticated international corporation.
OFAC also considered numerous mitigating factors, including (i) the group has no prior OFAC sanctions history and has not received a penalty or finding of a violation in the five years before the transactions at issue; (ii) the group has cooperated with OFAC and disclosed possible violations involving other sanctions programs; (iii) the group agreed to toll the statute of limitations; and (iv) the group implemented remedial measures and corrective actions to minimize the risk of reoccurring conduct.
Visit here for additional InfoBytes coverage on Iranian sanctions.
On November 14, 2018, a three judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments for a life science research and diagnostics company hoping to overturn a February 2017 jury verdict ordering the company to pay its former General Counsel and Secretary $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages. The former employee’s complaint alleged that the company had fired him for being an FCPA whistleblower. As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, the company paid $55 million in November 2014 to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The former employee’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 the company.
The company appealed the former employee's 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 the former employee’s lack of due diligence; that the trial court wrongly excluded certain impeachment testimony and evidence related to the timing of his pursuit and hiring of a whistleblower attorney; and that he 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 another case). During the argument, one member of the circuit panel reportedly expressed doubt concerning the company’s jury instruction argument, and another told counsel for the company, “I don’t see how this can be reversed on the theory you’re offering.”
In late September, the chief of an international police organization at the time and a former vice minister of China’s national police, reportedly went missing during a trip home to China. According to his wife, his last known communication was a text message to her containing a knife emoji and an instruction to “wait for my call.” According to reports, after his wife, French authorities, and the organization issued public pleas, Chinese authorities disclosed this week that he has been detained pursuant to a government investigation into bribery and other allegations. He abruptly resigned his post at the organization and has not been available for comment.
His detention is notable due to his international stature as the organization's chief, however, he is just the latest in a string of high-ranking Chinese officials to reportedly have been swept up in widespread graft investigations by the Governing Communist Party under President Xi Jingping. A release from the Ministry of Public Security reportedly claims that his arrest demonstrates that “there is no privilege and no exception before the law.” It goes on to state: “Anyone who violates the law must be severely punished. We must resolutely uphold the authority and dignity of the law, bearing in mind that the red line of the law cannot be overstepped. . . It is necessary to make the legal system a ‘high-voltage line’ of electricity.”
On September 12, the SEC announced that an aircraft manufacturing company agreed to pay $13.9 million to settle FCPA charges related to payments made through a subsidiary in connection with the sales of elevator and airline equipment in Azerbaijan and China. According the SEC’s Order, from 2012 through 2014, the Connecticut-based company, through its wholly owned subsidiary, made illicit payments to Azerbaijani officials to facilitate the sales of elevator equipment.
The Order also included other conduct that both the DOJ and SEC have focused on in recent years, including the use of agents and gifts and entertainment. For example, the Order detailed conduct by the company and a joint venture partner from 2009 to 2013 in which an agent in China received improper commissions totaling $55 million in connection with the company’s attempt to win airline business in China. The Order also found that the company, from 2009 through 2015, improperly “provided trips and gifts to various foreign officials in China, Kuwait, South Korea, Pakistan, Thailand, and Indonesia” in order to obtain business. The company consented to the SEC’s order without admitting or denying the findings that it violated the anti-bribery, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the FCPA.
OFAC adds North Korea-controlled information technology companies in China and Russia to Specially Designated Nationals List
On September 13, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it made additions to the Specially Designated Nationals List pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13722 and E.O. 13810. These additions identify one individual and two entities connected to illicit revenue earned by North Korea from overseas information technology (IT) workers. According to OFAC, the China and Russia-based front companies were actually managed and controlled by North Koreans, while the designated North Korean individual acted on behalf of the Chinese company. All designees were purported to have (i) “engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea”; and (ii) operated in the North Korean IT industry. As a result, all assets belonging to the identified individual and entities subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.
See here for previous InfoBytes coverage on North Korean sanctions.
On July 25, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matthew Miner, who oversees the Fraud Section as well as other parts of the Criminal Division, spoke at ACI’s 9th Global Forum on Anti-Corruption Compliance in High Risk Markets. His speech focused on the DOJ’s efforts to combat global corruption, with a focus on merger and acquisition activity. Miner emphasized, among other things, the efforts the Department was taking to reduce global corruption, highlighting in particular the DOJ’s permanent enshrinement of the FCPA self-disclosure program. He pointed to a recent success of that program, the DOJ’s declination of prosecution against a commercial data company for hiring-related misconduct by its recently acquired China subsidiaries, previously discussed here. Miner also discussed the Department's recent “anti-piling on policy,” under which it gives credit for penalties paid to other enforcement authorities for the same misconduct. As an example of this policy, he noted how the Department credited 50 percent of the fine a French multinational banking and financial services company paid to French authorities for FCPA-related misconduct in a recent enforcement action.
Miner asserted that the Department would like to do a better job providing guidance to companies facing FCPA risk through mergers and acquisitions, particularly when such activity is in high-risk industries and markets. He quoted from the DOJ’s 2012 Resource Guide, noting that in an acquisition, “a successor company’s voluntary disclosure, appropriate due diligence, and implementation of an effective compliance program may also decrease the likelihood of an enforcement action regarding an acquired company’s post-acquisition conduct when pre-acquisition due diligence is not possible.” Addressing pre-acquisition diligence, Miner stated that when an acquiring company encounters corruption issues during the diligence process, it should come to the Department for guidance through its FCPA Opinion Procedures before moving forward. Miner stated that not enough companies are taking advantage of this “tremendous resource.”
Miner commented overall that with these policies and procedures, the Department hopes “to incentivize companies to invest in effective compliance programs and robust control systems to prevent misconduct and, in the event of a detected violation, to take full advantage of [the DOJ’s] enforcement approach.”
On April 30, one of the world’s largest outdoor advertising companies, disclosed that it had self-reported potential FCPA violations to the SEC and DOJ. The San Antonio-based company had previously disclosed that Chinese police were investigating “several employees” of its subsidiary for the misappropriation of funds in China. A related internal investigation purportedly found that three unauthorized bank accounts were opened in the name of the subsidiary and “certain transactions were recorded therein.” In the most recent disclosure, the company newly reported that: (i) “discrepancies” related to the misappropriation resulted in more than $10 million in “accounting errors”; (ii) it determined that there was a “material weakness” in the subsidiary’s internal controls over financial reporting, namely “falsification of bank statements and other supporting documentation used to complete bank reconciliations,” “collusion,” and “circumvention of controls”; and (iii) these issues “could implicate the books and records, internal controls and anti-bribery provisions” of the FCPA, making “possible . . . monetary penalties and other sanctions.” The company said it would cooperate with any investigation by the SEC or DOJ.
DOJ declines to prosecute commercial data and analytics firm, SEC issues $9 million fine for FCPA violations in China
On April 23, a commercial data and analytics firm secured a declination letter from the DOJ regarding FCPA violations stating that, “consistent with the FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy,” the DOJ would be declining to bring criminal charges against the company. The firm simultaneously agreed to settle with the SEC regarding books and records and internal controls violations regarding the same conduct, and pay a total of $9 million, including a $2 million civil penalty and $6 million of disgorgement. The firm had self-disclosed payments made by two Chinese subsidiaries through third party agents. One of the subsidiaries, part of a joint venture with a Chinese company, made payments to Chinese government officials to acquire non-public financial statement information on Chinese entities. The other subsidiary made improper payments both to obtain specific business and to acquire non-public personal data. The SEC noted that there were pre-acquisition concerns regarding the subsidiaries, but the firm failed to take appropriate action to stop the payments or the false entries, which continued for several years after the acquisition.
This is the first instance we are aware of a company receiving a full declination from the DOJ under the new policy. The policy, which grew out of the FCPA Pilot Program, states that when a company voluntarily self-discloses, fully cooperates, and timely and appropriately remediates, there will be a presumption that the DOJ will issue a declination. The firm's declination letter notes the company’s self-identification and disclosure, thorough investigation, and full cooperation, including identifying all individuals involved in the misconduct. The DOJ also cited the company’s “full remediation,” in part by terminating 11 employees, including senior employees, and reducing compensation and other forms of discipline.