FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

September 18, 2013

Why a Compliance Defense Will Not Make a Compliance Program Effective

Ed. Note – this week, I am pleased to join my colleagues David Simon, partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, and William ‘Bill’ C. Athanas, partner at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, LLP, in a tripartite debate on the efficacy of the affirmative defense of a compliance program to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Today, I will present my views, from the perspective of a former in-house counsel, on why a compliance defense would not help to create greater compliance with the FCPA. Tomorrow, David will discuss his views, from the perspective a white collar defense practitioner, on why a compliance defense under the FCPA would foster greater compliance with the Act. And finally, on Friday, Bill will present his views as a former Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutor. I hope that you will enjoy our debate.

My starting position is that I do not believe a compliance defense would be effective in giving companies additional clarity or comfort in the design or implementation of their anti-corruption compliance program.  I also think that a compliance defense could lead to unintended and adverse consequences that could seriously downgrade the effectiveness of anti-corruption programs.

I.                   Current Credit in Place

Currently there is credit for an effective compliance, as set out in the DOJ’s prosecution guidelines; the “Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations”, which is the DOJ’s policy on the factors it considers when instigating a prosecution of a company, it includes a requirement that prosecutors consider “the existence and effectiveness of the corporation’s pre-existing compliance program.” These factors have been borne out in the numerous Declinations to Prosecute granted over the years. While only one of these Declinations, the Morgan Stanley Declination, has been publicly announced, there were six Declinations listed in last year’s FCPA Guidance, with the company identifiers removed. All of this information makes clear that the DOJ currently takes the state and effectiveness of a compliance program into account when making a decision.

II.                Trial Lawyers v. Corporations

Both of the two gents I am debating with this week are trial lawyers and I am a recovering trial lawyer. A trial lawyer’s job is to try cases. If you do not want to go to the courthouse, you should not consider yourself to be a trial lawyer. I grew up in a litigation system where there was one lawyer per side at trail. Mano-y-Mano; the two gunslingers on Main Street at High Noon, the King’s Champion – single combat warriors sent out to do battle in the courtroom for their clients. Such is the job of the trial lawyer. Trial lawyers are risk takers and will to push the envelope in front of a judge or jury. If you claim to be a trial lawyer and never go to court it will not instill any fear or much respect from your opposition. You may even turn into a laughingstock. It does not matter how big a jerk you can be in discovery and pre-trial pleading practice, if you are afraid to go to trial, you are useless as a trail lawyer.

Just as trial lawyers are made for trials corporations are not. Corporations do not and will not go to trial in FCPA cases because it is not in their interest to do so. So if a corporation will not go to trial, a compliance defense has as much use as a trail lawyer afraid of the courtroom, in other words it is useless. There are a myriad of reasons that it is not the job of a company to go to trial but I will focus on two: (1) certainty; and (2) the “Arthur Anderson” effect.

A.     Certainty

The primary reason for a company, which violates the FCPA, entering into a settlement via a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), Non-Prosecution Agreement (NPA) or other vehicle, is certainty. The one thing I learned in almost 20 years of trying cases in the US (civil side only) is that nothing is certain when you leave the final decision to an ultimate trier of fact who is not yourself, whether that trier of fact be a jury, judge or arbitrator. The most important thing for a company is certainty and that is even more paramount when a potential criminal conviction looms over its corporate head. Certainty is equally critical for the prosecution. No matter how ‘slam dunk’ the facts are, or appear to be, once a prosecutor turns over the final decision to another trier of fact; the prosecution has also lost certainty in the final decision. Every corporate defendant that goes to trial can, and should, raise all procedural and factual defenses available to it. No prosecutor can ever be 100% certain that it will win every court ruling or that a guilty conviction will be upheld on appeal. However, a settlement brings certainty and for a company that certainty is in its rights and obligations and for the prosecution the same is true.

B.     The Arthur Anderson Effect

Arthur Anderson was the auditor for Enron Corporation (Enron). Neither Enron nor Arthur Anderson exists today. The reason that Enron no longer exists is that it was guilty of unsustainable fraud. The reason Arthur Anderson no longer exists is that it destroyed documents relating to its auditing services for that unsustainable fraud – Enron; primarily for countenancing in and/or not detecting the fraud. Arthur Anderson was convicted for these actions. It is of no matter that the verdict was overturned on appeal.

My former This Week in FCPA podcast partner, Howard Sklar, wrote in a piece for forbes.com entitled “Against a FCPA Compliance Defense”, that “Corporations cannot afford to fight these cases through to the stage where an affirmative defense becomes relevant.” He quoted Doug Bain, the former General Counsel (GC) of Boeing Co., for the effect on Boeing if it were to be indicted:

So what’s the impact if we get indicted or convicted?

Besides the normal fines and that kind of stuff, there’s a presumed denial of export licenses, and that would be both on the commercial and the government side. In a moment, I’ll give you an idea of why we are concerned about that one.

We can get re-suspended or all of IDS (Integrated Defense Systems) can be debarred.

We can lose our security clearances.

And one nasty little thing is that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has an almost explicit prohibition on possessing explosives. For those of you who are at BCA [Boeing Commercial Airplanes], you might remember that every single door on an airplane has actuators that are triggered by explosives.

Other commentators have attempted to demonstrate quantitatively that the Arthur Anderson effect is not correct. While I do not agree with their analysis, even if I did, simply running the numbers misses the point. Corporate counsel are not trial lawyers, they are in-house corporate counsel. Their job is not to be gunslingers but to protect and preserve the corporation for its stakeholders. So, by their nature, they tend to be less of a risk-taker than trial lawyers and can be more conservative. This difference in philosophy plays out in the following question: Do you want to be the first GC to go to trial and find that the Arthur Anderson effect is real? Or do you want to settle and play it safe? And, of course, as Sklar notes “Even if a company wins eventually, oftentimes the damage is done: see, e.g., Arthur Andersen.”

The value of a compliance defense is suggested in the name, ‘defense’. It is only useful if it is raised as an affirmative defense at trial. If a company says, ‘we have a compliance defense, you cannot get to us’ a rational response from the prosecutors might be, ‘OK, let’s go to trial.’ There would be no credit for an effective compliance program in any settlement discussion because there would not be any settlement. More pointedly, it might make the DOJ even more aggressive in negotiations because they could simply take the position that a company must now prove it had a compliance program and that the compliance program was effective. How many compliance programs could stand the detailed scrutiny which would occur in a criminal case or in civil pretrial discovery? Every company has documents which discuss the areas in which the program is not fully effective. They would certainly be found in discovery. Lastly, no honest compliance officer could ever say that a program is fully “effective.”

Moreover, how would a company prove to a jury that it had an effective compliance program? Bring in an expert to say that simply because a rogue employee, group of rogue employees or entire country sales team paid out multi-million dollars in bribes that we did not detect, we still have an effective compliance program. Remember, both GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) and Wal-Mart claimed to have world class, best practices compliance programs.

III.             Two Recent Examples – GSK and Wal-Mart

 A.     GSK

Consider the following about GSK, a little over one year ago, in July of 2012; GSK pled guilty and paid $3 billion to resolve fraud allegations and failure to report safety data in what the DOJ called the “largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history”. You would think that any company which has paid $3 billion in fines and penalties for fraudulent actions would take all steps possible not to engage in bribery and corruption. Indeed, as part of the settlement GSK agreed to a Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA). This CIA not only applied to the specific pharmaceutical regulations that GSK violated but all of the GSK compliance obligations, including the FCPA.

In addition to requiring a full and complete compliance program, the CIA specified that the company would have a Compliance Committee, inclusive of the Compliance Officer and other members of senior management necessary to meet the requirements of this CIA, whose job was to oversee full implementation of the CIA and all compliance functions at the company. These additional functions required Deputy Compliance Officers for each commercial business unit, Integrity Champions within each business unit and management accountability and certifications from each business unit. Training of GSK employees was specified. Further, there was detail down to specifically state that all compliance obligations applied to “contractors, subcontractors, agents and other persons (including, but not limited to, third party vendors)”. How would you say all of the above helped GSK make its anti-corruption compliance program effective?

B.    Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart prided itself on its world-wide FCPA anti-corruption compliance program. Its ethics policy offered this clear direction, “Never cover up or ignore an ethics problem”.  What do you think a compliance defense would do for Wal-Mart about now? Do these facts seem like a rogue employee or even junta of rogue Mexican employees going off on their own? And what if Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville AR was not involved in any illegal conduct or even kept in the dark by Wal-Mart de Mexico? What does that say about having an effective compliance program?

How do these two investigations portend the end of efforts to add a compliance defense to the FCPA? As stated in its Code of Conduct, “The GSK attitude towards corruption in all its forms is simple: it is one of zero tolerance.” and Wal-Mart stated “Never cover up or ignore an ethics problem.” What do you think a compliance defense would do for these two companies in trial? The claim that companies would act more ethically and in compliance if they could rely on a compliance defense would seem to be negated by facts reported about GSK and Wal-Mart. It certainly appears that having a best practice compliance program did not lead to either company doing business more ethically.

IV.              False Sense of Security

I also think that the compliance defense would give companies a false sense of security that, combined with other recent regulations, can seriously degrade internal risk management. In an article in the summer 2013 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review, entitled “Designing Trustworthy Organizations”, by the quartet of authors: Robert F. Hurley, Nicole Gillespie, Donald L. Ferrin and Graham Dietz; they addressed this issue. Their comments seem directly on point for our debate when they intone that that external government regulation, such as a as compliance program required under the FCPA, could be a helpful starting point; but it is not the complete answer in the construction of an ethical organization and one which does business in compliance with relevant anti-corruption legislation, such as the FCPA. That is because such legal requirements can only set a minimum standard. Further, such a reliance on a paper program of compliance could well give organizations “a false sense of security that can lull them and their stakeholders into complacency.” This is the current position of the DOJ in giving credit to companies which have an effective compliance program, rather than simply a paper compliance program.

I think that the DOJ gives credit when a compliance program is effective. While the best practices have clearly evolved, it is not difficult to fully understand what the DOJ considers best practices. But, at the end of the day, the compliance defense will not help a company because no company will go to trial and face a fraud finding from a jury. It is always better to settle and obtain certainty than to risk everything.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2013

1 Comment »

  1. This is a very interesting article and points out many issues some of which I find disturbing. First, why have anything more than a minimal compliance program, when the advice in the article (as i read it), is the company is better off to just roll over, beg for mercy and reduce the penalties. This is a nice game plan for the government–if the company gives in, they’ve already won the battle so why not collect a few cents on the dollar. I’m not sure the government really has to prove anything. For most of the big pocket companies, the dollars appear large but as proven over and over, the overall effect is minimal. Second, this is a discouraging way to approach compliance when regardless of how much work is done, if the first step is to give in, it only enforces the notion that the program is ineffective. Third, the external auditors for the company who review the company internal controls specifically exclude themselves as even remote guarantors that no fraud has taken place. Having them do a more thorough review would be very expensive, but if you can cut your losses by giving in, there us no inpetus to require a better job.. This is all discouraging to having a preventative program that employees (or a judge or jury) will actually believe is effective..

    Comment by Elliot Fisch — September 20, 2013 @ 11:33 am | Reply

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