FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

September 8, 2014

Board of Directors and FCPA Oversight – An Internal Control Under SOX, Part II

Circle DiagramIn Part I of this two-part post regarding a Board of Director’s Role in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) oversight from the internal controls perspective, I reviewed how a Board might have independent liability for its failure to act as an appropriate internal control as required by Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX). Today I will review what internal controls are and what a Board’s role is within the context of internal controls.

Beginning on Tuesday, in conjunction with this two-part blog, my colleague Henry Mixon, Principal of Mixon Consulting, and myself are recording a podcast series on internal controls, which can be found on FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report. We are discussing the following areas: what are internal controls; how a company might use them and how they can be implemented? In the first of the podcast series I asked Mixon what are internal controls? He began with the textbook definition, which he said was “Internal controls are systematic measures (such as reviews, checks and balances, methods and procedures) instituted by an organization to:

  • conduct its business in an orderly and efficient manner,
  • safeguard its assets and resources,
  • deter and detect errors, fraud, and theft,
  • ensure accuracy and completeness of its accounting data,
  • produce reliable and timely financial and management information, and
  • Ensure adherence to its policies and plans.

Mixon noted that internal controls should be instituted entity wide, not simply limited to those functions used or reviewed by accountants and auditors. For an anti-corruption compliance regime such as the FCPA or UK Bribery Act, internal controls are measures to provide reasonable assurances that any assets or resources of a company (not limited to cash) cannot be used to pay a bribe. This definition includes diversion of company assets (such as by unauthorized sales discounts or receivables write-offs) as well as the distribution of assets.

Mixon noted that the basic framework for internal controls is derived from the COSO Model developed by the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission in 1992 (COSO). This model has become the standard for an internal control framework and provides a structure to ensure companies address the key elements that should result in an effective system of internal controls. Using the COSO Model, as modified in 2013, provides a very supportable approach when adversarial third parties challenge whether a company has effective internal controls. The COSO Model defines internal controls in a pyramid, from bottom to top, as follows: (a) Control environment, (b) Risk assessment, (c) Control activities, (d) Information and communication, and (e) Monitoring.

In the 2013 update the basic framework was retained with substantial support from user companies, and 3 specific objectives were added: (I) Operations Objectives – effectiveness and efficiency of operations, including safeguarding assets against loss; (II) Reporting objectives – internal and external financial reporting; and (III) Compliance objectives – adherence to laws and regulations to which the entity is subject. According to the guidance in the 2013 update, the system of internal controls can be considered effective only if it provides reasonable assurance the organization, among other things, complies with applicable laws, rules, regulations and external standards. With the addition of those specific objectives, the COSO framework now specifically includes the need for controls to address compliance with laws and regulations.

We then turned to the question of which internal controls does a company need to institute? Mixon said that each company defines its internal controls to fit its business by determining what the Company wishes to protect and what type of control environment does it want to have in place. This means that they can be less formal in smaller companies but still effective if the focus is on the right risks. Based upon FCPA guidance, the most common control needs have been identified as follows: (i) Dealings with third parties; (ii) Gifts and entertainment, and (iii) Charitable donations. Yet even within those categories, a wide range of risks exists, depending on a company’s business practices. Mixon emphasized that a Top Down ‘Check-the-box’ generic set of policies will not likely result in effective controls.

The process to determine which internal controls are needed will be of some familiarity to the compliance professional. It all starts with a risk assessment to establish the corporate policies which are applicable, tailored to the company, and sufficiently specific. The risk assessment will also help to identify the types of transactions across the company which should be addressed (gifts and entertainment, maintenance of bank accounts and movement of cash, dealings with third parties, etc.). The next step is to prepare a set of documents which define the control objectives to be in place for each type of transaction – example: “Controls will be in place to ensure no vendor has been added to the vendor master file until complete due diligence has been completed and the vendor has been approved in accordance with Corporate policies. Thereafter, you will need to document how the controls will be performed and how they will be evidenced and then incorporate the control procedures into applicable work instructions and job descriptions.” Mixon cautioned that for each business location, determine the specific controls needed to accomplish each control objective. In many companies, a disparity of operating practices and accounting systems will result in different controls being needed. He ended by emphasizing that while this assignment may seem overwhelming it can be done in reasonable stages, pursuant to a specific implementation plan – it does not have to be done all at once for the entire company.

As you will recall from Part I, I believe, as gleaned from Jim Doty’s remarks, that a Board must not only have a corporate compliance program in place it must also actively oversee that function. This led me to conclude that failure to perform these functions may lead to independent liability of a Board for its failure to perform its allotted tasks in an effective compliance program. Doty’s remarks drove home one of the roles that a Board performs, which fulfills those tasks. Internal controls work together with compliance policies and procedures as stated by Aaron Murphy, a partner at Akin Gump, in his book “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act”, as “an interrelated set of compliance mechanisms.” Murphy went on to say that, “Internal controls are policies, procedures, monitoring and training that are designed to ensure that company assets are used properly, with proper approval and that transactions are properly recorded in the books and records. While it is theoretically possible to have good controls but bad books and records (and vice versa), the two generally go hand in hand – where there are record-keeping violations, an internal controls failure is almost presumed because the records would have been accurate had the controls been adequate.”

Murphy breaks down internal controls into five concepts, which I have adapted for a Board or Board subcommittee role for compliance:

  1. Corporate Compliance Policy and Code of Conduct – A Board should have an overall governance document which will inform the company, its employees, stakeholders and third parties of the conduct the company expects from an employee. If the company is global/multi-national, this document should be translated into the relevant languages as appropriate.
  2. Risk Assessment – A Board should assess the compliance risks associated with its business.
  3. Implementing Procedures – A Board should determine if the company has a written set of procedures in place that instructs employees on the details of how to comply with the company’s compliance policy.
  4. Training – There are two levels of Board training. The first should be that the Board has a general understanding of what the FCPA is and it should also understand its role in an effective compliance program.
  5. Monitor Compliance – A Board should independently test, assess and audit to determine if its compliance policies and procedures are a ‘living and breathing program’ and not just a paper tiger.

There have been several FCPA enforcement actions where the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) discuss the failure of internal controls as a basis for FCPA liability. The Smith & Wesson enforcement action is but the latest. With the questions about the Walmart Board of Directors and their failure to act in the face of allegations of bribery and corruption in the company’s Mexico subsidiary, or contrasting failing to even be aware of the allegations; there may soon be an independent basis for an FCPA violation for a Board’s failure to perform its internal controls function in a best practices compliance program.

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, 2014

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