FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

May 12, 2015

Senn Interview, Part II – A Discussion of the Decision to Self-Disclosure

Self-DisclsoureIn today’s post, I continue to explore my recent interview of Mara Senn, a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP in Washington DC. Senn is a white-collar practitioner who whose practice includes representing companies in investigations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). In Part I, we reviewed Senn’s thought on how to prepare and deal with a FCPA investigation. Today I review her thoughts on the decision to self-disclose if a potential FCPA violation arises.

One of the things that has always been difficult is to quantify the benefits of self-disclosure of a potential FCPA violation by a company to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At least for the DOJ, its base line analysis for calculating penalties comes from the US Sentencing Guidelines. As stated in the FCPA Guidance, “To determine the appropriate penalty, the “offense level” is first calculated by examining both the severity of the crime and facts specific to the crime, with appropriate reductions for cooperation and acceptance of responsibility, and, for business entities, addi­tional factors such as voluntary disclosure, cooperation, pre-existing compliance programs, and remediation.”

The Sentencing Guidelines, §8C2.5(g) states that an overall fine can be reduced through the following:

(g)       Self-Reporting, Cooperation, and Acceptance of Responsibility  

If more than one applies, use the greatest:

  • If the organization (A) prior to an imminent threat of disclosure or government investigation; and (B) within a reasonably prompt time after becoming aware of the offense, reported the offense to appropriate governmental authorities, fully cooperated in the investigation, and clearly demonstrated recognition and affirmative acceptance of responsibility for its criminal conduct, subtract 5 points; or
  • If the organization fully cooperated in the investigation and clearly demonstrated recognition and affirmative acceptance of responsibility for its criminal conduct, subtract 2 points; or
  • If the organization clearly demonstrated recognition and affirmative acceptance of responsibility for its criminal conduct, subtract 1 point. 

Both the DOJ and SEC representatives consistently state in speeches and other public commentary on the benefits of self-disclosure. Some commentators, notably Mike Volkov in his blog, caution that any decision to self-disclose should be well thought through and that if an issue can be resolved through an internal investigation, subsequent remediation and ongoing monitoring to make sure it does not happen again, self-disclosure many not be warranted. In my podcast interview with Mara Senn I ask her how she might help a client work through this most difficult issue.

While self-reporting has in many ways become the norm in many situations where a company uncovers what might arguably be a FCPA violation; Senn comes down that self-reporting should be “the exception and not the rule.” She first pointed to the “structure of self-reporting, the thing that I think gets lost in the shuffle is there’s absolutely no legal obligation to self-disclose in FCPA cases, at all. There may be other disclosure obligations, because of a public company or what have you, but under the law of the FCPA, and under criminal law, no company has an affirmative duty to self-disclose.”

She went on to explain unlike in anti-trust or cartel cases, “where the first company who’s the first in to self-report gets immunity. It’s a totally different structure in the FCPA area for many reasons, most of which are appropriate, but you don’t get immunity, you get cooperation credit”. This cooperation credit is based on the Sentencing Guidelines cited above but Senn explained that, from her perspective, “The problem is, a lot of these calculations are very very opaque. Under the sentencing guidelines, you get a 5-point decrease if you self-report, cooperate, and accept responsibility. You get 2 points off if you cooperate and accept responsibility, and then just 1 point for accepting responsibility. Under this system, supposedly, self-disclosure standing alone is worth 3 points, and each of the other ones are worth 1.” This leads her to believe that “in my experience, you get almost as much credit, if not as much credit, for cooperating with the government once they come to you, even if you didn’t disclose in the first place. The myth is that self-disclosure is some kind of really big bump in cooperation credit. I think, in practice, that really doesn’t bear water.” This leads her to believe that “This idea of credibility by self-disclosing is so intangible, and it’s not quantifiable.”

I posed the question of credibility with the government. One of things that I consistently advocate is that you need to have credibility with the DOJ or SEC when you sit across the table at any point during a FCPA investigation. I had thought that self-disclosure would add to that credibility. However Senn explained that it is the lawyer or law firm representing the company that can go a long way towards establishing credibility. She said, “For those of us who regularly appear before the government, we already have credibility, and they understand that the client may or may not agree with recommendations we make, and they know that we’ll be a straight shooter once we’re in front of them, however we get in front of them.” But is more than the lawyer or law firm that brings credibility; it is actions of the company as well. Of course this means the steps the company has taken and its cooperation with the government during the pendency of the FCPA investigation.

Senn even described a visual way to think through this by describing an X and Y-axis that creates four squares. She articulated it as follows, “On one axis, you have the seriousness of the potential violation, and then the likelihood of discovery on the other axis. In both of these areas, both the seriousness and the likelihood of discovery, I draw the line to be in a more rational, but it may be different, than the traditional norm.”

I asked Senn about the plethora of ways that a FCPA violation or issue can be reported now and if that should play a role the calculus to self-disclose or not. I found her response very interesting. She said, “I think that the likelihood of discovery issue is really really important if you think that companies get a lot of credit for self-reporting. If you don’t think that, which I don’t think that they do particularly, then really the focus is on cooperation and not so much on the self-reporting itself.” Even with the wide spread knowledge of Dodd-Frank whistleblower awards and protections Senn believes that “most employees really don’t realize they can get money from the government if they are whistleblowers on these sorts of things. I don’t think it’s been particularly well publicized, and obviously employers are not training their employees to explain to them that they can be whistleblowers.” She even pointed to the recent statistics from the SEC report on whistleblowers, stating, “If you look at the latest SEC whistleblower report, only 4.3% of the tips reported were FCPA cases. It’s not like people are hitting down their door with all these FCPA cases.”

I found Senn thoughts on the issue of self-disclosure certainly an interesting way to consider this most complex and significant issue. For all the criticism of FCPA Inc. and the FCPA Paparazzi, it also demonstrates the importance of having counsel well versed in both the legal issues of the FCPA and representing a company before the government in the event your company is in an investigation.

In Part III of my series on Senn’s interview, I will focus on her thoughts on remediation of any FCPA violation and steps going forward.

To listen to the full Mara Senn interview, go to the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Report, by clicking here, or download it from iTunes.

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, 2015

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