FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

May 22, 2015

On the Oregon Trail: the BHP Enforcement Action and High-Risk Hospitality

Oregon TrailToday we celebrate American exceptionalism. As noted in ‘This Date in History’, on this date in 1834 the first wagon train, made up of 1,000 settlers and 1,000 head of cattle, set off down the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, on the Great Emigration. After leaving Independence, the giant wagon train followed the Santa Fe Trail for some 40 miles and then turned to its northern route to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. From there, it traveled on to the Rocky Mountains, which it passed through by way of the broad, level South Pass that led to the basin of the Colorado River. The travelers then went southwest to Fort Bridger and on to Fort Boise, where they gained supplies for the difficult journey over the Blue Mountains and into Oregon. The Great Emigration finally arrived in October, completing the 2,000-mile journey from Independence in five months.

The settlers who took off on this Great Emigration on the Oregon Trail did not have anything in the way of a road map. Fortunately for the modern day anti-corruption compliance practitioner, you do have road maps that can guide your compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) going forward. Over the past few years the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have put out significant and detailed information on compliance failures, which have led to FCPA enforcement actions. For any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner, these enforcement actions provide solid information of lessons learned which can be used as teaching points for companies. Further, these lessons can be used as road maps to review compliance programs to see what gaps, if any, may exist and how to implement solutions.

This trend continued with the release of the SEC FCPA enforcement action involving BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP) this week. First and foremost to note is that it was a SEC enforcement action involving violations of the internal controls provision of the FCPA. There was no evidence of bribery leading to any DOJ enforcement action. Yet as I have been writing and saying for almost one year, SEC enforcement of the internal controls provision of the FCPA is increasing and companies need to pay more attention to this part of the FCPA. A bribe or offer to bribe does not have to exist for an internal controls violation to occur. CCOs and compliance practitioners need to be cognizant of compliance internal controls and put effective compliance internal controls in place that can be audited against to test their effectiveness.

The BHP enforcement action revolved around the company’s hospitality program for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Every CCO and compliance practitioner should study this enforcement action in detail so that they can craft appropriate compliance internal controls for high dollar entertaining for big time sporting events. For any company that may be planning for high dollar hospitality spends for the 2016 Brazil Olympics, this enforcement action lays out what you should and should not do in your compliance program. But this holds true for any major sporting event such as the Super Bowl, World Cup or you name the event.

BHP had a paper program that appeared robust. As laid out in the Cease and Desist Order, “BHPB developed a hospitality application which business managers were required to complete for any individuals, including government officials, whom they wished to invite.” The application included these questions to be fully answered:

  • “What business obligation exists or is expected to develop between the proposed invitee and BHP Billiton?”,
  • “Is BHP Billiton negotiating or considering any contract, license agreement or seeking access rights with a third party where the proposed invitee is in a position to influence the outcome of that negotiation?”
  • “Do you believe that the offer of the proposed hospitality would be likely to create an impression that there is an improper connection between the provision of the hospitality and the business that is being negotiated, considered or conducted, or in any way might be perceived as breaching the Company’s Guide to Business Conduct? If yes, please provide details.”; and
  • “Are there other matters relating to the relationship between BHP Billiton and the proposed invitee that you believe should be considered in relation to the provision of hospitality having regard to BHP Billiton’s Guide to Business Conduct?”

So the right forms were in place and some of them were fully filled out. However, as the Cease and Desist Order made clear, an effective compliance program does not end at that point. Now would be an appropriate time to recall that high risk does not mean you cannot engage in certain conduct. High risk means that to have an effective compliance program, you have to manage that risk. A basic key to any effective compliance program is oversight or a second set of eyes baked in to your process. BHP formally had this oversight or second set of eyes in the form of an Olympic Sponsorship Steering Committee (OSSC) and Global Ethics Panel Sub-Committee.

Where BHP failed was that “other than reviewing approximately 10 hospitality applications for government officials in mid-2007 in order to assess the invitation process, the OSSC and the Ethics Panel subcommittee did not review the appropriateness of individual hospitality applications or airfare requests. The Ethics Panel’s charter stated that its role simply was to provide advice on ethical and compliance matters, and that “accountability rest[ed] with business leaders.” Members of the Ethics Panel understood that, consistent with their charter, their role with respect to implementation of the hospitality program was purely advisory. As a result, business managers had sole responsibility for reconciling the competing goals of inviting guests – including government officials – who would ““maximize [BHPB’s] commercial investment made in the Olympic Games” without violating anti-bribery laws.”

But there was more than simply a failure of oversight by BHP. The Cease and Desist Order noted that not all of the forms were filled out with the critical information around a whether a proposed recipient might have been a government official. Even more critically missing was information on whether the proposed recipient was in a position to exert influence over BHP business. Moreover, BHP did not provide training to the business unit employees who ended up making the call as to whether or not to provide the hospitality on payment of travel and hospitality for spouses. The Cease and Desist Order stated that BHP “did not provide any guidance to its senior managers on how they should apply this portion of the Guide when determining whether to approve invitations and airfares for government officials’ spouses.” Finally, there were no controls in place to update or provide ongoing monitoring of the critical information in the forms.

All of this led the SEC to state the following, “As a result of its failure to design and maintain sufficient internal controls over the Olympic global hospitality program, BHPB invited a number of government officials who were directly involved with, or in a position to influence, pending negotiations, efforts by BHPB to obtain access rights, or other pending matters.” This led to the following, “BHPB violated Section 13(b)(2)(B) because it did not devise and maintain internal accounting controls over the Olympic hospitality program that were sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that access to assets and transactions were in executed in accordance with management’s authorization.” Perhaps it was stated most succinctly by Antonia Chion, Associate Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in the SEC Press Release announcing the enforcement action when he said, “A ‘check the box’ compliance approach of forms over substance is not enough to comply with the FCPA.”

There is also clear guidance from the SEC about how BHP was able to obtain the reduced settlement it received. BHP “provided significant cooperation with the Commission’s investigation”. Moreover, the Cease and Desist Order laid out the remedial steps the company took. These steps included: (1) creation of compliance group independent of the business units; (2) review of its anti-corruption program and implementation of certain upgrades; (3) embedding of anti-corruption managers into the business units; (4) enhancements of “its policies and procedures concerning hospitality, gift giving, use of third party agents, business partners, and other high-risk compliance areas”; (5) enhancement of “financial and auditing controls, including policies to specifically address conducting business in high-risk markets”; and (6) enhanced anti-corruption compliance training.

FCPA compliance is a relatively simply exercise. That does not mean it is easy. For travels on the Great Emigration on the Oregon Trail, travel was neither simple nor easy. If you want to send government officials to high profile sporting events or provide other high dollar hospitality, the FCPA does not prevent you from doing so. But it is a high risk and to be in compliance you must to manage those high risks appropriately, all the way through the process. The BHP enforcement action provides you a detailed road map of what to do and what not to do.

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

Blog at WordPress.com.