FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

June 24, 2015

Pink Flamingos and the Compliance Audit

FeatherstoneThe creator of one of the most ubiquitous symbols of mid-century Americana died earlier this week. Don Featherstone, the creator of the pink plastic lawn flamingo, the ultimate symbol of American lawn kitsch, has died. He was 79. Featherstone, a trained sculptor with a classical art background, created the flamingo in 1957 for plastics company Union Products, modeling it after a bird he saw in National Geographic. Millions of the birds have been sold. Whether you think of the Pink Flamingo as a symbol of Miami Vice, Jon Waters and Devine or for something less salacious, here is to Featherstone, a true original.

While Featherstone created one of the ultimate symbols of the second half of the 20th century for a generation of South Floridians, the Japanese company Takata Corporation (Takata) continues to be in the news for much less prestigious reasons. As reported in the New York Times (NYT), in an article entitled “Senate Panel Says Tanaka Cut Audits on Safety”, Hiroko Tabuchi and Danielle Ivory said “In the middle of what would become the largest automotive recall in US history, the Japanese airbag manufacturer Takata halted global safety audits to save money”. Interesting (or perhaps ominously might be a better word) Takata responded by saying it had not halted safety audits for products but rather for worker safety. Doesn’t that give you some comfort?

A US Senate committee report found that “Takata halted global safety audits at its manufacturing plants in 2009, a year after Honda had started recalling a small number of cars to replace the airbags.” These audits were later restarted in 2011 but when they found safety issues related to airbag manufacturing in two key plants, “those findings were not shared with Takata’s headquarters in Tokyo, the report said, citing internal emails from Takata’s safety director at the time.” Moreover, “when the safety director returned to the plant months later to conduct a follow-up audit, employees appeared to scramble to create the appearance of a safety committee within the plant.” Finally, and perhaps most damningly, the report cited an internal Takata email which said, “No safety committee, as such, has been formed” at the plants in question.

Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliance in many ways follows some of the paths laid out by corporate safety departments some 20-30 years ago when safety became much more high profile in US corporations. The safety committee and safety audits became mainstays of any best practices in the area of safety for a company. These techniques inform any anti-corruption best practices compliance program, either under the FCPA, UK Bribery Act or any other anti-corruption regime. Indeed audits are specifically delineated in the FCPA Guidance as a way to assist in the continuous monitoring of your compliance regime. Such an audit can be thought of as a systematic, independent and documented process for obtaining evidence and evaluating it objectively to determine the extent to which the compliance criteria are fulfilled. There are three factors which are critical and unfortunately with Takata seemed to be lacking in its safety audit protocol: (1) an effective audit program which specifies all necessary activities for the audit; (2) having competent auditors in place; and (3) an organization that is committed to being audited.

Auditing can take several different forms in an anti-compliance program. As a matter of course, you should audit the compliance program in your own organization. A forensic audit can collect and analyze accounting and internal-controls evidence in your compliance regime. This information can be used to produce a fact-based report that can inform the decision-making process in inquiries, investigations and dispute resolution. The by-products of a forensic audit can include remediation strategies to help a company mitigate and remedy procedural or internal-controls gaps that allowed the underlying issue to occur. Further, an internal audit can review a compliance process to determine if employees are following prescribed processes or internal controls, in an operational Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) or FCPA compliance audit.

In addition to the collection and analysis of evidence, an auditor’s objective is to attest to the credibility of assertions that are under examination, such as the material accuracy of financial statements for which the audited company’s management is responsible. Obviously one of the functions of such an audit is to determine if further investigation is warranted.

Now imagine if this scenario had been followed by Takata. The lack of a safety committee is a glaring omission at any manufacturing facility. Simply noting this and reporting it up the chain could have gone some way towards preventing the situation the company now finds itself in; with a worldwide recall of up to 32 million vehicles. The same is true for a compliance audit. Just as monitoring can provide information to you on a more real-time basis; a compliance audit compliments this real-time oversight with a much deeper dive into what has happened on a historical basis.

The recent BHP Billiton FCPA enforcement action is certainly one to look at in this context. Although there was a committee set up to review gifts and travel requests for the company’s 2008 Olympic hospitality program, the committee did not fulfill this charge. It was alleged in the Securities and Exchange Committee (SEC) settlement documents that this committee was never intended to pass muster on the applications for tickets and travel for government officials but was simply there to provide guidance.

Once again this situation points out the difference between having a paper compliance program in place and the actual doing of compliance. Even with an appropriate oversight structure in place BHP Billiton did not do the work of compliance by evaluating the applications for travel and tickets to the Beijing Olympics but left it to the devices of the business unit employees who were making the requests and ultimately most directly benefited from the gifting.

Another area ripe for audit in your compliance program is your third parties. While there is no one specific list of transactions or other items which should be audited when it comes to your third parties below are some of the areas you may wish to consider reviewing:

  • Contracts with supply chain vendors to confirm that the appropriate FCPA compliance terms and conditions are in place.
  • Determine that actual due diligence took place on the third party vendor.
  • Review the FCPA compliance training program for any vendor; both the substance of the program and attendance records.
  • Does the third party vendor have a hotline or any other reporting mechanism for allegations of compliance violations? If so how are such reports maintained? Review any reports of compliance violations or issues that arose through anonymous, hotline or any other reporting mechanism.
  • Does the third party vendor have written employee discipline procedures? If so have any employees been disciplined for any compliance violations? If yes review all relevant files relating to any such violations to determine the process used and the outcome reached.
  • Review expense reports for employees in high risk positions or high risk countries.
  • Testing for gifts, travel and entertainment which were provided to, or for, foreign governmental officials.
  • Review the overall structure of the third party vendor’s compliance program. If the company has a designated compliance officer to whom, and how, does that compliance officer report? How is the third party vendor’s compliance program designed to identify risks and what has been the result of any so identified?
  • Review a sample of employee commission payments and determine if they follow the internal policy and procedure of the third party vendor.
  • With regard to any petty cash activity in foreign locations, review a sample of activity and apply analytical procedures and testing. Analyze the general ledger for high-risk transactions and cash advances and apply analytical procedures and testing.

The compliance function still is behind the safety function in terms of maturity. Because of this there are many lessons which a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner can draw upon from our colleagues in safety. The safety audit is certainly a technique that can be drafted into your compliance program. But as the ongoing Takata air bag debacle demonstrates, your audit only works if you actually perform it. In other words, the protocol is simple, everyone understands you need to audit, but try and cut costs or corners and you will pay for it in the long run.

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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