FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

August 11, 2015

What Goes Downhill May Go Uphill in FCPA Compliance

Water Going Uphill 2Usually the question I am posed is how far down the chain must you go in your due diligence to ensure that your suppliers are in compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). I would pose that now, after the Petrobras scandal, a company may need to examine the flow in the other direction. I thought about this directional shift when I read an exhaustive report in the Sunday New York Times (NYT) on the Petrobras scandal, entitled “Brazil’s Great Oil Swindle, by David Segal. The article reviews the genesis of and details the ongoing nature of the Petrobras scandal.

While I have previously written about the other Brazilian companies that have been caught up in the scandal, such as Oderbrecht, Camargo Corrêa and UTC Engenharia, Segal’s article detailed a level of immersion in corruption that should concern every US Company subject to the FCPA and catch the eye of Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors handling FCPA cases. It appears that the companies that had direct contracts with Petrobras also colluded in the old-fashioned anti-trust sense, so that not only did they control all the subcontract work done on any Petrobras project but they would also demand bribes from the subcontractors which they then passed up the chain to Petrobras executives and eventually Brazilian politicians. If this scheme turns out to be true, it literally could explode potential FCPA exposure for any US Company doing business on any subcontract where Petrobras was the eventual beneficiary.

Segal reported, “according to prosecutors, these companies stopped competing and started to collaborate. They formed a cartel and decided, in advance, which of them would win a particular deal. A charade competition was orchestrated, and the anointed winner could charge vastly more than it would in a free market.” Further, “A document obtained by prosecutors laid out what it called the “rules of the game.” The trumped-up bidding process was labeled a “sports tournament”, with an assortment of rounds and a “trophy.” There was a no-sore-loser codicil, too: “The teams that participate in a round should honor the rules that have been agreed on, even when they are not the winner.”

But the corruption did not stop simply at these non-Petrobras entities. These companies would demand bribes from their subcontractors that they passed up the line to Petrobras. Segal wrote, “From 1 to 5 percent of the value of a given contract was diverted to those on the receiving end of the scheme, a group that included 50 politicians from six parties, according to prosecutors. Money from cartel members took a circuitous route to politicians’ pockets, passing through ghost corporations whose owners made bribes look like consulting fees.”

Think about all of this for a minute. What happens when everyone and every company associated with a National Oil Company (NOC) is in on the corruption? I thought about this question when I read an article in the Financial Times (FT) by Andres Schipani, entitled “We were terrorized by the drop in oil prices, where he discussed how the drop in world oil prices has negatively affected Venezuela more than any other top oil producing company. Part of the country’s trouble is the rampant corruption around its NOC PDVSA. Schipani quoted a former minster for the following, “The design of the political economy here only benefits the corrupt.” Moreover, the country is near the bottom of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (TI-CPI) coming in at 161st out of 175 countries listed.

Most Chief Compliance Officers (CCOs) and compliance practitioners had focused their third party risk management program around third parties, first on the sales side and then in the Supply Chain (SC). However now companies may well have to look at other relationships, particularly those where the company is a subcontractor involved in a country prone to corruption with a NOC or other key state owned enterprise. Last year the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in an article entitled “Venezuelan Firm Is Probed In U.S.”, by José De Córdoba and Christopher M. Matthews, reported that a US company ProEnergy Services LLC (ProEnergy), a Missouri based engineering, procurement and construction company, sold turbines to Venezuelan company Derwick Associates de Venezuela SA (Derwick), who provided them to the Venezuelan national power company. The article reported that the DOJ’s “criminal fraud section are reviewing actions of Derwick and ProEnergy for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act”. Derwick was reported to have been “awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts in little more than a year to build power plants in Venezuela, shortly before the country’s power grid began to sputter in 2009”. All of this with a commission rate paid by ProEnergy to Derwick of a reported 5%.

The Brazilian investigation poses far more dire consequences for any US Company that did business with the cartel of Brazilian companies that had locked up the Petrobras work. It means that you need to go back immediately and not only review the underlying due diligence which you did (probably none); then review the contracts with those entities; and, finally, cross-reference to see if there were any contract over-charges which were rebated back to the cartel members. If so, you may well have a serious problem on your hands as any unwarranted rebates, refunds, customer credits or anything else that could have been readily converted into cash to be used to fund a bribe.

This second part is one thing that challenges many compliance officers. The compliance function does not always have visibility into the transactions assigned to specific contracts or projects like your company might be engaged in for Petrobras in Brazil. However it also speaks to the need for transaction monitoring as not simply a cutting edge technique or even best practice but a required financial controls tool that is also applicable to compliance internal controls as well.

As Brazilian prosecutors expand ever outward from Petrobras, US companies subject to the FCPA and UK companies and others subject to the UK Bribery Act would do well to review everything around their Brazilian operations, contracts and dealings. The Petrobras scandal has shown two clear trends to-date. First is that we are far from the end of this scandal. Second, the prosecutors have been fearless so far in following the corruption trail wherever it may go. If they follow it to US companies, they could prosecute them on their own in Brazil for violation of domestic anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws or turn the evidence over to the DOJ. The thing to do now is to get out ahead of this all too certain waterfall.

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

1 Comment »

  1. Interesting that you mention the Derwick Associates situation in your story. You may be interested in this post I wrote, in which I asked a turbine supplier whether the company had done adequate due diligence on its local middlemen. The company responds: https://settysoutham.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/did-pratt-whitney-do-all-it-could-to-avoid-a-corrupt-deal/

    Also, the commissions for Derwick from ProEnergy were well above 5%. Leaked documents show routine markups of at least 30% for no apparent labor. See: https://settysoutham.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/leak-of-venezuela-contractor-documents-raises-questions/

    Comment by Steven/Setty — August 13, 2015 @ 12:46 am | Reply

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