The Department of Justice (DOJ) still faces criticism over its Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement strategy. Some decry that it is too aggressive, that the DOJ has moved into waters Congress never intended the DOJ to navigate into regarding the FCPA. Others worry that the DOJ, through its use of settlement mechanisms such as Deferred Prosecution and Non-Prosecution Agreements (DPAs and NPAs), let corporations off to easily with fines and other monetary penalties being the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Yet another school of thought says that it is up to the DOJ to tell companies how not to engage in bribery and corruption by specifying precisely what type of anti-corruption compliance program to put into effect.
One thing these commentariat all have in common is that they generally do not look to those responsible for obeying the law, i.e. companies and persons who are subject to the FCPA, for their responsibility of complying with the law. Such failure seems to me to be sadly misplaced. But it is not simply Mike Volkov’s FCPA Paparazzi who fail to assess a corporation’s role in their failure to comply with the law; unfortunately it is also company leaders themselves.
We recently were treated to another such display of ‘What Me Worry?’ mentality by HSBC Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Stuart Gulliver when he said, “Can I know what every one of 257,000 people is doing?” Leaving aside the issue of whether a corporate CEO who has signed one of the largest DPAs in the history of the world (for money-laundering, not FCPA violations); should admit he (1) he doesn’t care or (2) his company is too unwieldy for it to obey the laws that you and I follow everyday; Gulliver inadvertently hit upon one of the key concepts of a best practices compliance program. That concept is a well-rounded program that assures compliance, not some all knowing, all seeing narcissist at the top.
In a Financial Times (FT) article entitled “Too big to manage”, Andrew Hill blasted Gulliver’s statement as “disingenuous” but went on to state, “Knowing what every employee is doing is not the leader’s responsibility. But by using a combination of the right structure, the latest technology and, above all, by imbuing a company with the correct culture and reinforcing regular communication with visits to the shop floor, he or she should be able to limit the chance of a major scandal.” Hill quoted management thinker Henry Mintzberg for the following, ““You can’t excuse [scandals] by saying we have so many employees. You . . . have got to be on the ground to have a sense of what your organisation is all about.””
This means a CEO is not required to know everything but he does need to have an overall sense of whether his company is moving in a direction to do things such as follow the law. I would say this is even truer when you have promised (yet again) in a DPA that your company will follow the law. It also means that the leader sets the tone. If your leader takes the position that he or she cannot know what everyone is doing; that tone will be communicated down to the field troops but the message will be that said maximum leader does not care what the middle and lower levels are doing. Hence the DOJ would say that it all starts with Tone at the Top. Sadly Gulliver does not seem to acknowledge, let alone understand, that issue.
But more than simply having a leader that cares and is engaged; Gulliver’s statement belies other aspects of a best practices compliance program. Technology provides a mechanism for oversight of a compliance regime. Under the FCPA Ten Hallmarks of an Effective Compliance Program, monitor is recognized as a key element so your company should establish a regular monitoring system to spot issues and address them. Effective monitoring means applying a consistent set of protocols, checks and controls tailored to your company’s risks to detect and remediate compliance problems on an ongoing basis. To address this, your compliance team should be checking in routinely with the finance departments in your foreign offices to ask if they’ve noticed recent accounting irregularities. Regional directors should be required to keep tabs on potential improper activity in the countries they manage. Additionally, the global compliance committee should meet or communicate as often as every month to discuss issues as they arise. These ongoing efforts demonstrate your company is serious about compliance.
In addition to monitoring, structural controls are recognized as an important element. Hill said that large companies “must use structural means to maintain control.” One of the best explanations of the use of internal controls as a structural component of any best practices compliance program comes from Aaron Murphy, a partner at Foley and Lardner in San Francisco, in his book entitled “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act”, where he said, “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.”
I would advocate that it is the interplay of the right message, tools in place to communicate and enforce the message and then oversight to ensure compliance with the message that allows a 250,000 plus employee base company to have a chance to operate in compliance with their legal obligations. Echoing this maxim, Hill quoted Rick Goings, Chairman and CEO of Tupperware Brands Corporation, for the following, “Wars are won not by generals, but by non-commissioned officers. If you have the right kind of structure…and behind that a value system, I think you can do it.”
HSBC continues to be the poster child for compliance lessons learned, whether intentional or not. Hill concluded his piece with the following, “The lesson may be that, irrespective of the size of the company, executives who lose touch with how their staff are using the culture they preach are courting embarrassment and scandal. The trend towards large companies operating through smaller units, with more autonomy and accountability for their actions, does not absolve leaders from meeting their traditional responsibilities to know what is happening on the frontline. As Prof Fischer suggests, they should manage according to the old Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan adopted when dealing with the Soviet Union in the 1980s: trust, but verify.”
There is a plethora of compliance regimes that companies can look to in order to create a best practices compliance program. Simply put, it is a relatively straightforward exercise; perhaps not easy but certainly there are well-articulated compliance programs that companies can follow. To continue to criticize the DOJ (and Securities and Exchange Commission) for failing to communicate what they wish to see in a best practices compliance program, simply fails to take into account the responsibility that corporations have in complying with US laws. The information is out there in abundance. Even a weekend article in the FT lays it out for you.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015