On this date in 1966, the Texas Western University (now UTEP) Miners won the NCAA Basketball Championship, beating the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Now the first round has not even started by March 19, but it is not the date that made this event so noteworthy but the character of the teams. The Miners were the first team to start five African-Americans to win the NCAA championship. Adolph Rupp, who was making his final NCAA championship appearance that night after a long and storied career, coached the Wildcats. But on this night, the Miners clearly outplayed Rupp’s Wildcats, dominating them from the start to the finish.
I was thinking about the Miners and their triumph when I received a copy of the first Opinion Release of 2014, appropriately designated Opinion Release 14-01. In 14-01, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opined that paying a foreign government official for monies he was owed in the sale of a business interest that he owned prior to becoming a foreign government official would not be prosecuted as a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violation. As intuitive as this decision might sound, there is, nevertheless, significant information for the compliance practitioner to take away from 14-01.
The Requestor had purchased Foreign Company A in 2007, from the Foreign Shareholder when he was a private citizen. To guarantee Foreign Shareholder’s participation, the parties’ agreement contained a five-year lock-in period that prohibited Foreign Shareholder from selling his interest prior to January 1, 2012. The Agreement did, however, allow Foreign Shareholder to leave Foreign Company A before the end of the five-year period if he were appointed to a minister level position or higher in the Foreign Country’s government.
In December 2011, Foreign Shareholder became a foreign government official under the FCPA when he was appointed to serve as a high-level official at Foreign Country’s central monetary and banking agency (“Foreign Agency”). Foreign Agency is responsible for bank and financial industry regulation and monetary policy. Upon his appointment, the Foreign Shareholder ceased to have any role or function at Foreign Company A, other than as a passive shareholder.
The now the foreign government official desired to sell his final interest in the company. However, under the formula for the repurchase of his interest, said interest was at zero value, primarily due to the financial crisis of 2008-9. Apparently the now foreign government official threatened to either sue or sell his interest to a third party and the Requestor decidedly did not want either eventuality. The parties agreed to another form of valuation and sought approval from the DOJ through its Opinion Release procedure regarding how to pay the now foreign government official under this new valuation.
Representations and Warranties by the Parties
The foreign government instrumentality involved did not regulate the Requestor but the Requestor has done business with said instrumentality in the past and would continue to do so. The now foreign government official informed the DOJ that he had not in the past “influenced or sought to influence, any decisions by Foreign Agency, Foreign Country’s government, or any third party with respect to” the entities in question and would not do so in the future. Additionally, the Requestor provided separate internal communications to the employees of the entity in question to the effect that their former owner was now a foreign government official and that “he is prohibited from participating in any discussion, consideration, or decision, or otherwise influencing any decision relating to the award of business” to the entity in question.
There were three additional representations, which I found significant, they were:
- Requestor obtained a representation from now foreign government official that he has disclosed his ownership interest and the proposed sale of the shares in the entity in question to the relevant government authorities of Foreign Country and the relevant department at Foreign Agency, and the relevant government authorities have informed him that they approve or do not object to the sale of the shares.
- Foreign Shareholder has warranted in writing that any payment to him to purchase the shares will be made to him solely as consideration for the shares, not in his official capacity or in exchange for any present or expected future official action.
- The Requestor has received written assurance from local counsel in Foreign Country that the purchase of the shares is lawful in Foreign Country.
In its analysis, the DOJ focused on several factors. Initially, the DOJ noted that the commercial relationship began far before the individual at issue became a foreign government official. Further, even if the sales contract was not followed, because under it the foreign official would not have received fair value in the buy-out, the Requestor presented, “legitimate business considerations, prompted and justified the renegotiation of the buyout formula contained in the 2007 Agreement.” This justification was coupled with the new valuation set by “a leading, highly regarded, global accounting firm (the “Firm”) to determine the Shares’ value” and the apparent sharing of the entity’s financial information with the DOJ. The DOJ noted, “Requestor’s decision to engage the Firm to serve as the independent and binding arbiter of the value of the Shares provides additional assurance that the payment reflects the fair market value of the Shares, rather than an attempt to overpay Foreign Shareholder for a corrupt purpose. Neither Requestor nor Foreign Shareholder requested or obtained conditions or limitations on the valuation or the valuation formula prior to engaging the Firm, and the valuation was carried out strictly in accord with the terms of the engagement. There is no indication of either party requesting a minimum or specific valuation from the Firm or attempting to improperly influence the valuation.”
Equally important was the transparency involved. There was an “appropriate and meaningful disclosure of the parties’ relationship”. There was disclosure by the government official to his government of the relationship and pending sale. The “relevant government authorities of Foreign Country and the relevant department at Foreign Agency, and the relevant government authorities have informed him that they approve or do not object to the sale of the Shares.” Lastly, both the Requestor and the foreign government official involved had averred that he would not assist the US Company in obtaining or retaining business.
For the compliance practitioner, there are several key points to consider. The first point is found in a footnote and it reads, “Following Requestor’s initial submission, the Department sent Requestor a letter seeking additional information on July 25, 2013. Requestor provided a partial response by letter on September 19, 2013, which was accompanied by significant backup documentation. Thereafter, the Department and counsel for Requestor had several follow up discussions to clarify certain issues. On February 13, 2014, Requestor provided a final submission that addressed the last outstanding issues raised by the Department.” This is the first time that I recall seeing a time line laid out in an Opinion Release. This gives a compliance practitioner some idea of the time frames involved in the process.
The second is the use of representations and warranties by the parties. In Opinion Release 13-01 a key component was an opinion from the Chief Legal Office of the foreign official’s country that the conduct in question would not violate that country’s laws. However in 14-01, the DOJ accepted representations that the foreign official in question would not pass on business in which he either had an interest or help the Relator to ‘obtain or retain’ business with the agency at which the foreign official now worked. This type of evidence is something that a company should now consider when designing protocols to satisfy issues similar to those presented in 14-01.
Next is the quality and quantity of payment(s) to be made to the now foreign official to cash him out and purchase his interest. Here the parties agreed to an independent valuation by an internationally recognized accounting firm. This provides some type of arms-length analysis. It also provides a market based approach to the payment issue so that there is evidence of true (or perhaps truer) market value, not some arbitrary number agreed to by the parties.
Finally, all the parties seemed to have documented everything. This clearly states to me the need for documentation, which can be reviewed and assessed by a regulator. As I often say the three most important things in FCPA compliance are: Document, Document and Document. I believe that Opinion Release 14-01 makes this point even clearer.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 email@example.com.
© Thomas R. Fox, 2014