FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

January 15, 2015

The Marx Brothers Mirror Scene: Absurdity and Comments by a SEC Commissioner

Mirror SceneI continue my Marx Brothers’ themed week by today looking at what I and many others believe to be their most cherished routine: the Mirror Scene. Danny Leigh, in his article in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “Souped-up comedy”, wrote, “The set-up is deathlessly simple. Fredonia’s President, Groucho in nightgown and cap finds Harpo, a spy from neighboring Sylvania, in his bedroom. They chase each other down some stairs and face off in front of each other, dressed identically. Harpo, the spy and intruder pretends to be Groucho’s reflection, and the two brothers spend the next three minutes locked in a mad dance of mimicry. The result is flawless, the kind of ecstatic comedy in which the world outside the cinema simply falls away. Variations on the skit had been performed by others before but the brothers raised it to undreamt absurdist heights, claiming it for ever as their own.” So you have Pinky (Harpo), dressed as Firefly (Groucho), pretending to be Firefly’s reflection in a missing mirror, matching his every move—including absurd ones that begin out of sight—to near perfection. In one particularly surreal moment, the two men swap positions, and thus the idea of which is a reflection of the other. The scene is absolutely silent until Chicolini (Chico), also disguised as Firefly, enters the scene and collides with both of them and sound resumes.

Although its appearance in Duck Soup is the best-known instance, the concept of the mirror scene did not originate in this film. Max Linder included it in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), where a man’s servants have accidentally broken a mirror and attempt to hide the fact by imitating his actions in the mirror’s frame. Charlie Chaplin used a similar joke in The Floorwalker (1916), though it didn’t involve a mirror. This scene has been recreated many times from entertainment as diverse as Bugs Bunny cartoons, to the televisions series Gilligan’s Island and even in a The X-Files episode. Harpo himself did a reprise of this scene, dressed in his usual costume, with Lucille Ball also donning the fright wig and trench coat, in the I Love Lucy episode “Lucy and Harpo Marx”.

I find it to be absurdist comedy at its ultimate height. To this day, I almost cry I laugh so hard when I see that scene. While you may not find it quite as funny as I did, most probably one thing you will also not find funny is an ongoing debate in both academia and in legal circles involving a question on corporate governance as reported in the New York Times (NYT) in the Dealbook column by Andrew Ross Sorkin, in an article entitled “An Unusual Boardroom Battle, in Academia”. The question staggered elections of corporate board members or whether the entire slate of Board members be elected, up or down, each year.

On the side of full Board, up or down voting is Professor Lucian A. Bebchuk, a Harvard Law School professor who has long researched corporate governance issues and has been an outspoken advocate for increased democracy in corporate America’s boardrooms and his group, the Harvard’s Shareholder Rights Project. Professor Bebchuk believes staggered election of Board members “silences shareholders, entrenches management and makes it less likely that suitors or activists will emerge, depressing valuations.”

On the other side of the dispute are Daniel M. Gallagher, a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and Joseph A. Grundfest, a professor at Stanford Law School and a former SEC commissioner, who co-authored a paper entitled “Did Harvard Violate Federal Securities Law? The Campaign Against Classified Boards of Directors.” The paper is in opposition to Bebchuk’s position. Sorkin observed that “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Grundfest suggest that companies are dropping their staggered board structures — and shareholders are voting to eliminate them — based, in part, on faulty research by Harvard’s Shareholder Rights Project. Worse.” But here is the kicker and what moves this rather arcane academic debate into the realm of the absurd. “They suggest, Mr. Bebchuk’s project committed fraud by not fully disclosing the extent of contradictory research, which they say is a “material omission” by S.E.C. standards.” Yes sports fans, a sitting SEC commissioner suggested in writing that Harvard had engaged in a securities law violation.

As Sorkin noted, “there’s the fundamental issue of whether a sitting member of the S.E.C. should be writing such an incendiary paper in the first place.” Sorkin quoted an email comment made by Professor Robert J. Jackson Jr., from Columbia Law School. Jackson wrote to Sorkin in an email “All should agree that it is wildly inappropriate for a sitting S.E.C. commissioner to issue a law review paper accusing a private party of violating federal securities law without any investigation or due process of any kind. This is a striking, and as far as I know unprecedented, departure from longstanding S.E.C. practice.” Jackson went on to say “Imagine if a sitting S.E.C. commissioner wrote a law review article accusing Goldman Sachs of violating federal law without any S.E.C. investigation of the matter — Goldman and their counsel would quite rightly be outraged.”

Near the end of his article, Sorkin stated, “There are many opposing views on the paper. But here’s one way to think about it: It was a bad precedent for Mr. Gallagher to involve himself in a paper that raises the possibility of fraud in the field he regulates without the due process of a legal complaint. Mr. Grundfest could have written this provocative paper on his own, though it might not have attracted the same amount of attention within the industry.”

I would ask you to imagine if any of the Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys who work in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) area were to write an article, law review or other, that said not only is an entity’s position on interpretation of the FCPA wrong, its interpretation in practice is a FCPA violation. Do you think such corporation or entity would feel like they would get a fair shake from such prosecutors? Think any bias might exist going forward? While I have been one of the loudest advocates for the DOJ making more information on its FCPA declinations more public, SEC Commissioner Gallagher’s paper, demonstrates a very good reason for the DOJ not making any such information public: i.e. due process and fairness. Just as bad facts can certainly lead to bad law, this action by a sitting SEC Commissioner to even imply that an entity violated US Securities Laws in an article is not a road that we want to begin to go down.

For a clip of the famous Mirror Scene, click here.

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

January 14, 2015

Marx Brothers Compliance Week Continues – The Stateroom Scene and High-Risk

Stateroom SceneI continue my exploration of the Marx Brothers’ movies by looking at the famous Stateroom scene from the MGM release A Night at the Opera. In researching this I was somewhat stunned to find that the scene was written and developed with the Brothers by that silent comedy great Buster Keaton, who was at the time a gag writer for MGM. Talk about provenance for a scene, one of the greatest purveyors of gags (Keaton) writing for three of the greatest screen comedians, the Brothers Marx.

The scene starts with Driftwood discovering that Fiorello, Tomasso, and Baroni snuck onto the boat by stowing away in his steamer trunk. Fiorello and Tomasso have to hide out in the room while parades of people walk in to use the cabin or to carry out their duties. Crammed into this little space at the end of the scene are Driftwood, Fiorello, Tomasso, Baroni, two cleaning ladies who make up the bed, a manicurist, a ship’s engineer and his assistant, a girl looking for her aunt, a maid (“I come to mop up.” “You’ll have to start on the ceiling.”), and four waiters with trays of food (prompting Driftwood’s classic line: “Is it my imagination, or is it getting crowded in here?”). Eventually there are 15 people in Driftwood’s tiny cabin. The mass of humanity tumble out into the hallway when Mrs. Claypool opens the door. I particularly like the way they sped up the film for the dénouement.

I thought about the Stateroom scene in the context of an article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Wreck of the Kulluk”, and an article in the New York Times (NYT) by Joe Nocera, entitled “The Moral of the Kulluk.” The Magazine piece was an except from Of Ice and Men to be published later this month by Deca, authored by McKenzie Funk. In his longform piece he detailed the miss-steps that led to the grounding and sinking of the Shell Oil Company drill rig Kulluk after an unsuccessful attempt to drill for oil in the Artic Ocean. It was a tale of greed, high-risk drilling for oil and the attendant potential for a high reward and, at the end of the day, safety and engineering shortcuts that cost Shell the loss of the drill rig and the end of the potential of Artic drilling for the foreseeable future. The tale itself if riveting but for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner it had many key elements which should be considered for an anti-corruption compliance program under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or other anti-bribery laws.

The US Geological Service had estimated that the Artic held “nearly a quarter of the world’s undiscovered petroleum.” Moreover, when Shell put its plan in place, it was reeling from an accounting scandal. Funk said that the purchase of the Kulluk and drilling for oil in the Artic “was important not because Shell needed oil in 2005. The company had plenty of oil. It was important because Shell had spent the previous year engulfed in a scandal involving what are known as proved reserves”. This meant that “Shell still had to show to investors that it’s long-term future was as bright as it once looked”, i.e. before the accounting scandal.

For an energy production company such as Shell, drilling in the Artic Ocean is about the most difficult place left on earth in which to try and drill. In 2012, Shell was the world’s largest corporation and clearly thought it was up to the task. Funk wrote, “It was on track to spend $6 billion preparing for Arctic Alaska, and that March the Obama administration approved exploratory drilling. The task that remained was not to tame the frontier so much as to bring it within reach, to bind Arctic Alaska to the rest of the world. Shell imagined a future of new ports, new airports and permanent rigs.”

The journey of the Kulluk up to the Artic Sea was delayed and had several problems that would later haunt the drill rig. However, Shell was able to claim a victory as it actually began drilling in October 2012, but then shortly had to depart due to unanticipated ice floes threatening the drill rig. The Kulluk began the long tow out from the Artic Sea to its homeport in Seattle. However the boat towing it was so badly damaged it had to break off the tow. Shell then made the fateful decision not to leave the Kulluk in port in Dutch Harbor, because as Funk noted “If the Kulluk was in an Alaskan port on New Year’s Day, [Shell] executives believed, it would be subject to a state oil-facilities tax of as much as $6 million. In late December, a spokesman confirmed Shell’s fears in an email to a longtime reporter at a local newspaper, The Dutch Harbor Fisherman, writing, “It’s fair to say the current tax structure related to vessels of this type influenced the timing of our departure.””

This fateful decision, not to spend the winter in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, led to the beaching of the drill rig after it had broken free from its tow cables in stormy weather and hit the Alaskan coast. Funk concluded, “In the early hours of New Year’s Day [2013], the Coast Guard flew over the wreck. In aerial photos published around the world, the rig was dwarfed by the auburn, grass-covered hills of the uninhabited island where it had finally come to a rest.”

In his article Nocera wrote of some of the highlights he took away from Funk’s piece. He said, “Despite spending $6 billion preparing to explore for oil in this remote part of the world, it didn’t plan adequately, and it cut too many corners. According to the Coast Guard, which investigated the Kulluk disaster, not only had Shell’s risk management been “inadequate,” but there also had been a significant number of “potential violations of law and regulations.”” Nocera identified three key risk factors that were not managed. First was the weather. The second is the US government’s (or any government’s) ability to regulate such a high-risk venture.

Just as there were too many people in the Marx Brothers’ Stateroom, sometimes the risk is so high that a company cannot operate safely. The same is true in compliance. Sometimes a company cannot do business within the parameters of the FCPA. In such a case, a CCO needs to speak up and say so. Mike Volkov, the Two Tough Cookies and Donna Boehme oft-times tell us that part of the job of a compliance practitioner is to say No when it needs to be said. Joe Nocera certainly is not against oil companies drilling in inhospitable locations or their making money. Yet he concluded the lesson in the story of the Kulluk disaster is oil companies are not in position to drill for oil in the Artic safely. It is simply too risky. If a deal is so high-risk, the chances of completing it without engaging in conduct which violates the FCPA cannot be reasonably assured, it is time for compliance to step up and say No. If Shell had understood and managed its risk more prudently, it would not be out $6bn in losses from the Kulluk disaster.

For a YouTube clip of the Stateroom scene, click here.

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.

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