FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

March 9, 2015

Who is Responsible for Complying with the FCPA?

7K0A0014-2The 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.

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

March 5, 2015

Is Strict Liability Coming to FCPA Enforcement?

Strict LiabilityI think that a strict liability standard is coming to Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement. A number of factors have caused me to come to this conclusion. While there may well be wide disagreement as to whether such a standard is warranted under the FCPA, I think it is coming and it is something every Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and compliance practitioner needs to be ready to address if and when the day comes that your company is under the shadow of a FCPA investigation.

I do not think this strict liability standard is coming for criminal enforcement of the FCPA by the Department of Justice (DOJ) because there is still a requirement of intent under the Act. Intent can be inferred by conscious indifference but I still do not think that day of reckoning is near for DOJ enforcement. However I do think that a confluence of events, FCPA enforcement actions by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and statements by the SEC representatives, all point towards a new enforcement angle to the FCPA. I think that the SEC is moving towards a strict liability standard for internal controls under the FCPA. That means if your compliance internal control regime is investigated, you will have to demonstrate that it meets some minimum standard that satisfies the SEC. If not, there will be a SEC administrative complaint filed against your company, alleging failure to maintain appropriate internal controls as required by the FCPA and your company will bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that you have designed and implemented an effective system of compliance internal controls.

The FCPA says that internal controls requires issuers to devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that—

(i) transactions are executed in accordance with man­agement’s general or specific authorization;

(ii) transactions are recorded as necessary (I) to per­mit preparation of financial statements in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles or any other criteria applicable to such statements, and (II) to maintain accountability for assets;

(iii) access to assets is permitted only in accordance with management’s general or specific authorization; and

(iv) the recorded accountability for assets is com­pared with the existing assets at reasonable intervals and appropriate action is taken with respect to any differences. 

As further explained in the FCPA Guidance, “the Act defines “reasonable assurances” as “such level of detail and degree of assurance as would satisfy prudent officials in the conduct of their own affairs.” The Act does not specify a particular set of controls that companies are required to implement. Rather, the internal controls provision gives companies the flexibility to develop and maintain a system of controls that is appropriate to their particular needs and circumstances.””

My evolution of thinking on this issue began last fall with the Smith & Wesson (S&W) FCPA enforcement action. There was nothing in the reported settlement documents that tied the failure of S&W internal controls to the payment (or offer to pay) of a bribe or the obtaining of any benefit. The claims made against S&W were basically along the lines of this language laid out in the Order Instituting Cease-and-Desist Proceedings, “Despite making it a high priority to grow sales in new and high risk markets overseas, the company failed to design and implement a system of internal controls or an appropriate FCPA compliance program reasonably designed to address the increased risks of its new business model.” It should be noted that S&W did not ‘admit or deny’ any of the allegations made against it, the company simply consented to the entry of the Order.

In its Administrative Order, the SEC stated, “Smith & Wesson failed to devise and maintain sufficient internal controls with respect to its international sales operations. While the company had a basic corporate policy prohibiting the payment of bribes, it failed to implement a reasonable system of controls to effectuate that policy.” Additionally, the company did not “devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that transactions are executed in accordance with management’s general or specific authorization; transactions are recorded as necessary to maintain accountability for assets, and that access to assets is permitted only in accordance with management’s general or specific authorization.”

All of this was laid out in the face of no evidence of the payment of bribes by S&W to obtain or retain business. This means it was as close to strict liability as it can be without using those words. Kara Brockmeyer, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s FCPA Unit, was quoted in a SEC Press Release on the matter that ““This is a wake-up call for small and medium-size businesses that want to enter into high-risk markets and expand their international sales.” When a company makes the strategic decision to sell its products overseas, it must ensure that the right internal controls are in place and operating.””

The second factor that informs my thinking on this issue is the updated COSO 2013 Framework that became effective in December 2014. Larry Rittenberg, in his book COSO Internal Control-Integrated Framework, said that the original COSO framework from 1992 has stood the test of time “because it was built as conceptual framework that could accommodate changes in (a) the environment, (b) globalization, (c) organizational relationship and dependencies, and (d) information processing and analysis.” Moreover, the updated 2013 Framework was based upon four general principles which include the following: (1) the updated Framework should be conceptual which allows for updating as internal controls (and compliance programs) evolve; (2) internal controls are a process which is designed to help businesses achieve their business goals; (3) internal controls applies to more than simply accounting controls, it applies to compliance controls and operational controls; and (4) while it all starts with Tone at the Top, compliance is the responsibility for the implementation of effective internal controls resides with everyone in the organization.”

For the compliance practitioner, this final statement is of significant importance because it directly speaks to the need for the compliance practitioner to be involved in the design and implementation of internal controls for compliance and not to simply rely upon a company’s accounting, finance or internal audit function to do so.

The updated Framework also gives a precise model for the SEC to use to inquire from companies about their compliance internal controls. How many companies could not only present evidence of implementation of compliance internal controls along the lines of the updated Framework but also evidence of their effectiveness? Unfortunately the answer is not many.

There is one other factor that informs my evolution of thinking regarding a strict liability standard under the FCPA. Under Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), Section 404, public companies are required to report on the adequacy of the company’s internal control on financial reporting. The report must affirm the responsibility of management for establishing and maintaining an adequate internal control structure and procedures for financial reporting. The report must also contain an assessment, as of the end of the most recent fiscal year of the Company, of the effectiveness of the internal control structure and procedures of the issuer for financial reporting. External auditors must also assess and make such a report. To do so, most companies, and their external auditors were using the prior COSO Framework.

Now imagine a situation where your external auditors have made their report and your company has made such report public, under its SOX 404 reporting obligation. What if the SEC took that report, reviewed it and made an initial assessment that your compliance internal controls around bribery and corruption were not sufficient, as required under the FCPA? What if the SEC sent you a letter asking for evidence of development and implementation of compliance internal controls, also asking for your audited evidence of effectiveness? What if you respond in due course and you receive another letter from SEC, which opines that your compliance internal controls are insufficient under the FCPA giving your proposed fine. You protest that there is no evidence of bribery or corruption regarding this insufficiency of your compliance internal controls. What if your company is then invited to contest this issue through the SEC Administrative process?

Does that sound far-fetched? Maybe it is but, from where I sit, that is the direction I see the issue of internal controls going in FCPA enforcement. I think a strict liability regime is coming under SEC enforcement of the FCPA. As a CCO or compliance practitioner in a public company, you need to be ready to defend your compliance internal controls.

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

March 4, 2015

Minnie Minoso Broke Barriers; Goodyear Pushes Compliance Forward

Minnie MinosoYesterday we celebrated the hard-nosed playing style of Anthony Mason, who recently passed away. Today we honor a true pioneer in professional baseball, Minnie Minoso, or Mr. White Sox. Minoso was the first black Cuban to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) when he debuted for the Cleveland Indians in 1949. In 1951, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox and he became a southside fixture for the rest of the decade. While his numbers were less than 2000 hits and 200 home runs, he was a fearless and speedy base runner and a nine-time All Star. Similarly to Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, the Chicago White Sox erected a statue in tribute to Mr. White Sox outside their ballpark. Even President Obama was moved to release a statement about Minoso saying in part, “Minnie may have been passed over by the Baseball Hall of Fame during his lifetime, but for me and for generations of black and Latino young people, Minnie’s quintessentially American story embodies far more than a plaque ever could.”

The contribution of Minoso in the exorable march of MLB towards integration informed part of my reading of the recent Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company (Goodyear) Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement strategy of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This enforcement action was a solo effort by the SEC; there was no corresponding Department of Justice (DOJ) criminal enforcement action. So following this past fall’s triumvirate of SEC enforcement actions involving Smith & Wesson, Layne Christenen and Bio-Rad, the SEC continues to bring enforcement actions based upon the books and records and internal controls civil requirements of the FCPA. Therefore the Goodyear enforcement action is one which provides many lessons to be learned by the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner going forward and should be studied quite carefully by anyone in the compliance field.

The Bribery Schemes

As set out in the SEC Cease and Desist Order (the Order), Goodyear used several different bribery schemes in different countries, all violating the FCPA. In Kenya, Goodyear became a minority owner in a locally owned business which apparently paid bribes the old-fashioned way, in cash to the tune of over $1.5MM, yet falsely recorded the cash bribe payments as “promotional expenses.” In Angola, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the company paid approximately $1.6MM in bribes by falsely marking up invoices with “phony freight and customs clearing costs.” The subsidiary made the payments in cash and through wire transfers to various government officials. Finally, the subsidiary apparently cross-referenced the bribes it paid as follows, “As bribes were paid, the amounts were debited from the balance sheet account, and falsely recorded as payments to vendors for freight and clearing costs.” In other words a complete, total and utter failure of internal controls to forestall any of the foregoing.

Internal Controls Violations

The Order set out the section of the FCPA that the company violated. Regarding the internal controls, the Order stated, “Under Section 13(b)(2)(B) of the Exchange Act issuers are required to devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that (i) transactions are executed in accordance with management’s general or specific authorization; (ii) transactions are recorded as necessary (I) to permit preparation of financial statements in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles or any other criteria applicable to such statements, and (II) to maintain accountability for assets; (iii) access to assets is permitted only in accordance with management’s general or specific authorization; and (iv) the recorded accountability for assets is compared with the existing assets at reasonable intervals and appropriate action is taken with respect to any differences.”

The Comeback

Equally important for the CCO or compliance practitioner are the specific steps that Goodyear took to remediate the situation it found itself in through these illegal payments. When the company received the initial reports about “the bribes, Goodyear promptly halted the improper payments and reported the matter to Commission staff.” Moreover, the company also cooperated extensively with the SEC. As noted in the Order, “Goodyear also provided significant cooperation with the Commission’s investigation. This included voluntarily producing documents and reports and other information from the company’s internal investigation, and promptly responding to Commission staff’s requests for information and documents. These efforts assisted the Commission in efficiently collecting evidence including information that may not have been otherwise available to the staff.”

In the area of internal remediation, regarding the entity in Kenya, where Goodyear was a minority owner in a local business, the company got rid of its from its corrupt partners by divesting its interest and ceasing all business dealings with the company. Goodyear is also divesting itself of its Angolan subsidiary. The Order also noted that Goodyear had lost its largest customer in Angola when it halted its illegal payment scheme. The company also took decisive disciplinary action against company employees “including executives of its Europe, Middle East and Africa region who had oversight responsibility, for failing to ensure adequate FCPA compliance training and controls were in place at the company’s subsidiaries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Finally, in a long paragraph, the SEC detailed some of the more specific steps Goodyear took in the area of remediation. These steps included:

  • Improvements to the company’s compliance function not only in sub-Saharan Africa but also world-wide;
  • In Africa, both online and in person training was beefed up for “subsidiary management, sales and finance personnel”;
  • Regular audits were instituted by the company’s internal audit function, which “specifically focused on corruption risks”;
  • Quarterly self-assessment questionnaires were required of each subsidiary regarding business with government-affiliated customers;
  • For each subsidiary, there were management certifications required on a quarterly basis that required, “among other things controls over financial reporting; and annual testing of internal controls”;
  • Goodyear put in a “new regional management structure, and added new compliance, accounting, and audit positions”;
  • The company made technological improvements to allow the company to “electronically link subsidiaries in sub-Saharan Africa to its global network”;

However these changes were not limited to improvement of Goodyear’s compliance function in Africa only. At the corporate headquarters, Goodyear created the new position of “Vice President of Compliance and Ethics, which further elevated the compliance function within the company”. There was expanded online and in-person training at the corporate headquarters and other company subsidiaries. Finally, the company instituted a new “Integrity Hotline Web Portal, which enhanced users’ ability to file anonymous online reports to its hotline system. With that system, Goodyear is also implementing a new case management system for legal, compliance and internal audit to document and track complaints, investigations and remediation.”

The specific listing of the compliance initiatives or enhancements that Goodyear pushed after its illegal conduct came to light is certainly a welcomed addition to SEC advice about what it might consider some of the best practices a company may engage in around its compliance function. Moreover, this specific information can provide audit and information to the compliance practitioner of strategies that he or she might use to measure a company’s compliance program going forward. The continued message of cooperation and remediation as a way to lessen your overall fine and penalty continues to resonate from the SEC. Finally, just as Minoso helped move forward the integration of baseball and civil rights in general, the Goodyear FCPA enforcement action demonstrates that the SEC will continue to prosecute cases around the failure of or lack of internal controls. The clear import is that a company must have an appropriate compliance internal control regime in place. We are moving towards a strict liability standard under the FCPA around internal controls, which I will have much more to say about later but for now – you have been warned.

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

March 2, 2015

Farewell to Mr. Spock and Risk Assessment Under COSO

Mr. SpockLeonard Nimoy died last Friday. He will be forever associated with the role of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek television show which premiered in 1966. The original series ran for only three years but had a full life in syndication up through this day. He also reprised the role in six movies featuring the crew of the original series and in the recent reboot.

Mr. Spock was about a personal character for me as I ever saw on television. For a boy going through the insanity of adolescence and the early teen years, I found Mr. Spock and his focus on logic as a way to think about things. He pursued this path while dealing with his half human side, which compelled emotions. This focus also led me to explore Mediations by Marcus Aurelius. But more than simply logic and being a tortured soul, Mr. Spock and his way looking at things and Star Trek with its reach for the stars ethos inspired me when it came out and still does to this day.

Mr. Spock and his pursuit of logic inform today’s blog post. Every compliance practitioner is aware of the need for a risk assessment in any best practices compliance program; whether that program is based on the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or some other compliance law or regime. While the category of risk assessment is listed as Number 3 in the Ten Hallmarks of an Effective Compliance Program in the FCPA Guidance, both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) intone that your compliance journey begins with a risk assessment for two basic reasons. The first is that you must know the corruption risks your company faces and second, a risk assessment is your road map going forward to manage those risks.

Interestingly Risk Assessment is the second objective in the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) Cube. In its volume entitled “Internal Control – Integrated Framework”, herein ‘the Framework Volume’, it recognizes that “every entity faces a variety of risks from external and internal sources.” This objective is designed to provide a company with a “dynamic and iterative process for identifying and assessing risks.” For the compliance practitioner none of this will sound new or even insightful, however the COSO Framework requires a component of management input and oversight that was perhaps not as well understood. The Framework Volume says that “Management specifies objectives within the category relating to operations, reporting and compliance with such clarity to be able to identify and analyze risks to those objectives.” But management’s role continues throughout the process as it must consider both internal and external changes which can effect or change risk “that may render internal controls ineffective.” This final requirement is also important for any anti-corruption compliance internal control. Changes are coming quite quickly in the realm of anti-corruption laws and their enforcement. Management needs to be cognizant of these changes and changes that its business model may make in the delivery of goods or services which could increase risk of running afoul of these laws.

The objective of Risk Assessment consists of four principles. They are:

Principle 6 – “The organization specifies objectives with sufficient clarity to enable the identification and assessment of risks relating to the objectives.”

Principle 7 – “The organization identifies risks to the achievement of its objectives across the entity and analyzes risks as a basis for determining how the risks should be managed.”

Principle 8 – “The organization considers the potential for fraud in assessment risks to the achievement of objectives.”

Principle 9 – “The organization identifies and assesses changes that could significantly impact the system of internal control.”

Principle 6 – Suitable Objectives 

Your risk analysis should always relate to stated objectives. As noted in the Framework Volume, it is management who is responsible for setting the objectives. Rittenberg explained, “Too often, an organization starts with a list of risks instead of considering what objectives are threatened by the risk, and then what control activities or other actions it needs to take.” In other words your objectives should form the basis on which your risk assessments are approached.

Principle 7 – Identifies and Analyzes Risk 

Risk identification should be an ongoing process. While it should begin at senior management, Rittenberg believes that even though a risk assessment may originate at the top of an organization or even in an operating function, “the key is that an overall process exists to determine how risks are identified and managed across the entity.” You need to avoid siloed risks at all costs. The Framework Volume cautions that “Risk identification must be comprehensive.”

Principle 8 – Fraud Risk 

Every compliance practitioner should understand that fraud exists in every organization. Moreover, the monies that must be generated to pay bribes can come from what may be characterized as traditional fraud schemes, such as employee expense account fraud, fraudulent third party contracting and payments and even fraudulent over-charging and pocketing of the differences in sales price. This means that is should be considered as an important risk analysis. It is important that any company follow the flow of money and if the Fraud Triangle is present, management be placed around such risk.

Principle 9 – Identifies and Analyzes Significant Change

It really is true that if there is one constant in business, it is that there will always be change. The Framework Volume states, “every entity will require a process to identify and assess those internal and external factors that significantly affect its ability to achieve its objectives. Rittenberg intones that companies “should have a formal process to identify significant changes, both internal and external, and assess the risks and approaches to mitigate the risk” in a timely manner.

Today’s blog post is a tribute to Mr. Spock as he, Star Trek and its characters continue to teach us lessons which we can apply in business going forward. It is the process of compliance which informs your program going forward. A risk assessment is recognized by sources as diverse as the DOJ, SEC and COSO as a necessary step. Just as Mr. Spock, the Science Officer onboard the Enterprise, was required to assess the risk to the ship and crew from a scientific perspective, a risk assessment can give you the tools to not only assess the corruption compliance risk to your company but a road map to managing that risk. So farewell to my long time friend Mr. Spock, you gave to me more than I ever gave back to you. I can think of no more fitting tribute to Spock than to say Live Long and Prosper.

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

February 25, 2015

Doing Less with Less and the Unification of Germany

Sqeezed Piggy BankI am attending the SCCE Utilities and Energy Conference in Houston this week. As usual, the SCCE has put on a great event for the compliance practitioner. This year there is live blogging by Kortney Nordum so there should be much about the conference up on the SCCE blogsite, this week and into the future. Lizza Catalano has put together a first rate program for compliance practitioners of many stripes. As an added benefit, SCCE Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Roy Snell has brought some cold weather down to Houston for the event for our late February enjoyment. While it was 80 on Saturday, today is was a balmy 36 courtesy of our Minnesotan guests.

As you might guess the current economic downturn is on everyone’s mind and a subject of much conversation. Last week I wrote a post about the depression of oil and gas prices in the energy space and some of the increased Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or other anti-corruption risks that might well arise from this economic downturn. Over the next couple of days, I want to explore how a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner might think through responses to this increased compliance risk. Today I will focus on doing less with less. Tomorrow I will suggest some technological solutions.

I have been around long enough to see more than one of these economic events in the energy space. While not suggesting that we Texans never learn not to repeat our mistakes, they do seem to have a pattern. Prices drop precipitously, companies who are overstocked, over-leverage or generally over-panic; over-react and cut head count and spending dramatically to some level that is not based on rational economic analysis. Then they get some handle on where the numbers might be heading and the cuts start to flatten out and some type of equilibrium is reached.

Right now, in the energy space, we are in the cutting phase. That means loss of personnel (head count) and loss of resources even if it was calculated last year based on a summer or fall 2014 economic projection in your annual budgeting process. This means one thing you will need get for a quarter or two will be financial resources to place the personnel your compliance function may have lost. This means that you will have to figure out a way to accomplish more with fewer resources. While I often advocate that the compliance function can and should draw on other disciplines such as Human Resources (HR), IT, Internal Audit and Marketing for support; those functions have most probably been ‘right-sized’ as well so they may not be able to assist the compliance function as much they could have previously.

Now would be a very good time to put into practice what Dresser-Rand CCO Jan Farley often says, “Don’t sweat the small (compliance) stuff.” Farley often speaks about the need not to waste your scarce compliance resources on areas or matters that are low compliance risks. But to do this, you need to understand what are your highest compliance risks. Since you will not have additional resources to perform such an analysis, I would suggest now would be a very good time for you to assess your compliance program and your business model to see what are your highest risks. If you believe there are several, you can fprioritize them. This exercise will give you the basis to deliver your ever-scarcer compliance resources to your highest risk areas.

While I do not believe the Department of Justice (DOJ) or Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will be sympathetic to some unsubstantiated claim along the lines of ‘I did my best with what I had’; they also made clear in the FCPA Guidance that “An effective compliance program promotes “an orga­nizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and a commitment to compliance with the law.” Such a program protects a company’s reputation, ensures investor value and confidence, reduces uncertainty in business transactions, and secures a company’s assets. A well-constructed, thought­fully implemented, and consistently enforced compliance and ethics program helps prevent, detect, remediate, and report misconduct, including FCPA violations.” (emphasis supplied)

So while the DOJ and SEC will not accept you bald-faced claims that our company simply did not have the money to spend on compliance, they will most-probably consider a compliance program where you have looked at your risks, in the context of this economic downturn, and delivered the compliance resources you do have to those risks. But the key is Document, Document, and Document your decision-making calculus and your implementation. (Stephen Martin would probably add here that if your annual spend on Yellow Post-It Notes is a factor of 10X your compliance spend, this approach would not be deemed credible.)

In her On work column in the Financial Times (FT), Lucy Kellaway wrote about this the concept of doing less with less for the corporate executive personally, in an article entitled, “No need to ‘lean in’ when laziness can be just as effective”. She cited to the Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke for “devising one of the world’s fist management matrices” when he assessed his officers on two scales: “clever v. dim and lazy v. energetic.” From this he came up with four permutations:

  • Dim and lazy – Good at executing orders.
  • Dim and energetic – Very dangerous, as they take the wrong decisions.
  • Clever and energetic – Excellent staff officers.
  • Clever and lazy – Top field commanders as they get results.

The point of Kellaway’s article has direct implications for the CCO or compliance practitioner currently facing an economic downturn, “It is only by being lazy that we become truly efficient, and come to see what is important and what is not.” Kellaway cautioned “the sort of laziness to encourage is not the slobbish variety that means you do bad work. That is not laziness: it is stupidity. Instead, we need the clever version that comes from knowing there is an opportunity cost to every minute we spend working, so we must use our time wisely.”

From the compliance perspective, this translates directly into using your compliance resources wisely. So whether you want to cite the Prussian general who unified Germany, columnist Kellaway, Dresser-Rand CCO Farley or this article’s theme of doing less with less, I would suggest to you there is a manner to maintain “A well-constructed, thought­fully implemented, and consistently enforced compliance and ethics program helps prevent, detect, remediate, and report misconduct, including FCPA violations” even in an economic downturn.

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

 

February 20, 2015

Assessing Internal Compliance Controls – Part II

Assessing Internal Controls IIn this blog post I continue my exploration of how you should assess your compliance internal controls using the Committee of Sponsoring Organization of the Treadway Organization (COSO), publication “Internal Controls – Integrated Framework, Illustrative Tools for Assessing Effectiveness of a System of Internal Controls” (herein ‘the Illustrative Guide’), as a starting point and basis for discussion. You will recall from my series on compliance internal controls under the COSO 2013 Framework there are five objectives: (1) Control Environment; (2) Risk Assessment; (3) Control Activities; (4) Information and Communication; and (5) Monitoring Activities. Today I will review issues around compliance internal control assessments on Control Environment and Risk Assessments.

First are some general definitions that you need to consider in your evaluation. A compliance internal control must be both present and functioning. A control is present if the “components and relevant principles exist in the design and implementation of the system of [compliance] internal control to achieve the specified objective.” A compliance internal control is functioning if the “components and relevant principles continue to exist in the conduct of the system of [compliance] internal controls to achieve specified objectives.”

I. Control Environment

Under the objective of Control Environment there are five principles which you will need to assess. The five principles are:

  1. The organization demonstrates a commitment to integrity and ethical values. Here you can look to see if there is a training program to help make employees cognizant of the importance of doing business ethically and in compliance with the standard’s of your company’s Code of Conduct. Also is there specific training on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or other relevant anti-corruption/anti-bribery legislation which may govern your organization? Next does your company have in place any process to evaluate “individuals against published integrity and ethics policy”? Finally, do you have in place any process to “identify and address deviations in the organization”?
  2. The board of directors demonstrates independence from management and exercises oversight of the development and performance of internal control. Under this Principle you must DOCUMENT the active involvement of your company’s Board of Directors. So not only must risk assessments be performed and evaluated by senior management, they must also be evaluated by the Board, separate and apart from senior management. A Board must also document its review of any remediation plans and monitoring activities.
  3. Management establishes, with board oversight, structures, reporting lines and appropriate authorities and responsibility in pursuit of the objectives. This Principle deals primarily with reporting lines and structures so you will need to consider not only the structure of your business but also whether or not both clear and sufficient reporting lines have been established throughout the company. The next analysis is to move down the chain to see if there definitions and assignments for your compliance function. Lastly you need to assess whether there are sufficient parameters around the responsibilities of the compliance function and if there are limitations which should be addressed.
  4. The organization demonstrates a commitment to attract, develop and retain competent individuals in alignment with the objectives. Under this Principle you will need to review the policies and procedures to make sure you have the minimum required under a best practices compliance program and then evaluate and address any shortcomings. This Principle also has a more personnel focus by requiring you to consider whether your organization attracts, develops and retains sufficient compliance personnel and is there an appropriate succession plan in place if someone ‘wins the lottery’ on the way to work.
  5. The organization holds individuals accountable for their internal control responsibilities in the pursuit of the objective. Under this Principle review is required to determine whether the Board established and communicated the mechanisms to hold employees accountable for your compliance internal controls. As suggested in the FCPA Guidance, there should be both a carrot and stick approach, so for the carrot is there some type of Board, senior management or employee compensation based on whether they did their assignments in compliance with your Code of Conduct or are bonuses based strictly on a sales formulation? For the stick, have any employees ever been disciplined under your compliance regimes?

II. Risk Assessment

This objective has four Principles that require assessment. They are (numbers follow the COSO Framework):

  1. The organization specifies objectives with sufficient clarity to enable the identification and assessment of risks relating to objectives which include Operations Objectives, External Financial Reporting Objectives, External Non-Financial Reporting Objectives, Internal Reporting Objectives and Compliance Objectives. Here I think the key is the documentation of several different topics and issues relating to your company and how it operations. This means you will need to assess such diverse concepts as what are your senior management’s choices for business and compliance? You will need to consider and assess tolerances for risk as demonstrated by such issues as operations and financial performance goals. Finally, it can be used as a basis for committing of compliance resources going forward.
  2. The organization identifies risks to the achievement of its objectives across the entity and analyzes risks as a basis for determining how the risks should be managed. This Principle requires you to take a look at not only your compliance organization but also your business structure including entity, subsidiary, division, operating unit, and functional levels. You should assess the involvement of your compliance function at each point identified and the appropriate levels of management therein. Finally, from the compliance perspective, you should attempt to estimate not only the significance of compliance risks identified in the risk assessment but also determine how to respond to such identified compliance risks.
  3. The organization considers the potential for fraud in assessing risks to the achievement of objectives. Bribery and corruption can be categorized as forms of fraud. Rather than being fraud against the company to obtain personal benefits it can be fraud in the form of bribery and corruption of foreign government officials. For the compliance internal control assessment around this Principle I would urge you to ‘follow the money’ in your organization and consider the mechanisms by which employees can generate the funds sufficient to pay bribes. Many of these are simply fraud schemes so you should consider this within the compliance context and assess incentive and pressures on employees to make their numbers or be fired. You should also assess your employees’ attitudes and rationalizations regarding same.
  4. The organization identifies and assesses changes that could significantly impact the system of internal control. This Principle speaks to the need of your organization to maintain personnel competent to use the risk assessment going forward. But it also requires you to assesses changes in the external environment, assess changes in the business model or other significant business changes and, finally, to consider any changes in compliance leadership and how that would impact this Principle.

I often say that good compliance is simply good business. These COSO objectives are not only important from the compliance perspective but they also speak to the issue of overall process in your organization. The more you can burn these activities into the DNA of your company, the better run your organization will be going forward. Auditing against the COSO standards will provide your management with greater information on the health of your organization and satisfy your legal requirements under the FCPA.

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

February 19, 2015

Assessing Compliance Internal Controls – Part I

Assessing Internal Controls II have recently detailed the COSO 2013 Framework in the context of a best practices compliance regime. However there is one additional step you will need to take after you design and implement your internal controls. That step is that you will need to assess against your internal controls to determine if they are working.

In its Illustrative Guide, the Committee of Sponsoring Organization of the Treadway Organization (COSO), entitled “Internal Controls – Integrated Framework, Illustrative Tools for Assessing Effectiveness of a System of Internal Controls” (herein ‘the Illustrative Guide’), laid out its views on “how to assess the effectiveness of its internal controls”. It went on to note, “An effective system of internal controls provides reasonable assurance of achievement of the entity’s objectives, relating to operations, reporting and compliance.” Moreover, there are two over-arching requirements which can only be met through such a structured post. First, each of the five components are present and function. Second, are the five components “operating together in an integrated approach”? Over the next couple of posts I will lay out what COSO itself says about assessing the effectiveness of your internal controls and tie it to your compliance related internal controls.

As the COSO Framework is designed to apply to a wider variety of corporate entities, your audit should be designed to test your internal controls. This means that if you have a multi-country or business unit organization, you need to determine how your compliance internal controls are inter-related up and down the organization. The Illustrative Guide also realizes that smaller companies may have less formal structures in place throughout the organization. Your auditing can and should reflect this business reality. Finally, if your company relies heavily on technology for your compliance function, you can leverage that technology to “support the ongoing assessment and evaluation” program going forward.

The Illustrative Guide suggests using a four-pronged approach in your assessment. (1) Make an overall assessment of your company’s system of internal controls. This should include an analysis of “whether each of the components and relevant principles is present and functioning and the components are operating together in an integrated manner.” (2) There should be a component evaluation. Here you need to more deeply evaluate any deficiencies which you may turn up and whether or not there are any compensating internal controls. (3) Assess whether each principle is present and functioning. As the COSO Framework does not prescribe “specific controls that must be selected, developed and deployed” your task here is to look at the main characteristics of each principle, as further defined in the points of focus, and then determine if a deficiency exists and it so what is the severity of the deficiency. (4) Finally, you should summarize all your internal control deficiencies in a log so they are addressed on a structured basis.

Another way to think through the approach could be along the following lines. A Principle Evaluation should consider “the controls to effect the principle” and would allow internal control deficiencies to be “identified along with an initial severity determination.” A Component Evaluation would “roll up the results of the component’s principle evaluations” and would allow a re-evaluation of the severity of any deficiency in the context of compensating controls. Lastly, an overall Effectiveness Assessment which would look at whether the controls were “operating together in an integrated manner by evaluating any internal control deficiencies aggregate to a major deficiency.” This type of process would then lend itself to an ongoing evaluation so that if business models, laws, regulations or other situations changed, you could assess if your internal controls were up to the new situations or needed adjustment.

The Illustrative Guide spent a fair amount of time discussing deficiencies. Initially it defined ‘internal control deficiency’ as a “shortcoming in a component or components and relevant principle(s) that reduces the likelihood of an entity achieving its objectives.” It went onto define ‘major deficiency’ as an “internal control deficiency or combination of deficiencies that severely reduces the likelihood that an entity can achieve its objectives.” Having a major deficiency is a significant issue because “When a major deficiency exists, the organization cannot conclude that it has met the requirements for an effective system of internal control.” Moreover, unlike deficiencies, “a major deficiency in one component cannot be mitigated to an acceptable level by the presence and functioning of another component.”

Under a compliance regime, you may be faced with known or relevant criteria to classify any deficiency. For example, if written policies do not have at a minimum the categories of policies laid out in the FCPA Guidance Ten Hallmarks of an Effective Compliance Program, which states “the nature and extent of transactions with foreign governments, including payments to foreign officials; use of third parties; gifts, travel, and entertainment expenses; charitable and political donations; and facilitating and expediting payments”, also formulated in the Illustrative Guide, such a finding would preclude management from “concluding that the entity has met the requirements for effective internal controls in accordance with the Framework.”

However, if there are no objective criteria, as laid out in the FCPA Guidance, to evaluate your company’s compliance internal controls, what steps should you take? The Illustrative Guide says that a business’ senior management, with appropriate board oversight, “may establish objective criteria for evaluating internal control deficiencies and for how deficiencies should be reported to those responsible for achieving those objectives.” Together with appropriate auditing boundaries set by either established law, regulation or standard, or through management exercising its judgment, you can then make a full determination of “whether each of the components and relevant principles is present and functioning and components are operating together, and ultimately in concluding on the effectiveness of the entity’s system of internal control.”

The Illustrative Guide has a useful set of templates that can serve as the basis for your reporting results. They are specifically designed to “support an assessment of the effectiveness of a system of internal control and help document such an assessment.” The Document, Document, and Document feature is critical in any best practices anti-corruption or anti-bribery compliance program whether based upon the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or some other regulation. With the Illustrative Guide of these Illustrative Tools, COSO has given the compliance practitioner a very useful road map to begin an analysis into your company’s internal compliance controls. When the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) comes knocking this is precisely the type of evidence they will be looking for to evaluate if your company has met its obligations under the FCPA’s internal controls provisions. In subsequent blog posts I will take a look at how you might audit your compliance internal controls.

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

February 9, 2015

COSO and Internal Controls – Part III

Dean SmithThis post continues my exploration of internal controls and how companies can demonstrate compliance with the internal controls requirement under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by adhering to the Committee of Sponsoring
Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO) 2013 Framework. To help introduce today’s topic, I cannot think of a much more appropriate person to honor than Dean Smith, who died yesterday. Smith coached the North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team for 36 years. He retired with 879 victories, a winning percentage of 77.6% and two NCAA championships. He was one of the true giants of college coaching and the game of basketball itself. He will be missed but certainly never forgotten. If there was ever a coach that epitomized internal controls and frameworks, it was Dean Smith.

I restart my discussion of the COSO 2013 Framework with a look at the third component, Control Activities. In its Executive Summary of the 2013 Framework, COSO said these “are the actions established through policies and procedures that help ensure that management’s directives to mitigate risks to the achievement of objectives are carried out. Control activities are performed at all levels of the entity, at various stages within business processes, and over the technology environment. They may be preventive or detective in nature and may encompass a range of manual and automated activities such as authorizations and approvals, verifications, reconciliations, and busi­ness performance reviews. Segregation of duties is typically built into the selection and development of control activities. Where segregation of duties is not practical, manage­ment selects and develops alternative control activities.”

However, as with the other components of the COSO Cube, Control Activities are not to be taken in a vacuum. Larry Rittenberg, in his book COSO Internal Control-Integrated Framework, said the Control Activities “have traditionally received the most attention of the component” but noted that the real-world experience since the initial implementation of the COSO Framework back in 1992 has demonstrated that “the effectiveness of control activities must be evaluated with the context of the other five components.” Moreover, he believes that these conditions are aided by a company’s policies and procedures, which should help to lessen and manage risk going forward. Finally, Control Activities should be performed at all levels in the business process cycle within an organization.

The objective of Control Activity consists of three principles. They are:

(1) Principle 10 – “The organization selects and develops control activities that contribute to the mitigation of risks to the achievement of objectives to acceptable levels.”

(2) Principle 11 – “The organization selects and develops general control activities over technology to support the achievement of the objectives.”

(3) Principle 12 – “The organization deploys control activities through policies that establish what is expected and procedures to put policies into action.”

A White Paper, entitled “The Updated COSO Internal Control Framework”, emphasized the inter-related nature of the five objectives when it noted “The risk assessment driven by the company’s management provides a context for designing the Control Activities necessary to reduce risks to an acceptable level (Principles 10, 11 and 12). Note that Principle 10 deals with the selection and development of control activities that mitigate risk to the achievement of compliance objectives, and Principle 12 deals with the development of control activities through established policies and procedures. Principle 11 addresses the impact of controls over general technology to the extent they impact the achievement of control activities.”

Principle 10 – Control Activities to mitigate risk

Rittenberg noted that there is no “silver bullet” in selecting the right internal controls. Yet when combined with your risk assessment, this Principle would point to an integration of your policies, procedures and overall corporate responsibilities, which should be chosen “sufficiently to reduce the risk of not achieving the objectives to an acceptable level.” You should consider your relevant business processes, evaluate your mix of control activities and then consider at what levels within your organization they are applied. But Rittenberg cautions that you should not “begin an analysis of control activities with a list of controls and check off whether they are present or not present. Rather, controls should be assessed in relationship to the risk being mitigated.” 

Principle 11 – Control Activities over general technology

Last week I had a series of guest posts from Joe Oringel of Visual Risk IQ regarding the use of data analytics in your compliance program. The use of technology will be greater and more important going forward. I would certainly expect the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to focus on a company’s use of technology in any evaluation of its overall compliance program.

Therefore, under this Principle you will need to determine not only the use of technology in your compliance related internal controls but also the use of such technology in your overall company business process. To do so, you will need to consider your technology infrastructure, around compliance internal controls, security management of the same and then use this information to move forward to obtain and implement the most appropriate technology around your compliance internal controls.

Principle 12 – Control Activities established through policies and procedures

This Principle should be the most familiar one to the compliance practitioner as it points to the establishment of policies and procedures to support deployment of your compliance regime. It also sets out the responsibility and accountability for executing policies and procedures, specifies and assures corrective action as required and mandates periodic reassessment. Interestingly it also directs that there be competent personnel in place to do so. Rittenberg noted, “Responsibilities for control activities should be identified through policies and various procedures. Processes should be in place to ensure that all aspects are implemented and working.”

While the objective of Control Activities should be the most familiar to the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner, you may well think of it in a way that basketball fans thought of Dean Smith’s Four Corners offense; in other words boring. However, just as Smith’s innovation was based on crisp focus and outstanding teamwork, this objective demonstrates the inter-relatedness of all the five COSO objectives. It is your Control Environment and then Risk Assessment that should lead you to this point. It is the Control Activities objective that lays the groundwork for a living, breathing compliance program going forward.COSO Cube. jpg

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 16, 2015

As American as Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers and Stepping In It

Duck SoupI am at the end of my week of Marx Brothers themed posts. As you can tell, I am a huge fan and several of you have asked which is my favorite film. Before answering I must confess that I much prefer their Paramount films to their later MGM work. Their first two films were adaptations of the Broadway shows The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind wrote both. Their third Paramount film, Monkey Business (1931), was their first movie not based on a stage production, and the only one in which Harpo’s voice is heard (singing tenor from inside a barrel in the opening scene). Number four was Horse Feathers (1932), where they brothers satirized the American college system and Prohibition, the amateur status of college football players, and placed them the cover of Time.

But for me it is their final Paramount film, Duck Soup (1933), which was their greatest and my personal favorite. It was directed by the highly regarded Leo McCarey, is the highest rated of the five Marx Brothers films on the American Film Institute’s top 100 years … 100 Movies list. It had slapstick, singing and dancing, atrocious puns and just about every other form of top-notch comedy one can ask for in a movie. The absurdity of the film and the nature of the Marx Brothers comedy seems to me to be summed up in a dispute the film sparked between the Brothers and the village of Fredonia, New York. “Freedonia” was the name of a fictional country of which Groucho was the President and the city fathers wrote to Paramount and asked the studio to remove all references to Freedonia because “it is hurting our town’s image”. Groucho fired back a sarcastic retort asking them to change the name of their town, because “it’s hurting our picture.”

I thought about this comedic phenomenon when I read several articles about JP Morgan Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jamie Dimon and his whining about how tough regulators have been on him and his poor little bank. An article in the Financial Times (FT) Lex Column, entitled “JPMorgan: comic relief”, said, “A rule of thumb for JPMorgan earnings: the more entertaining chief executive Jamie Dimon is on the conference call, the limper the results. Yesterday, he riffed on [among other things]: what is un-American (the bank being chased by many regulatory bodies rather than just one)”. This was in the face of a report in another FT article by Tom Braithwaite, entitled “High quality global journalism requires investment”, that the bank “said its earnings have been hit by $1.1bn in new legal charges, as it prepares to settle over allegations of foreign exchange manipulation with the Department of Justice. This latest sum takes the total legal charges disclosed by the US’s largest bank since 2010 to more than $25bn, or more than a year’s profits. “Banks are under assault,” said Jamie Dimon, chief executive, as he reported fourth-quarter results on Wednesday.”

Dimon’s seeming insistence that banks following laws is un-American and the attendant cost of doing business in compliance with relevant anti-money laundering (AML) laws still seems to bedevil a fellow mega-bank, HSBC Holdings PLC, which paid a paltry fine of $1.9 billion (paltry that is next to JPMorgan) for its transgressions and violations of that un-American prohibition against money-laundering. In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Rachel Louise Ensign and Max Colchester reported that after a two-year monitorship, the independent monitor will issue a report that “will criticize the bank and lay out ways it needs to improve.” This is in the face of the 2014 monitor’s report that HSBC “information-technology systems still lacked ‘integration, coordination and standardization’ and recommending that senior executives have their bonuses docked absent progress.” The monitor also said that “Throwing bodies at it and putting your finger in the dike-that’s not a sustainable system.”

What has been HSBC’s response to this news? Apparently with the same whining as Dimon but rather than focus on the fact they have to follow laws, HSBC focused on the actual doing of compliance. The article said that the new Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) Joe Evan, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official, “surprised some colleagues by spitting tobacco juice into a cup while in the office”; perhaps they are just anti-tobacco. However even such simple messaging techniques as screen savers with the AML reminders to “Ask The Right Question” have been derided at HSBC. Even the head of the bank’s AML compliance was quoted as having said “But money laundering happens in financial institutions. How do you reconcile appetite with reality?”

Now contrast this incessant whining with the recent change in tactics by one of the few remaining financial meltdown enforcement actions left, that being the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) case against Standard & Poor (S&P). In an article in the New York Times (NYT), entitled, “S.&P. Nears Settlement With Justice Over Crisis”, Ben Protess reported that S&P has been accused by the DOJ “of awarding inflated credit rating to mortgage investments that spurred the financial crisis”. S&P initially had aggressively fought the lawsuit, Protess noted, and attacked the government case in the press. S&P had hired noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to go on television to claim to link “the federal investigation to S.&P.’s decision in 2011 to cut the United States credit rating below the top grade of triple A.” Unfortunately for S&P they could not prove that defense, even after extensive discovery on the issue. But their tune has recently changed, “After S.&P. mounted a two-year campaign to defeat civil fraud charges — portraying them as retaliation for cutting the credit rating of the United States — the ratings agency is now negotiating with the Justice Department to settle the case, according to people briefed on the matter.”

But the real problem for S&P is that they could have settled two years ago, before suit was filed. Protess said, “The government offered S.&P. roughly the same settlement size, $1 billion plus, before filing suit two years ago. If S.&P. had embraced that offer, instead of fighting accusations that it abused its role as a rating agency, it could have walked away without accumulating tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.” Moreover, by not settling pre-suit, S&P has subjected itself to the new reality of settling suits with an admission of liability, never good for those pesky follow-on shareholder actions. Further, “more than a dozen state attorneys general are demanding that S.&P. pay more than $1 billion to settle the case, the people briefed on the matter said, a penalty large enough to wipe out the rating agency’s entire operating profit for a year.”

Are banks and rating entities inherently arrogant or do they simply face that age-old foe that many people face today, dog excrement? As Dimon said in his earnings call, and was quoted in the FT’s Lex Column, sometimes “even JP Morgan will step into it on occasion”.

If you want to avoid stepping in it this weekend, I suggest you settle in and watch some old Marx Brothers movies.

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 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

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