We begin today with a word on the death of Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s career, spanning nearly 90 years was certainly was from a different era. He was short of stature and long in his number of marriages but as Bob Lefsetz noted in his blog post tribute to Rooney, “But they stood in front of us twenty feet tall. At the drive-in. Even when the pictures truly got small on the tiny old screens of yore they emerged triumphant, because they were so good-looking, so charismatic. And if you were big enough, a bright enough star, your legacy lived on, even if your present day circumstances bore no resemblance to fame.” But here’s why there is always a place in my heart for Mickey Rooney. When I was very young I lived with my grandparents and one night I watched the 1935 movie version of Shakespeare’s A Mid Summer Night’s Dream on television with my grandmother. Rooney’s so over the top performance of Puck began for me a life long love affair with the Bard. So here’s to the grandmother that started me off on a lifelong love affair of Shakespeare’s works and here’s to the Mickster—you did it your way.
I have often considered the role of senior management is to set a proper ‘Tone-At-The-Top” to do business ethically and in compliance with anti-corruption laws like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or the UK Bribery Act. Incentives to do business ethically and in compliance are also recognized as an important part of any best practices compliance program. The flip side of incentives is disincentives, such as discipline or financial penalties for affirmatively engaging in misconduct. But how far should such disincentives go and how strong should they be? Should there be penalties for not only affirmatively engaging in misconduct but also failing to monitor risk-taking that allows misconduct to occur? If the latter becomes prevalent, how close do we come to criminalizing conduct, which is arguably negligent and not simply intentional?
I have thought about several of these questions and many others over the past few days when reading about the ongoing struggles of General Motors (GM) over its Cobalt recall issues and Citigroup in regards to its Mexican banking operations. In an article by Gretchen Morgenson in the New York Times (NYT), entitled “The Wallet as Ethics Enforcer”, where she asked “Who decided—and who agreed—that 90 cents was too much to pay for each switch that would have fixed the problem that apparently led to 13 deaths? How much did that decision add to the bottom line and add to executives’ compensation over the years? What will the company have to pay in possible regulatory penalties and legal settlements?” One of her own answers to these questions reads, “While the shareholders of G.M. will shoulder the cost of the fines, the settlements and loss of trust arising from the mess, the executives responsible for monitoring internal risks like these are unlikely to be held accountable by returning past pay.”
Citigroup, which had previously indicated that it had been the victim of a huge fraud perpetrated by one of its customers in Mexico, Oceanografía. However, now Citigroup now faces both federal criminal and civil investigations over the affair. As reported in a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, entitled “Crime Inquiry Said to Open On Citigroup”, Ben Protess and Michael Corkery reported that both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have opened investigations “focusing in part on whether holes in the bank’s internal controls contributed to the fraud in Mexico. The question for the investigators is whether Citigroup—as other banks have been accused of doing in the context of money laundering—ignored warning signs.” For a bank to be criminally liable, “prosecutors would typically need to show that the bank willfully ignored warning signs of the fraud.” However, to show a civil violation, the threshold is lower and there may only need to be a showing that the bank lacked the proper internal controls or internal oversight.
In her article, Morgenson spoke with Scott M. Stringer, the New York City Comptroller, who is a strong advocate of corporate requirements which “make sure that insiders who engage in questionable conduct are required to pay the piper” in the form of clawback provisions. Stringer has worked with companies to expand clawback provisions beyond those mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), which required “boards to recover some incentive pay from a chief executive and chief financial officer if a company did not comply with financial reporting requirements.” Now, clawbacks have expanded to require executives to return compensation “even if they did not commit the misconduct themselves; they run afoul of the rules by failing to monitor conduct or risk-taking by subordinates.” Stringer believes that such clawback provisions not only “speak to the issue of financial accountability but also to setting a tone at the top.”
Morgenson ends her article by noting that unless GM makes public its internal investigation, “we may never know how many G.M. executives knew about the Cobalt problems and looked the other way.” In the meantime though, this debacle shows the importance of policies that hold high-level employees accountable for conduct that, even if not illegal, can do serious damage to their companies. Directors creating such policies would be sending a clear signal that they take their duties to the company’s owners seriously.”
At this point, we do not know high up the decision went in GM not to install the 90 cent solution. But I would argue it really does not matter. Somewhere in the company, some engineer figured out a solution and indeed one was implemented without changing the part number. I am sure the GM Board would have been sufficiently shocked, just shocked, to find out that such decisions as monetary over safety were going on inside the company. What does all of the information released so far tell us about the culture inside GM when these decisions were made? While I am certainly willing to give current GM Chief Mary Barra the benefit of the doubt about her intentions for the company going forward, particularly after a grueling couple of days before Congress, what do you think the financial incentives were in the company when the 90 cent solution was rejected?
It initially appeared that Citigroup was the victim of a massive fraud perpetrated by one of its customers. However, even initially it was reported that Citigroup let its Mexican operation, Banamex run its own show with very little oversight from the corporate office in New York. Now Citigroup is not only under a civil investigation for lack of proper internal controls but also a criminal investigation for willful ignorance of Banamex’s operations. Does any of this sound far-fetched or perhaps familiar? Think about Frederick Bourke and ‘conscious indifference’. Even the judge in Burke’s criminal trial mused that she did not know if he was a perpetrator or a victim. Perhaps Citigroup is both, but if he was both it certainly did not help Bourke. While I am certainly sure that the Citigroup Board of Directors would also say that it would also simply be shocked, just shocked, to find that there were even insufficient internal controls over Banamex, let alone willful ignorance of criminal actions of its Mexico subsidiary, it does pose the question as to what is the culture at the bank?
As important as clawbacks are, until the message of compliance gets down from the top of an organization, into the middle and then to the bottom, a culture of compliance will not exist. I have worked in an industry where safety is goal number one. But in the same industry I have heard the apocryphal tale of the foreign Regional Manager who is alleged to have said, “If I violate the Code of Conduct, I may or may not get caught. If I violate the Code of Conduct and get caught, I may or may not be punished. If I miss my numbers for two quarters, I will be fired.” Clawbacks for Board members would not have influenced this apocryphal foreign Regional Manager, any more than they would have worked on the psyche of the GM engineers who proposed and then later dropped the 90 cent solution. It was clear to them what their bosses thought was important for them to keep their jobs. As long as management has that message, doing business ethically and in compliance will always take a second seat.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014