Today we celebrate an anniversary of one of the all-time lows in the American cultural milieu; for on this date in 1970, the television show The Partridge Family appeared on the ABC Television network. Symbiotically created from the ashes of the television show The Monkees and the real-life family pop group The Cowsills; The Partridge Family starred, as its TV-mom, Oscar winning actress Shirley Jones and as her eldest TV son, and teenaged girl heartthrob, her real-life stepson David Cassidy. Proving once again that 1960s and 1970s television really was largely a cultural wasteland, the family romped and sang their way across a never-ending sunny southern California in multi-colored converted school bus. While the episodes themselves were as close to putrid as one can get, they did have better success with their lip-synced music from each episode. One song, I Think I Love You, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Charts that year.
I thought about this strange convergence of history and culture (or perhaps the lack of culture) when considering more lessons learned from the GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) corruption scandal. I was particularly focused on GSK’s response to at least two separate reports from an anonymous whistleblower (brilliantly self-monikered as GSK Whistleblower) of allegations of bribery and corruption going on in the company’s China business unit. One of the clear lessons from the GSK matter is that serious allegations of bribery and corruption require a serious corporate response. Not, as GSK appears to have done, in their best Inspector Clouseau imitation, not being able to find the nose on their face.
Further, and more nefariously, was GSK’s documented treatment of and history with internal whistleblowers. One can certainly remember GSK whistleblower Cheryl Eckard. A 2010 article in The Guardian by Graeme Wearden, entitled “GlaxoSmithKline whistleblower awarded $96m payout”, where he reported that Eckard was fired by the company “after repeatedly complaining to GSK’s management that some drugs made at Cidra were being produced in a non-sterile environment, that the factory’s water system was contaminated with micro-organisms, and that other medicines were being made in the wrong doses.” She later was awarded $96MM as her share of the settlement of a Federal Claims Act whistleblower lawsuit. Eckard was quoted as saying, “It’s difficult to survive this financially, emotionally, you lose all your friends, because all your friends are people you have at work. You really do have to understand that it’s a very difficult process but very well worth it.” So to think that GSK may simply have been SHOCKED, SHOCKED, that allegations of corruption were brought by an internal whistleblower may well be within the realm of accurate.
There would have seemed to have been plenty of evidence to let the company know that something askance was going on in its Chinese operations. The international press was certainly able to make that connection early on in the scandal. An article in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “China accuses GSK of bribery” by Kathrin Hille and John Aglionby, reported “GSK said it had conducted an internal four-month investigation after a tip-off that staff had bribed doctors to issue prescriptions for its drugs. The internal inquiry found no evidence of wrongdoing, it said.” Indeed after the release of information from the Chinese government, GSK said it was the first it had heard of the investigation. In a prepared statement, quoted in the FT, GSK said ““We continuously monitor our businesses to ensure they meet our strict compliance procedures – we have done this in China and found no evidence of bribery or corruption of doctors or government officials.” However, if evidence of such activity is provided we will act swiftly on it.”
Laurie Burkitt, reporting in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in an article entitled “China Accuses Glaxo of Bribes”, wrote that “Emails and documents reviewed by the Journal discuss a marketing strategy for Botox that targeted 48 doctors and planned to reward them with either a percentage of the cash value of the prescription or educational credits, based on the number of prescriptions the doctors made. The strategy was called “Vasily,” borrowing its name from Vasily Zaytsev, a noted Russian sniper during World War II, according to a 2013 PowerPoint presentation reviewed by the Journal.” Burkitt reported in her article that “A Glaxo spokesman has said the company probed the Vasily program and “[the] investigation has found that while the proposal didn’t contain anything untoward, the program was never implemented.”” From my experience, if you have a bribery scheme that has its own code name, even if you never implemented that scheme, it probably means that the propensity for such is pervasive throughout the system.
I have often written about the need for a company to have an investigative protocol in place so that it is not making up its process in the face of a crisis. However the GSK matter does not appear to be that situation. It would not have mattered what investigation protocol that GSK followed, it would seem they were determined not to find any evidence of bribery and corruption in their China business unit. So the situation is more likely that GSK should have brought in a competent investigation expert law firm to head up their investigation in the face of this anonymous whistleblower’s allegations.
In an ACC Docket article, entitled “Risks and Rewards of an Independent Investigation”, authors James McGrath and David Hildebrandt discuss the use of specialized outside counsel to lead an independent internal investigation as compliance and ethics best practices. This is based upon the US Sentencing Guidelines, under which a scoring system is utilized to determine what a final sentence should be for a criminal act. Factors taken into account include the type of offense involved and the severity of the said offense, as well as the harm produced. Additional points are either added or subtracted for mitigating factors. One of the mitigating factors can be whether an organization had an effective compliance and ethics program. McGrath and Hildebrandt argue that a company must have a robust internal investigation.
McGrath and Hildebrandt take this analysis a step further in urging that a company, when faced with an issue such as an alleged Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violation, should engage specialized counsel to perform the investigation. There were three reasons for this suggestion. The first is that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would look towards the independence and impartiality of such investigations as one of its factors in favor of declining or deferring enforcement. If in-house counsel were heading up the investigation, the DOJ might well deem the investigative results “less than trustworthy”.
Matthew Goldstein and Barry Meier discussed the need for independence from the company being investigated in an article the New York Times (NYT) about the General Motors (GM) internal investigation entitled “G.M Calls the Lawyers”. They quoted William McLucas, a partner at WilmerHale, who said, “If you are a firm that is generating substantial fees from a prospective corporate client, you may be able to come in and do a bang-up inquiry. But the perception is always going to be there; maybe you pulled your punches because there is a business relationship.” This is because if “companies want credibility with prosecutors and investors, it is generally not wise to use their regular law firms for internal inquiries.” Another expert, Charles Elson, a professor of finance at the University of Delaware who specializes in corporate governance, agreed adding, “I would not have done it because of the optics. Public perception can be affected by using regular outside counsel.””
Adam G. Safwat, a former deputy chief of the fraud section in the Justice Department, said that the key is “Prosecutors expect an internal investigation to be an honest assessment of a company’s misdeeds or faults, “What you want to avoid is doing something that will make the prosecutor question the quality of integrity of the internal investigation.”” Also quoted was Internal Investigations Blog editor, Jim McGrath who said, “A shrewd law firm that gets out in front of scandal can use that to its advantage in negotiating with authorities to lower penalties and sanctions. There is a great incentive to ferret out information so they can spin it.”
The GSK experience in China will inform compliance practitioners for years to come with the company’s plethora of miss-steps. Perhaps one day the company will become as successful as The Partridge Family and they can open their annual meeting with The Partridge Family Theme – Come On Get Happy!
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014