This week, 27 years ago, Star Trek – The Next Generation (TNG) made its television debut. Rarely has there a follow up to a beloved original series (Star Trek – The Original Series (TOS)) that is equally treasured by fans. They say that your favorite Star Trek is the one you grew up with, so for me that is TOS and that will always be my most beloved Star Trek series, but for the younger generations TNG fills that bill. The series occurred some 70 years in the time after TOS so things were a bit different. One of the differences was on following the Prime Directive more rigorously. While Captain Kirk, who actually had a hand in drafting the Prime Directive, seemed to view it with situational ethics, Captain Picard was much more concerned about not violating it.
I thought about this evolution of the Prime Directive from TOS to TNG when considering what types of internal controls a compliance practitioner might consider in the area of gifts in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) best practices compliance program. I have been continuing my exploration of internal controls with well-known expert Henry Mixon, Principal of Mixon-Consulting. Mixon believes that it would be reasonable to expect that internal controls over gifts would be designed to ensure that all gifts satisfy the criteria as defined and interpreted in Company policies. Generally speaking, these are fairly narrow, including a definition of the dollar limit, which must not be exceeded in order for gifts to be permissible, coupled with some subjective criteria such as the legality of the gifts for the recipient and whether the practice is customary within the country where the gift is delivered. The question I focus on is how to enforce the policies so that employees are not free to disregard them at will?
The Department of Justice (DOJ), in several enforcement actions and the FCPA Guidance has emphasized the importance of risk assessment and effective controls and building a program tailored to those risks. Many companies effectively minimize the risk of inappropriate gifts through stringent pre-approval requirements because a sufficiently robust and enforced pre-approval policy can reduce the number of gifts simply because of the headache of getting the pre-approval. This has the added benefit of ensuring enforcement of internal controls, largely because of the reduced volume of gifts being included in expense reports. Mixon cautions that in considering the effectiveness of controls, you must always keep in mind the most frequently used method for defeating an internal control, which is driven by a dollar amount criteria, is splitting the item into multiple parts in order to appear to stay under the limit and to avoid the defined approval authority based on the amount of the gift.
Mixon believes that the key analysis is whether there are controls in place to enforce the policies and whether those controls are documented. To help to answer this query, he posited that there are four issues to evaluate.
- Is the correct level of person approving the payment / reimbursement for the gift?
- Are there specific controls, including signoffs, to demonstrate that the gift had a proper business purpose?
- Are the controls regarding gifts sufficiently preventative, rather than relying on detect controls?
- If controls are not followed, is that failure detected by other internal controls or the compliance protocols?
While many compliance practitioners believe that employee expense reports are a sufficient internal control regarding gifts, because there are other ways in which a gift can be presented, there need to be other controls. Mixon believes that once your company policy on gifts has been finalized, the internal controls over expense reports fall into three basic areas: (1) The expense report format, including what information it requires; (2) Controls over the submitting employee and the preparation of the expense report; and (3) Controls to ensure the approvers do their review process properly.
Mixon believes the format itself of an expense report can go a long way toward prevention of violations of company policy. First it is important to have preprinted representations and certifications within the form because these can lead to “stop and think” type of controls, meaning the person submitting the expense report has to at least consider the information being submitted. The form can be signed without reading the preprinted representations, but if the employee and reviewers have been trained on how to review the expense report, it can be difficult to say later that the submitting employee did not understand what they were signing.
Mixon suggested two forms of representation, the Preparer’s representations and the Approver’s representations. The Preparer’s representations include ensuring that all items representing a proper business purpose comply with the company’s code of conduct, comply with local law and custom, and comply with all applicable company policies regarding FCPA compliance. The Approver’s representations ensure that all supporting documentation has been examined and that all documentation complies with applicable company policies, including the submission of original receipts. Further, the approver should certify that they have complied with all company policies regarding the review and approval of the expense report.
Mixon noted that some companies have two basic forms of expense reports. One is for situations in which all items pertain to US locations and do not involve any expenses incurred outside the US or for benefit of persons outside the US. The second is for items involving locations or persons outside the US. The international reporting form might have more stringent requirements and should provide for more detailed disclosures. It could require reporting, in a separate section of the expense report, all items that involve government officials, so that these items are not “buried” elsewhere in the expense report. Just as an added measure, the expense report includes a column where other expenses are reported which requires the submitter to check “Government Official YN?” this type of format should require sufficient disclosure of information regarding each item involving government officials. The next step in such an enhanced protocol would require a senior officer from the business unit to approve any reimbursements that meet certain criteria, for example, certain geographical areas or countries. Finally, such an enhanced representation could also include separate sections for each item requiring a description of the business purpose of meals, entertainment, names and business affiliation of all attendees, description of gifts and their business purpose, etc. A typical expense report requires this information to be on the receipt. Mixon believes that moving beyond simply requiring receipts and requiring such detail to be incorporated directly onto the expense reimbursement forms highlights the presence or absence of proper documentation much more readily. Mixon ended by noting it was incumbent to ensure reviewers sign off that each such item has documentation that required pre-approvals were obtained, if necessary.
While following the Prime Directive does not always lead to the result that the crew of TNG Enterprise desired; it did have the greater effect of allowing cultures and peoples to develop without interference. Internal controls around gifts can be used in a variety of ways in your best practices compliance program. They can certainly be used to detect an issue and perhaps even prevent an issue from becoming a full-blown FCPA violation, however, by using some of the techniques that Mixon has suggested you can move your compliance program to a proscriptive phase where you not only stop an issue from becoming a violation but through identification, you can move towards remediation as a part of your ongoing compliance efforts. Just as Star Trek’s Prime Directive had an ultimate purpose, if you can move your compliance program’s internal controls forward, you can help make them a part of your financial controls and thereby have a better run company.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014