One of my favorite words in the context of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement is dis-link. I find it a useful adjective in explaining how certain conduct by a company must be separated from the winning of business. But it works on so many different levels when discussing the FCPA. Last week I thought about this concept of dis-linking when I read the second Opinion Release of 2014, that being 14-02. One of the clearest ways that the Department of Justice (DOJ) communicates is through the Opinion Release procedure. This procedure provides to the compliance practitioner solid and specific information about what steps a company needs to take in the pre-acquisition phase of due diligence. However, 14-02 directly answers many FCPA naysayers long incorrect claim about how companies step into FCPA liability through mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity.
From the Opinion Release it was noted that the Requestor is a multinational company headquartered in the United States. Requestor desired to acquire a foreign consumer products company and it’s wholly owned subsidiary (collectively, the “Target”), both of which are incorporated and operate in a foreign country, never issuing securities in the United States. The Target had negligible business contacts in the US, including no direct sale or distribution of their products. In the course of its pre-acquisition due diligence of the Target, Requestor identified a number of likely improper payments by the Target to government officials of Foreign Country, as well as substantial weaknesses in accounting and recordkeeping. In light of the bribery and other concerns identified in the due diligence process, Requestor also detailed a plan for remedial pre-acquisition measures and post-acquisition integration steps. Requestor sought from the DOJ an Opinion as to whether the Department would then bring an FCPA enforcement action against Requestor for the Target’s pre-acquisition conduct. It was specifically noted that the Requestor did not seek an Opinion from the Department as to Requestor’s criminal liability for any post-acquisition conduct by the Target.
Improper Payments and Compliance Program Weaknesses
In preparing for the acquisition, Requestor undertook due diligence aimed at identifying, among other things, potential legal and compliance concerns at the Target. Requestor retained an experienced forensic accounting firm (“the Accounting Firm”) to carry out the due diligence review. This review brought to light evidence of apparent improper payments, as well as substantial accounting weaknesses and poor recordkeeping. The Accounting Firm reviewed approximately 1,300 transactions with a total value of approximately $12.9 million with over $100,000 in transactions that raised compliance issues. The vast majority of these transactions involved payments to government officials related to obtaining permits and licenses. Other transactions involved gifts and cash donations to government officials, charitable contributions and sponsorships, and payments to members of the state-controlled media to minimize negative publicity. None of the payments, gifts, donations, contributions, or sponsorships occurred in the US, none were made by or through a US person or issuer and apparently none went through a US bank.
The due diligence showed that the Target had significant recordkeeping deficiencies. Nonetheless, documentary records did not support the vast majority of the cash payments and gifts to government officials and the charitable contributions. There were expenses that were improperly and inaccurately classified. It was specifically noted that the accounting records were so disorganized that the Accounting Firm was unable to physically locate or identify many of the underlying records for the tested transactions. Finally, the Target had not developed or implemented a written code of conduct or other compliance policies and procedures, nor did the Target’s employees show an adequate understanding or awareness of anti-bribery laws and regulations.
The Requestor presented several pre-closing steps to begin to remediate the Target’s weaknesses prior to the planned closing in 2015. Requestor aimed to complete the full integration of the Target into Requestor’s compliance and reporting structure within one year of the closing. Requestor has set forth an integration schedule of the Target that included various risk mitigation steps, dissemination and training with regard to compliance procedures and policies, standardization of business relationships with third parties, and formalization of the Target’s accounting and record-keeping in accordance with Requestor’s policies and applicable law.
The DOJ noted black-letter letter when it stated, ““It is a basic principle of corporate law that a company assumes certain liabilities when merging with or acquiring another company. In a situation such as this, where a purchaser acquires the stock of a seller and integrates the target into its operations, successor liability may be conferred upon the purchaser for the acquired entity’s pre-existing criminal and civil liabilities, including, for example, for FCPA violations of the target. However this is tempered by the following from the 2012 FCPA Guidance, “Successor liability does not, however, create liability where none existed before. For example, if an issuer were to acquire a foreign company that was not previously subject to the FCPA’s jurisdiction, the mere acquisition of that foreign company would not retroactively create FCPA liability for the acquiring issuer.””
This means that because none of the payments were made in the US, none went through the US banking system and none involved a US person or entity that this would not lead to a creation of liability for the acquiring company. Moreover, there would be no continuing or ongoing illegal conduct going forward because “no contracts or other assets were determined to have been acquired through bribery that would remain in operation and from which Requestor would derive financial benefit following the acquisition.” Therefore there would be no jurisdiction under the FCPA to prosecute any person or entity involved after the acquisition.
The DOJ also provided this additional information, “To be sure, the Department encourages companies engaging in mergers and acquisitions to (1) conduct thorough risk-based FCPA and anti-corruption due diligence; (2) implement the acquiring company’s code of conduct and anti-corruption policies as quickly as practicable; (3) conduct FCPA and other relevant training for the acquired entity’s directors and employees, as well as third-party agents and partners; (4) conduct an FCPA-specific audit of the acquired entity as quickly as practicable; and (5) disclose to the Department any corrupt payments discovered during the due diligence process. See FCPA Guide at 29. Adherence to these elements by Requestor may, among several other factors, determine whether and how the Department would seek to impose post-acquisition successor liability in case of a putative violation.”
Mike Volkov calls it ‘reading the tea leaves’ when it comes to what information the DOJ is communicating. However, sometimes I think it is far simpler. First, and foremost, 14-02 communicates that there is no such thing as ‘springing liability’ to an acquiring company in the FCPA context nor such a thing as simply buying a FCPA violation, simply through an acquisition only, there must be continuing conduct for FCPA liability to arise. Most clearly beginning with the FCPA Guidance, the DOJ and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have communicated what companies need to do in any M&A environment. While many compliance practitioners had only focused on the post-acquisition integration and remediation; the clear import of 14-02 is to re-emphasize importance of the pre-acquisition phase.
Your due diligence must being in the pre-acquisition phase. The steps taken by the Requestor in this Opinion Release demonstrate some of the concrete steps that you can take. Some of the techniques you can use in the pre-acquisition phase include (1) having your internal or external legal, accounting, and compliance departments review a target’s sales and financial data, its customer contracts, and its third-party and distributor agreements; (2) performing a risk-based analysis of a target’s customer base; (3) performing an audit of selected transactions engaged in by the target; and (4) engaging in discussions with the target’s general counsel, vice president of sales, and head of internal audit regarding all corruption risks, compliance efforts, and any other major corruption-related issues that have surfaced at the target over the past ten years.
Whether you can make these inquiries or not, you will also need to engage in post-acquisition integration and remediation. 14-02 provides you with some of the steps you need to perform after the transaction is closed. If you cannot perform any or even an adequate pre-acquisition due diligence, the time frames you put in place after the acquisition closes may need to be compressed to make sure that you are not continuing any nefarious FCPA conduct going forward. But it all goes back to dis-linking. If a target is engaging in conduct that violates the FCPA but the target itself is not subject to the jurisdiction of the FCPA, you simply cannot afford to allow that conduct to continue. If you do allow such conduct to continue you will have bought a FCPA violation and your company will be actively engaging and participating in an ongoing FCPA violation. That is the final takeaway I derive from this Opinion Release; it is allowing corruption and bribery to continue which brings companies into FCPA grief. Opinion Release 14-02 provides you a roadmap of the steps you and your company can take to prevent such FCPA exposure.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014