I will use Agatha Christie’s short story The Companion as the introduction to today’s blog post. This story, related by one of the Tuesday story-telling group of detective aficionados, Dr. Lloyd, and is about two people who are related yet take different paths. It involves the death of a woman while on vacation on the Island of Gran Canaria. The deceased was named Mary Barton and she died while trying to save her companion, one Amy Durrant, from drowning. Sometime later Miss Durrant was deemed missing and presumed drowned off the coast of Cornwall. However there was a double crime as Durrant had actually drowned Barton in Gran Canaria and then faked her own death in Cornwall, however she had returned home to Australia where she actually died within a month of returning. It turned out that Durrant was a cousin to Barton and her only living relation. Since both women were now dead, Barton’s not inconsiderable estate passed on to Durrant’s children, which was her plan all along.
All of which informs today’s topic that being the difference in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement resolution tools from those used by the Department of Justice (DOJ). While both the SEC and DOJ use Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) and Non-Prosecution Agreements (NPAs); there are other tools in the SEC arsenal, which the DOJ does not use. These revolve around the fact that in FCPA enforcement, the DOJ handles criminal prosecution and the SEC handles things on the civil side of FCPA enforcement.
Traditionally the SEC obtains a Cease and Desist order by going to a federal district court. The FCPA Guidance states, “In a civil injunctive action, SEC seeks a court order compelling the defendant to obey the law in the future. Violating such an order can result in civil or criminal contempt proceedings. Civil contempt sanctions, brought by SEC, are remedial rather than punitive in nature and serve one of two purposes: to compensate the party injured as a result of the violation of the injunction or force compliance with the terms of the injunction.”
In most cases the defendant does not contest these Orders and there are no admissions made by the defendant regarding conduct that may have violated the FCPA. While there has been significant criticism of ‘No Admission’ settlements entered into by the SEC, these types of settlements are not expected to change where there is no corresponding criminal action. In a 2013 speech, SEC Chair Mary Jo White announced an expansion of the “admit” policy, and explained that while “neither admit nor deny” settlements would remain the norm, the SEC would now require defendants to admit wrongdoing “in certain cases where heightened accountability or acceptance of responsibility through the defendant’s admission of misconduct may be appropriate”. SEC enforcement chief, Andrew Ceresney, has added that defendants may be required to admit violations in cases of “egregious misconduct,” such as cases involving obstruction of the SEC’s investigation or harm to large numbers of investors.
However the past year or so, the SEC has moved to handle FCPA enforcement actions through an administrative process. As explained in the FCPA Guidance, “SEC has the ability to institute various types of administrative proceedings against a person or an entity that it believes has violated the law. This type of enforcement action is brought by SEC’s Enforcement Division and is litigated before an SEC administrative law judge (ALJ). The ALJ’s decision is subject to appeal directly to the Securities and Exchange Commission itself, and the Commission’s decision is in turn subject to review by a U.S. Court of Appeals.”
In a post on the FCPA Blog, entitled “Are Administrative Proceedings the New Civil Complaints?” Marc Alain Bohn explored this expanded use of administrative law proceedings in SEC enforcement of the FCPA, by noting, “which was facilitated in part by a 2010 Dodd-Frank amendment to the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 that enables the SEC to collect civil penalties through administrative proceedings.” Moreover, Bohn noted a couple of significant differences in going through a federal district court to obtain a Cease and Desist Order and going through the SEC administrative process. He said, “FCPA cases resolved via administrative proceeding require no judicial approval, as opposed to the settlement of formal civil complaints. This distinction is important because district court judges have complicated several SEC prosecutions in recent years by demanding changes to negotiated settlements or dismissing charges or otherwise limiting claims. In addition, the imposition of a cease-and-desist order under an administrative proceeding requires only that the SEC establish a likelihood that a defendant will violate federal securities law, in contrast with the “reasonable likelihood” required by a court-ordered injunction.” [citations omitted]
The FCPA Professor has been unremitting in his criticism of this administrative settlement process, citing a complete lack of transparency in the process, among other criticisms. Mike Volkov, perhaps more charitably, wrote, “The SEC’s “new” use of administrative proceedings for FCPA cases demonstrates its unwillingness to face judicial scrutiny and undermines the effectiveness of its enforcement program. The SEC likes to play on its home turf and for some reason feels that going to court is not as important.” Whatever your view on the use of the administrative process might be I would only say that it is here to stay so you had better be ready to participate in it if you find yourself in a SEC FCPA enforcement action.
Another criticism of this process is what might be called the home court advantage. In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “Firms oppose SEC’s internal enforcement process”, reporter Hazel Bradford quoted Terry Weiss, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig LLP in Atlanta, for the following “I have no problem with fairness when (a case) is brought in a federal District Court and when it is overseen by a federal District Court judge who is appointed by the president of the United States and approved by the U.S. Senate. I have a significant problem when you have (administrative law judges) who are picked by the SEC.” The problem with this argument is that ALJ’s have been a part of the federal enforcement process for a wide variety of agencies, department and issues since the 1930s. To say the SEC is using an approved administrative process that violates the Constitution seems to me to be a stretch.
Another area the SEC has in common with the DOJ in FCPA enforcement is that they both sometimes decline to bring enforcement actions. The FCPA Guidance cites back to the SEC Enforcement Manual for the “guiding principles” in determining whether the Commission will bring a FCPA enforcement action. The factors the SEC will determine, which are the same for enforcement actions against entities or individuals., are listed as follows:
- the seriousness of the conduct and potential violations;
- the resources available to SEC staff to pursue the investigation;
- the sufficiency and strength of the evidence;
- the extent of potential investor harm if an action is not commenced; and
- the age of the conduct underlying the potential violations.
It is important to understand these differences in resolution vehicles and tactics used by the SEC, separate and apart from the DOJ. The civil jurisdiction of FCPA enforcement entails some differences in approach by the SEC. It is important that any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner understand these differences in the event their company goes through a FCPA investigation or enforcement action. We saw three significant FCPA enforcement actions last fall, Smith & Wesson, Layne Christensen and Bio-Rad, where there was no corresponding DOJ FPCA enforcement action brought jointly with the SEC enforcement action. As anti-corruption compliance programs mature, it may well be that this could portend the future. Just as with The Companion simply because it appears that two are together, they may have their own separate callings. Tomorrow I review some of the unique damages available to the SEC in a FCPA enforcement action.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015