Earlier this month we had the release of a second book by Harper Lee, “Go Set a Watchman”, which was miraculously discovered having been written some 50+ years ago. This week, there was another release from a (now deceased) author from a newly discovered source. I of course refer to the release yesterday of the new Dr. Seuss book “What Pet Should I Get?”, published Random House, which informs today’s compliance lesson.
The book was discovered by Seuss’ widow, as noted in the Sunday New York Times (NYT) Book Review article, entitled “Dr. Seuss Book: Yes They Found it in a Box”, when she decided to “have the rest of his notes and sketches appraised, that they closely examined the contents of that box. They found a set of brightly colored alphabet flash cards, some rough sketches titled “The Horse Museum,” and a manila folder marked “Noble Failures,” with whimsical drawings that he had been unable to find a place for in his stories. But alongside the orphaned sketches was a more complete project labeled “The Pet Shop,” 16 black-and-white illustrations, with text that he had typed on paper and taped to the drawings. The pages were stained and yellowed, but the story was all there, in Dr. Seuss’ unmistakable rollicking rhymes.” This finding became the book, What Pet Should I Get?
Reading this discovery made me ponder about how a child would pay for the pet they wanted and of course my thoughts turned to that age-old parenting quandary – the allowance. It is always a question of great interest for both parents and children. As with many things involving parent/child relationships, my views have evolved. As a teenager, I certainly had the view that an allowance was a God-given right and the more the better. I would only note that my parents did not share those views. As the father of a teenaged daughter, my views reached the much fuller expression of spoiling my daughter as often as possible. Which one is correct? I still do not have a final answer.
I thought about the ongoing debate and dialogue over the allowance when I read the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement action brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against Mead Johnson Nutrition Company (Mead Johnson). The matter was resolved via SEC Administrative proceeding that concluded with a Cease and Desist Order being agreed to by the parties. Mead Johnson agreed to pay a fine of $12.3MM which consisted of profit disgorgement of $7.7MM, prejudgment interest of $1.26MM and a civil penalty of $3MM. Kara Brockmeyer, Chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s FCPA Unit, said in a SEC Press Release, “Mead Johnson Nutrition’s lax internal control environment enabled its subsidiary to use off-the-books slush funds to pay doctors and other health care professionals in China to recommend its baby formula and give the company marketing access to mothers.”
The enforcement action turned on violations of the accounting provisions of the FCPA. This is where the ‘allowance’ issue comes into the discussion. According to the Cease and Desist Order, “certain employees of Mead Johnson China improperly compensated HCPs, who were foreign officials under the FCPA, to recommend Mead Johnson’s infant formula to, and to improperly provide contact information for, expectant and new mothers.” One of Mead Johnson’s sales channels in China was through distributors. To facilitate this illegal conduct, funding to the distributors, called the “Distributor Allowance”, was diverted to make illegal payments. The Cease and Desist Order stated, “Although the Distributor Allowance contractually belonged to the distributors, certain members of Mead Johnson China’s workforce exercised some control over how the money was spent, and certain Mead Johnson China employees provided specific guidance to distributors concerning the use of the funds. Mead Johnson China staff also maintained certain records related to Distributor Allowance expenditure by distributors. In addition, Mead Johnson China used some of the funds to reimburse Mead Johnson China’s sales personnel for a portion of their marketing and other expenditures on behalf of Mead Johnson China.”
This tactic was clearly a violation of the company’s books and records obligations under the FCPA. By doing so, Mead Johnson was able to hide its payments to doctors and health care providers (HCPs) from not only regulators but the company’s shareholders as well. As the Cease and Desist Order noted, the company’s “records were incomplete and did not reflect that a portion of Distributor Allowance was being used contrary to Mead Johnson’s policies.” Finally, the Cease and Desist Order concluded, “Up through 2013, certain Mead Johnson China employees made payments to HCPs using funds maintained by third parties. These funds and payments from the funds were not accurately reflected on Mead Johnson China’s books and records. The books and records of Mead Johnson China were consolidated into Mead Johnson’s books and records. As a result of the misconduct of Mead Johnson China, Mead Johnson failed to make and keep books, records, and accounts, which, in reasonable detail, accurately and fairly reflected its transactions as required by Section 13(b)(2)(A) of the Exchange Act.”
However Mead Johnson did not stop with books and records violations. The Distributor Allowance manipulation allowed the China business unit to “improperly compensate HCPs was contrary to management’s authorization and Mead Johnson’s internal policies. Mead Johnson failed to devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls sufficient to provide reasonable assurances that Mead Johnson China’s funding of marketing and sales expenditures through third-party distributors was done in accordance with management’s authorization.” Once again the Cease and Desist Order concluded, “Up through 2013, Mead Johnson failed to devise and maintain an adequate system of internal accounting controls to ensure that Mead Johnson China’s method of funding marketing and sales expenditures through third-party distributors was not used for unauthorized purposes, such as improperly compensating Chinese HCPs to recommend Mead Johnson’s products. As a result of such failure, the improper payments to HCPs occurred contrary to management’s authorizations, in violation of Section 13(b)(2)(B) of the Exchange Act.”
In an interesting twist Mead Johnson, based on an allegation of potential FCPA violations in China, performed an internal investigation on its China unit in 2011 and came up with no evidence. Somewhat dryly the SEC noted that the company did not make any self-disclosure around these allegations and “did not thereafter promptly disclose the existence of this allegation in response to the Commission’s inquiry into this matter.”
Yet after a second internal investigation in 2013 they turned up evidence of FCPA violations, the company “undertook significant remedial measures including: termination of senior staff at Mead Johnson China; updating and enhancing financial accounting controls; significantly revising its compliance program; enhancing Mead Johnson’s compliance division, adding positions including a second senior-level position; establishing new business conduct controls and third party due-diligence procedures and contracts; establishing a unit in China that monitors compliance and controls in China on an on-going basis; and providing employees with a method to have immediate access the company’s policies and requirements.”
While there was no statement regarding self-disclosure, the company did cooperate extensively with the SEC after the company was called to task. The Cease and Desist Order noted, “Mead Johnson subsequently provided extensive and thorough cooperation. Mead Johnson voluntarily provided reports of its investigative findings; shared its analysis of documents and summaries of witness interviews; and responded to the Commission’s requests for documents and information and provided translations of key documents. These actions assisted the Commission staff in efficiently collecting valuable evidence, including information that may not have been otherwise available to the staff.”
There are several lessons to be learned from the Mead Johnson enforcement action. If it was not clear from the GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) imbroglio in China in 2013-14, your internal investigation must be thorough. Performing an investigation, finding no FCPA violations only to have a regulator sitting on your shoulder and later finding such evidence is never good. The SEC also reaffirmed its clear intention to continue to enforce the accounting provisions of the FCPA, with or without a parallel Department of Justice (DOJ) enforcement action. Companies must also take heed on their internal controls. Clearly certain China business unit employees had developed a work-around of the compliance internal controls by requiring the distributors to use their allowances to pay bribes. Internal controls must not only exist but they must be effective. That means you have to test their effectiveness, not simply tick the box that you have put them in place.
Finally, and I think Dr. Seuss’ compliance lesson is that when you give out an allowance, while you may restrict some of its uses, you certainly should not direct where the money is spent. Every kid knows that if you are told where to spend your allowance, it is really not your allowance. Perhaps Mead Johnson would do well to remember that long lost lesson from childhood.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015