Today, I continue my exploration of the resolution documents from the long-standing Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) probe into the Dutch telecom giant VimpelCom Ltd. (VimpelCom) for a spectacular, long-standing bribery scheme for the company to garner the rights to the mobile communications business in Uzbekistan. There were multiple bribery schemes appear to have been approved at the highest levels of the company and should provide a wealth of case studies on bribery schemes for the compliance professional going forward. Today, I want to begin with the initial start of the scheme and then discuss what led to the first bribery payment in what I term the fraudulent buy-out.
Board of Directors and Senior Management Involvement
VimpelCom sought to enter the telecom market through the acquisition of a local player, Unitel LLC (Unitel), as an entrée into the Uzbekistan market. Unitel made clear to VimpelCom that to have access to, obtain and retain business in the Uzbeki telecom space, VimpelCom would have to, according to the VimpelCom Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), “regularly pay Foreign Officials millions of dollars”.
As discussed yesterday with the acquisition of Unitel VimpelCom acquired another entity LLC Barkie Uzbekistan Telecom (Butzel), that was at least partially owned by an Uzbeki government official, who hid their interest through a shell company, which was known to VimpelCom. VimpelCom did not articulate a legitimate business reason for the deal and paid $60MM for Buztel.
As laid out in the VimpleCom’s Information, its senior management was well aware of the potential FCPA risk. The Information stated, “From the beginning of VIMPELCOM’s deliberations concerning its entry into Uzbekistan, there was an acknowledgment of the serious FCPA risks associated with certain VIMPELCOM management’s recommendation to purchase Buztel in addition to Unitel… Documents prepared for the December 13, 2005 Finance Committee meeting explained that Buztel was owned by a Russian company “and a partner” without further detailing the identity of the “partner.” The materials documented that “[t]hrough a local partner, [VIMPELCOM was] in a preferred position to purchase both assets . . . .”” The Finance Committee “identified the likelihood of corruption and expressed concerns.” Even with these reservations, the Finance Committee failed to identify the local partners.
But there was even more specific cautions around a FCPA violation when one Finance Committee member ““expressed concern on the structure of the deal and FCPA issues” and noted “that if [VIMPELCOM] goes into this deal under this structure and if the structure violates the FCPA picture, [VIMPELCOM’s] name could be damaged.”” The Finance Committee voted to move forward with the Buztel portion of the transaction “provided that all issues related to the FCPA should be resolved.”
These concerns moved up to the VimpelCom Board of Directors. In a December, 2005 Board meeting, “the likelihood of corruption was further discussed” and that “there was a recognition that a thorough analysis was needed to ensure that the Buztel payment was not merely a corrupt pretext for other services and favors. There were also numerous requests to ensure that the deal complied with the FCPA. Ultimately, VIMPELCOM’s board approved the Buztel and Unitel acquisitions, with a condition that FCPA analysis from an international law firm be provided to VIMPELCOM.”
Here VimpelCom management defrauded its own Board of Directors. The Information states, “VIMPELCOM’s management then sought FCPA advice that could be used to satisfy the board’s requirement while allowing VIMPELCOM to proceed with a knowingly corrupt deal. Despite the known risks of Foreign Official’s involvement in Buztel, certain VIMPELCOM management obtained FCPA legal opinions from an international law firm supporting the acquisition of Unitel and Buztel; however, certain VIMPELCOM management did not disclose to the law firm Foreign Official’s known association with Buztel. As a result, the legal opinion did not address the critical issue identified by the VIMPELCOM board as a prerequisite to the acquisition. Management limited the law firm’s FCPA review of the transaction to ensure that the legal opinion would be favorable. Having obtained a limited FCPA legal opinion designed to ostensibly satisfy the board’s requirement, certain VIMPELCOM management then proceeded with the Buztel acquisition and corrupt entry into the Uzbek market.”
Fraudulent Stock Transfer
But that was only the start as VimpelCom then entered into a partnership with the foreign official who was given an ownership interest in Unitel, through the shell corporation. The shell company held an option to sell this interest back to VimpelCom in 2009. It would appear that the owner of the shell corporation was well known within both VimpelCom and Unitel but both entities referred to this person as the “partner” or “local partner”. VimpelCom set up partnership where, “Shell Company obtained an indirect interest of approximately 7% in Unitel for $20 million, and Shell Company received an option to sell its shares back to Unitel in 2009 for between $57.5 million and $60 million for a guaranteed net profit of at least $37.5 million.”
VimpelCom’s Board was required to and did approve the partnership but as with the original acquisition, “approval again was conditioned on “FCPA analysis by an international law firm” and required that the “the identity of the Partner . . . [be] presented to and approved by the Finance Committee.” VIMPELCOM received an FCPA opinion on the sale of the indirect interest in Unitel to Shell Company on or about August 30, 2006. The FCPA advice VIMPELCOM received was not based on important details that were known to certain VIMPELCOM management and that certain VIMPELCOM management failed to provide to outside counsel, including Foreign Official’s control of Shell Company. In addition, documents, including minutes from the Finance Committee’s meeting on August 28, 2006, failed to identify the true identity of the local partner by name while noting the “extremely sensitive” nature of the issue.”
Some three years later, the shell company exercised its option to be bought out of the partnership for $57.5MM, after having invested $20MM. This netted a profit of $37.5MM. Unfortunately for all involved, they routed the payments for the transaction through financial institutions in the US, thereby creating FCPA jurisdiction.
Under the facts presented in the settlement documents, VimpelCom would probably have done these transactions regardless of their criminal and civil exposure. The Board was told point blank that VimpelCom would have a very difficult time breaking into the Uzbekistan telecom market without the additional acquisition of Buztel and if did not do so, “would be “in opposition to a very powerful opponent and bring [the] threat of revocation of licenses after the acquisition of Unitel [as a] stand-alone.””
Yet this is where the rubber hits the road. If a company is willing to commit bribery and engage in corruption to secure business no amount of doing compliance is going to help. If senior management is ready, willing and able to lie, cheat and steal from its own Board, there is not much even a best practices compliance program can do.
This is why enforcement plays a key role in the fight against corruption. Even with the recognized risk, specifically under the FCPA, VimpelCom was willing to pay bribes to get business in Uzbekistan. Someone, somewhere at sometime in the company had to stand up and say ‘stop’ we are not going to break the law to do business.
It also points out the interconnected nature of a business solution to the legal problem of bribery and corruption. As reported in the FCPA Blog, “VimpelCom is part of Norway’s Telenor. Norway’s government owns 54 percent of Telenor. Telenor’s chairman Svein Aaser resigned in October 2015 because of the investigation. Norway’s industry minister Monica Maeland complained that Telenor had withheld information about the investigation from her and parliament.”
Telenor has a business responsibility to monitor and keep an eye out on its assets. This is not the situation where you and I might buy stock in a US company. Telenor was the majority shareholder and certainly would have been able to check on its substantial investment. There is a reason that lenders are now requiring their customers to have a best practices compliance program in their loan covenants. It is to protect their investments. The more corporate owners inquire into compliance programs of their entitles, the more compliance we will have going forward.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016