James Doty, Acting Commissioner of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) was once asked if the Board or its sub-committee which handles audits was a part of a company’s internal financial controls. He answered that yes, he believed that was one of the roles of an Audit Committee or full Board. I had never thought of the Board as an internal control but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was an important insight for any Chief Compliance Officer or compliance practitioner as it also applies as a compliance internal control.
In the FCPA Guidance, in the Ten Hallmarks of an Effective Compliance Program, there are two specific references to the obligations of a Board. The first in Hallmark No. 1 , which states, “Within a business organization, compliance begins with the board of directors and senior executives setting the proper tone for the rest of the company.” The second is found under Hallmark No. 3, entitled “Oversight, Autonomy and Resources”, where it discusses that the CCO should have “direct access to an organization’s governing authority, such as the board of directors and committees of the board of directors (e.g., the audit committee).” Further, under the US Sentencing Guidelines, the Board must exercise reasonable oversight on the effectiveness of a company’s compliance program. The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Prosecution Standards posed the following queries: (1) Do the Directors exercise independent review of a company’s compliance program? and (2) Are Directors provided information sufficient to enable the exercise of independent judgment? Doty’s remarks drove home to me the absolute requirement for Board participation in any best practices or even effective anti-corruption compliance program.
Board liability for its failure to perform its assigned function in any compliance program is well known. David Stuart, an attorney with Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, noted that FCPA compliance issues can lead to personal liability for directors, as both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and DOJ have been “very vocal about their interest in identifying the highest-level individuals within the organization who are responsible for the tone, culture, or weak internal controls that may contribute to, or at least fail to prevent, bribery and corruption”. He added that based upon the SEC’s enforcement action against two senior executives at Nature’s Sunshine Products, “Under certain circumstances, I could see the SEC invoking the same provisions against audit committee members—for instance, for failing to oversee implementation of a compliance program to mitigate risk of bribery”. It would not be too far a next step for the SEC to invoke the same provisions against audit committee members who do not actively exercise oversight of an ongoing compliance program.
Further, the SEC has made clear that it believes a Board should take a more active role in overseeing the management of risk within a company. The SEC has promulgated Regulation SK 407 under which each company must make a disclosure regarding the Board’s role in risk oversight which “may enable investors to better evaluate whether the board is exercising appropriate oversight of risk.” If this disclosure is not made, it could be a securities law violation and subject the company, which fails to make it, to fines, penalties or profit disgorgement.
I believe that a Board must not only have a corporate compliance program in place but actively oversee that function. Further, if a company’s business plan includes a high-risk proposition, there should be additional oversight. In other words, there is an affirmative duty to ask the tough questions. But it is more than simply having a compliance program in place. The Board must exercise appropriate oversight of the compliance program and indeed the compliance function. The Board needs to ask the hard questions and be fully informed of the company’s overall compliance strategy going forward.
A Board’s oversight is part of effective compliance controls, then the failure to do so may result in something far worse than bad governance. Such inattention could directly lead to a FCPA violation and could even form the basis of an independent SOX violation as to the Board.
Three Key Takeaways
- A Board must engage in active oversight.
- A Board should review the design of internal controls on a regular basis.
- Failure to do so could form the basis for an independent legal violation under SOX.