Today, I want to consider some of the challenges you may well face during an investigation. I am once again joined by noted investigation maven, Jonathan Marks, a partner at Marcum LLP. Beyond the basics, a company must consider the intake process as a starting point, Jonathan Marks noted one of the biggest challenges is in the intake process. Rather surprisingly, he noted there are still companies without a hotline or anonymous reporting system, stating “we still see organizations whereby there is no formal ethics hotline except for the fact that they might send an email to some member of management or some member of the board.”
The lack of an intake process immediately presents a challenge in beginning to work through an allegation of wrongdoing due to the inability to track when the allegation or information was received, who sent it, who received it, what did the company do when they received it? If a company has a formal ethics reporting system, with recordation of information “there’s some workflow, it’s a lot easier to kind of work through some of those things”, so there is an appropriate level of documentation to follow.
Yet Marks has seen failures in even these basic steps “many times people do not read their emails on a timely basis, and getting to the root of the issue quickly could be the difference between somebody allowing the company to investigate this the right way, or incentivizing an individual to go outside the organization such as to SEC whistleblower program.” This makes the intake process critical because it assures that things are not only received, “but they’re looked at on a regular and timely basis and there is a process.”
One area that still causes challenges is retaliation against whistleblowers. You might think that corporate America got the message that not only is retaliation incredibly idiotic and divisive but also illegal under both Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and Dodd-Frank but sadly that is not the case. Marks believes that avoiding retaliation is critical not only for an organization but also to foment a successful investigation. He stated, “Avoiding retaliation is very critical. I think there’s a real opportunity where human resources, if properly trained, can work with the rest of the team members and advise them on things that they should not be doing and things that they should be doing in order to avoid either the appearance of retaliation or the actual retaliation against the individual or individuals who reported or brought forth the potential of the alleged misconduct.”
Equally important is that a company wants to encourage a stand-up culture. When individuals are trying to do the right thing, you certainly want to inspire other to do so as well. Marks related, “When somebody reports an ethical lapse, it generally means to me that they’re doing their job. And so, the indirect impact, or sometimes the direct impact of that is sometimes people are looked at as snitches or not towing the company line or they’re just generally out of bounds can negatively impact the organization.”
An area where Marks has seen companies have difficulties in is what he termed threatened or pending litigation. Any investigation can morph into a much more serious situation and you must be ready to answer such questions as “(1) Does this gravitate itself into a class action lawsuit? Or (2) Does this gravitate to a regulatory review and subject to some punishment there?” The key is that as the investigation begins to uncover things and certain facts come to light, pending or threatened litigation is something that should always be discussed, but discussed very carefully and it should be discussed once those facts come to play. Sometimes you don’t have all those facts but sometimes it does make sense to kind of prognosticate and consider situations such as “This is what could happen. These are the issues that potentially could be uncovered.” Marks concluded, “I really do think that it’s important to think a couple of steps ahead and look at this as a chess match and never underestimate the fact that there could be pending or threatened litigation.”
Not surprisingly, another area of challenge is when the regulators will not accept the investigation or are not satisfied with the results. While I would submit that if you follow the strictures laid out by Marks, that will satisfy regulators, he noted that there must be an appropriate level of skepticism brought by the investigation. He said there can be regulator issues when “there was not proper skepticism, there was not proper independence or simply things were not looked at under the right lens.” But once again the answer is to go through the steps that Marks laid out, or any other well defined protocol and have an independent team handling the investigation.
Interestingly,a similar situation can arise if a company’s own auditors refuse to accept the results of an investigation. Marks said this is usually related to some type of unexpected development arises in an investigation. Marks noted, “when auditors are involved the element of surprise is never good.” He believes it is important to keep internal audit aware of developments as “they might want to do a shadow investigation, they might want to understand the scope of your expanded investigation and most certainly they want to understand the financial impact.” The reason is that if the company auditors do not accept your investigative results, “they may send you back to the drawing board. When that happens, all types of problems could manifest themselves or come out.”
Marks noted that at times the most difficult challenge is when the company itself is reluctant to accept the results of the investigation. This comes when a company is in denial, believing it has a robust compliance program and internal controls or, worse yet, it simply believes that it is an ethical company. One or more of these indicia usually manifest themselves as a company with paper compliance program, a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) with a title but no authority and a weak compliance culture. Marks said, “When I say the company does not respect the investigation, it’s almost like they’re fighting with you because they believe that nothing could ever go wrong. That really does send a very, very clear message, not only internally, but should it get out externally as well. It’s an indication to us that there’s a problem with the culture, there’s a problem with the compliance program, there’s generally a problem with governance overall. There are probably bigger issues there other than the matter that’s generally on the table.”
Planning your investigation, having the right team members involved and meeting the challenges which inevitably arise during an investigation can be difficult. However, beginning with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Yates Memo and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) Pilot Program and the release of the DOJ’s Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs (Evaluation), the pressure on every CCO and company to get an investigation done quickly, efficiently and, most importantly, done right is even greater now. Jonathan Marks has laid out a concrete way for you to think through how to plan an investigation, staff it properly and meet the inevitable challenges.
Three Key Takeaway
- The intake process may seem the most straight-forward but many companies drop the ball at this initial step.
- You must never retaliate against employees who come foreward in good faith.
- Always think several steps ahead.