One of my favorite words in the context of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement is dis-link. It a useful adjective in explaining how certain conduct by a company must be separated from the winning of business and more broadly it works on many different levels when discussing the FCPA. This concept of dis-linking was most prominently laid out in Opinion Release 14-02 (14-02). It provided one of the most concrete statements from the DOJ on the unidimensional nature of compliance in the mergers and acquisition context; both in the pre-acquisition and post-acquisition phases.
In this Opinion Release the Requestor was a multinational company headquartered in the United States. The Requestor desired to acquire a foreign consumer products company and its wholly owned subsidiary (collectively, the “Target”), both of which were incorporated and operated in an un-named foreign country. It never issued securities in the United States and had negligible business contacts in the US, including no direct sale or distribution of their products. During its pre-acquisition, due diligence of the Target, Requestor identified several likely improper payments by the Target to government officials of Foreign Country, as well as substantial weaknesses in accounting and recordkeeping. Considering the bribery and other concerns identified in the due diligence process, Requestor also detailed a plan for remedial pre-acquisition measures and post-acquisition integration steps. Requestor sought from the DOJ an Opinion as to whether the Department would then bring an FCPA enforcement action against Requestor for the Target’s pre-acquisition conduct. It was specifically noted that the Requestor did not seek an Opinion from the Department as to Requestor’s criminal liability for any post-acquisition conduct by the Target.
Pre-Acquisition Due Diligence
In preparing for the acquisition, Requestor undertook extensive due diligence aimed at identifying, among other things, potential legal and compliance concerns at the Target. Requestor retained an experienced forensic accounting firm (“the Accounting Firm”) to carry out the due diligence review. This review brought to light evidence of apparent improper payments, as well as substantial accounting weaknesses and poor recordkeeping. The Accounting Firm reviewed approximately 1,300 transactions with a total value of approximately $12.9 million with over $100,000 in transactions that raised compliance issues. The clear majority of these transactions involved payments to government officials related to obtaining permits and licenses. Other transactions involved gifts and cash donations to government officials, charitable contributions and sponsorships, and payments to members of the state-controlled media to minimize negative publicity. None of the payments, gifts, donations, contributions, or sponsorships occurred in the US, none were made by or through a US entity and none went through a US bank.
The due diligence showed that the Target had significant recordkeeping deficiencies. Further, the records which did exist did not support the clear majority of the cash payments and gifts to government officials and the charitable contributions. There were expenses that were improperly and inaccurately classified. The accounting records were so disorganized that the Accounting Firm was unable to physically locate or identify many of the underlying records for the transactions. Finally, the Target had not developed or implemented a written code of conduct or other compliance policies and procedures, nor did the Target’s employees show an adequate understanding or awareness of anti-bribery laws and regulations.
The Requestor presented several pre-closing steps to begin to remediate the Target’s weaknesses prior to the planned closing in 2015. Requestor aimed to complete the full integration of the Target into Requestor’s compliance and reporting structure within one year of the closing. Requestor presented an integration schedule of the Target into the acquirer which included various risk mitigation steps, communications and training on compliance procedures and policies, standardization of business relationships with third parties, and formalization of the Target’s accounting and recordkeeping in accordance with Requestor’s policies and applicable law.
The DOJ noted black-letter letter when it stated, ““It is a basic principle of corporate law that a company assumes certain liabilities when merging with or acquiring another company. In a situation such as this, where a purchaser acquires the stock of a seller and integrates the target into its operations, successor liability may be conferred upon the purchaser for the acquired entity’s pre-existing criminal and civil liabilities, including, for example, for FCPA violations of the target. However, this is tempered by the following from the 2012 FCPA Guidance, “Successor liability does not, however, create liability where none existed before. For example, if an issuer were to acquire a foreign company that was not previously subject to the FCPA’s jurisdiction, the mere acquisition of that foreign company would not retroactively create FCPA liability for the acquiring issuer.””
As none of the payments were made in the US, none went through the US banking system and none involved a US person or entity that this would not lead to a creation of liability for the acquiring company. Moreover, there would be no continuing or ongoing illegal conduct going forward because “no contracts or other assets were determined to have been acquired through bribery that would remain in operation and from which Requestor would derive financial benefit following the acquisition.” Therefore, there would be no jurisdiction under the FCPA to prosecute any person or entity involved after the acquisition.
The DOJ also provided this additional information, “the Department encourages companies engaging in mergers and acquisitions to (1) conduct thorough risk-based FCPA and anti-corruption due diligence; (2) implement the acquiring company’s code of conduct and anti-corruption policies as quickly as practicable; (3) conduct FCPA and other relevant training for the acquired entity’s directors and employees, as well as third-party agents and partners; (4) conduct an FCPA-specific audit of the acquired entity as quickly as practicable; and (5) disclose to the Department any corrupt payments discovered during the due diligence process. See FCPA Guide at 29. Adherence to these elements by Requestor may, among several other factors, determine whether and how the Department would seek to impose post-acquisition successor liability in case of a putative violation.”
The DOJ communicated several important messages through 14-02. First it demolished the myths of springing liability to an acquiring company in the FCPA context and buying a FCPA violation, simply through an acquisition; there must be continuing illegal conduct for FCPA liability to arise. Most clearly beginning with the 2012 FCPA Guidance, the DOJ and SEC have communicated what companies need to do in any M&A environment. While many compliance practitioners had only focused on the post-acquisition integration and remediation; the clear import of 14-02 is to re-emphasize the importance of the pre-acquisition phase.
Due diligence must begin in the pre-acquisition phase. The steps taken by the Requestor in this Opinion Release demonstrate some of the techniques you can use in the pre-acquisition phase include (1) having your internal or external legal, accounting, and compliance departments review a target’s sales and financial data, its customer contracts, and its third-party and distributor agreements; (2) performing a risk-based analysis of a target’s customer base; (3) performing an audit of selected transactions engaged in by the target; and (4) engaging in discussions with the target’s general counsel, vice president of sales, and head of internal audit regarding all corruption risks, compliance efforts, and any other major corruption-related issues that have surfaced at the target over the past ten years.
Whether you can make these inquiries or not, you will also need to engage in post-acquisition integration and remediation. 14-02, taken together with the steps laid out in the 2012 Guidance, has provided the post-acquisition actions a compliance professions needs to take after the transaction is closed. If you cannot perform any or even an adequate pre-acquisition due diligence, the time frames you put in place after the acquisition closes will need to be compressed to make sure that you are not continuing any nefarious FCPA conduct going forward.
But it all goes back to dis-linking. If a target is engaging in conduct that violates the FCPA but the target itself is not subject to the jurisdiction of the FCPA, you simply cannot afford to allow that conduct to continue. If you do allow such conduct to continue your company will be actively engaging and participating in an ongoing FCPA violation. That is the final takeaway from this Opinion Release; it is allowing corruption and bribery to continue which brings companies into FCPA grief. Opinion Release 14-02 provided you a roadmap of the steps you can take to prevent such exposure.
Three Key Takeaways
- In the M&A context, the key is to dis-link any illegal conduct going forward.
- Opinion Release 14-02 provides the clearest roadmap for pre-and post-acquisition compliance actions in the M&A context.
- Never forget the Opinion Release procedure. It has been used successfully in two important M&A matters (08-02 and 14-02).
Dis-linking any illegal conduct going forward is a key to obtain a FCPA safe harbor in the M&A context.Click to tweet
This month’s podcast series is sponsored by Michael Volkov and The Volkov Law Group. The Volkov Law Group is a premier law firm specializing in corporate ethics and compliance, internal investigations and white collar defense. For more information and to discuss practical solutions to compliance and enforcement issues, email Michael Volkov at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.volkovlaw.com.