In this episode, Matt Kelly and I take a deep dive into the first Declination issued by the DOJ in the era of the Trump Administration, which was issued by the DOJ on June 16, 2017, when it issued a Declination to Linde North American Inc. and Linde Gas North America LLC (collectively “Linde”). The case presented several interesting factors which merit consideration so we are presenting lessons to be learned for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner.
The Bribery Scheme
Linde acquired Spectra Gases, Inc. (Spectra Gases) in October 2006. In November 2006, it purchased certain assets from the National High Technology Center (NHTC) of the Republic of Georgia. One of the keys to this purchase was a piece of equipment called the ““boron column,” which were used to produce boron gas.” Sales of boron gas after the acquisition helped fund the purchase price and payout to Spectra executives who stayed on after Linde purchased Spectra Gases.
Unfortunately, the three Spectra executives who stayed on were in cahoots with corrupt offices from the NHTC who made the sales agreement with Linde. Part of the Earn-Out by the former Spectra (now Linde) officials was paid to these corrupt government officials, both directly and through certain third parties. But the funding scheme to pay the bribes was quite creative and demonstrates once again to the compliance practitioner the myriad ways in which funds can be generated to pay bribes.
For reasons not made clear, Linde did not purchase the boron column outright but allowed the former Spectra executives and the corrupt NHTC officials to form two new entities to own and operate the boron column, Spectra Investors LLC (Spectra Investors) and Spectra Gases Georgia, which was wholly owned by Spectra Investors. Spectra Investors was owned 51% by the corrupt NHT officials and 49% by the Spectra Gases executives who now worked for Linde. Spectra Gases Georgia was formed as a separate management company, by the NHTC officials, which was claimed to provide services to Spectra Investors for which it would receive recompense. Of course, there was no evidence of services being delivered under this arrangement as it was simply a mechanism to funnel monies to the corrupt officials.
As a result of the ownership structure of Spectra Investors, with 51% being owned by corrupt NHTC officials and the management services contract, the corrupt NHTC officials received “approximately 75% of the profits generated by the boron column” while Spectra Gases received 25% of the profits. Clearly even with bribery and corruption, it was a bad business deal. In January 2010, Linde dissolved Spectra Gases and became its successor-in-interest and at some point later discovered the illegal conduct. Prior to the time of the dissolution, Spectra Gases had “received approximately $6,390,000”. After Linde became the direct owner, it “received approximately $1,430,000 as a result of the corrupt” actions.
While there is a dearth of fact about how the matter came to the attention of Linde and when it disclosed the matter to the DOJ, the decision to decline to prosecute was based on the following factors: (1) Linde’s timely self-disclosure; (2) a “thorough, comprehensive and proactive investigation” [emphasis supplied]; (3) Linde’s full cooperation and meeting the Yates Memo requirement for disclosing all known relevant facts about the “individuals involved in or responsible for the misconduct”; (4) full profit disgorgement; (5) Linde’s enhancement of its compliance program and internal controls; and (6) Linde’s full remediation, including termination or discipline of the three Spectra executives and lower-level employees involved in the misconduct; termination of the fraudulent management contract between the corrupt NHTC officials and Spectra Investors and termination of the Earn-Out payment due to the former Spectra executives who became Linde employees.
This was yet another Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) action where a company performed insufficient due diligence in the acquisition phase. The timing of the Linde purchase of Spectra Gases and Spectra Gases’ purchase of the income producing assets is too close in time to be a coincidence. It would certainly appear that Linde purchased Spectra Gases to facilitate its acquisition of the boron column and other assets. If your company is going to make such a multi-step acquisition, you must perform due diligence on all the actors and the assets involved.
The Byzantine corporate structure created for the ownership of the boron column, its operation and management contract are clear red flags that any CCO should sniff out immediately. While I am sure the internal corporate excuse for this clear ruse was the ubiquitous ‘tax considerations’; every such transaction should be reviewed by compliance as well. Anytime there is more than one entity to accomplish one task, there is the possibility of fraud present. Further, it is not clear how Linde could not have been aware of the ownership interests of a company which it ultimately controlled. It would seem that the company did not even make any inquiry.
Even in 2006, the Republic of Georgia’s reputation for bribery and corruption was quite high. The 2006 Transparency International-Corrupt Perceptions Index (TI-CPI) listed Georgia at 99 out of 176 countries listed so that alone warranted red flag scrutiny. If you are purchasing an entity in a country with such well known affinity for corruption, extra care is warranted. Perhaps back in 2006, Linde did not view the FCPA as something which it would deal with in such a situation.
Yet even with all the apparent miss-steps and non-steps of compliance, the company was able to secure a declination from the DOJ. While there may be some additional penalties or sanctions by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the failures of internal controls, the result obtained by Linde was certainly a superior result. The company would seem to have met the four pillars under the FCPA Pilot Program through (a) self-disclosure, (b) extraordinary cooperation, (3) full remediation, and (d) profit disgorgement. Interestingly, the profit disgorgement in this case would appear to have been beyond the five year of limitations for profit disgorgement under the recent Supreme Court decision in Kokesh. If there is a FCPA enforcement action brought by the SEC perhaps additional facts will be recited in any resolution documents.
Nevertheless, kudos are due to Linde and its counsel for obtaining this declination. Every CCO should study it for both the superior result received and underlying facts to see if you face anything similar in the Republic of Georgia or elsewhere.