I conclude my week of exploration of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple short stories and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by reviewing some of the new things I’ve learnt during this week of research. I learned that Christie made several social observations and revealed much about herself through these stories. She is very much constrained by the roles given to women in the early to mid-1920s, including the lack of a proper education. She also writes about some of the disdainful attitudes of people to an older woman. I found a number of inside jokes that Christie placed into the stories, even referring to the prevalence of detective fiction in print and on the stage at the time the stories were written. Finally is the fact that people make the mistake of not noticing her but that she is watching them and listening and that they will remain unaware of her presence for not too much longer.
In his recent blog post, entitled “Are You An FCPA Contender Or Pretender?”, the FCPA Professor suggested that if you want to practice in the area of FCPA compliance, you really should take the time to read some of the very few underlying sources and documents relating to the subject. After my week exploration of the SEC enforcement of the FCPA, I would note that you can learn quite a bit by heeding his advice.
There was a trend, beginning in the fall of 2014 of SEC FCPA enforcement actions, where the Department of Justice (DOJ) either declined to prosecute the company or settled with the company via a Non-Prosecution Agreement (NPA). This led me to conclude that the SEC was ramping up its review and enforcement of the accounting provisions under the FCPA separate and apart from criminal side enforcement of the FCPA by the DOJ. Earlier this month, when Andrew Ceresney, the SEC Director, Division of Enforcement, spoke at CBI’s Pharmaceutical Compliance Congress in Washington DC he discussed the importance of internal controls in SEC enforcement. While his remarks were primarily directed “in the context of financial reporting” I believe they could be equally applicable in the FCPA compliance context.
Ceresney said, “What kinds of practice pointers for how to avoid these issues? Well, in cases we have brought, we see controls that were not carefully designed to match the business, or that were not updated as the business changed and grew. And we see that senior leadership was not asking the tough questions – and sometimes not even asking the easy questions. Senior management in some cases was just not engaged in any real discussion about the controls. As a result, employees did not properly focus on them and the firm and its shareholders are put at risk.” I think these statements, particularly taken in the context of his overall remarks, portend a greater focus on internal controls review and enforcement in the FCPA context.
Finally, in the area of internal controls, is the interplay of Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) with FCPA enforcement and several sections of the Act that have FCPA implications. These include SOX §302 that requires the principle officers of a company to “take responsibility for and certify the integrity of these company’s financial reports on a quarterly basis.” Under SOX §404 companies must present annually their conclusion “regarding the effectiveness of the company’s internal controls over accounting.” Finally, SOX §802 prohibits “altering, destroying, mutilating, concealing or falsifying records, documents or tangible objects” with the intent to obstruct or influence a federal investigation, such as the FCPA.
Every public company is required to report on its internal controls. The SEC may well start mining those required, annual public disclosures for information on compliance internal controls. If the SEC finds a company’s report lacking and then after requesting further information, still finds a company’s response lacking, a company may be looking at strict liability and a financial penalty based on profit disgorgement as I lay out next.
I have written about the coming of strict liability to the SEC enforcement of the FCPA’s accounting provisions, including books and records and internal controls. However, after having read, re-read and reviewed the FCPA and commentary, I now believe that a strict liability interpretation for enforcement of the FPCA is fully supported by the plain language of the Act itself. I come to this conclusion because there is no language in the text of the Act that ties the accounting provision requirements to any other operative violation of the statute. In other words, there is no language that says that an accounting provisions violation must be tied to an offer or payment of a bribe to obtain or retain business. While the FCPA does not specifically say that a company will be strictly liable for a violation of the accounting provisions, it is certainly not prohibited. Since violations of the accounting provisions as enforced by the SEC are civil violations only, I now believe that such a position is not prohibited by the Act.
Similar to my views on strict liability for accounting violations, I have also come to believe that profit disgorgement is a remedy fully supported and available to the SEC in FCPA enforcement actions. This change was made by an un-related law, entitled The Penny Stock Reform Act of 1990, which amended the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to: allow the SEC to (1) impose tiered civil money penalties pursuant to administrative findings of violations of the Act; (2) enter an order requiring an accounting and disgorgement; (3) issue cease and desist orders; and (4) issue temporary restraining orders. Profit disgorgement has generally been considered an equitable remedy. Sasah Kalb and Marc Alain Bohn, in their article “Disgorgement: The Devil You Don’t Know”, wrote “As an equitable remedy, disgorgement is not intended as tool to punish, but as a vehicle for preventing unjust enrichment. The SEC is therefore only permitted to recover the approximate amount earned from the alleged illicit activities. Disgorging anything more would be considered punitive.”
In conjunction with this equitable nature for profit disgorgement, is the concept of proportionality. In the article by David C. Weiss, entitled “The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, SEC Disgorgement of Profits and the Evolving International Bribery Regime: Weighing Proportionality, Retribution and Deterrence”, he wrote that regarding proportionality “punishment schemes fail a utilitarian test when the punishment exceeds, or threatens to exceed, the offense. Put another way, deterrence requires that a punishment be proportionate to the harm—allowing for some multiplier based on the likelihood of being caught. Punishments that are not proportionate are not justified under this utilitarian theory.”
Profit Disgorgement as a Remedy for Strict Liability
In this final section, I give my opinion as to where I think the next step of SEC enforcement may be headed. I think it will be a combination of the enforcement of the accounting provisions of the FCPA through a strict liability reading of them by the SEC to the remedy of profit disgorgement. Admittedly this opinion seems contrary to the equitable nature of the remedy of profit disgorgement. However the greater focus of SEC scrutiny and enforcement of the accounting provisions point me in that direction. While it is also true that profit disgorgement has traditionally required some specific ill-gotten gains; with the statutory authority provided by the Penny Stock Act to the SEC allows for disgorgement with no language around its equitable beginning, this may be enough for the SEC to make such an intellectual leap. Further, as noted by Kalb and Bohn, “Because calculations like these often prove difficult, courts tend to give the SEC considerable discretion in determining what constitutes an ill-gotten gain by requiring only a reasonable approximation of the profits which are causally connected to the violation.”
The final component is the lack of judicial review in FCPA enforcement actions. Every practitioner is aware of the absolute dearth of cases in this area. With the SEC moving towards more administrative actions, through the 2010 Dodd-Frank amendment that enables the SEC to collect civil penalties through administrative proceedings, there may not be many federal district court reviews going forward. Of course to have a federal district court review of a remedy, it generally takes the defendant to make some objection and companies seemingly do not wish to take on the SEC in any FCPA enforcement matter (or the DOJ for that matter). But even if there was a federal district review of a Cease and Desist Order filed before it, you almost never hear the court reject an agreed Order on the grounds that the remedy was too harsh or unwarranted.
I hope you have enjoyed and learned something this week unique to the SEC enforcement of the FCPA. I know I have both enjoyed reading many of the excellent commentators I have reviewed during my research. David Weiss, Marc Alain Bohn, Sasha Kalb, Russ Ryan and the FCPA Professor have all contributed significant legal work and thought leadership in this area that I have built some of my theories on so I thank them for their contributions. Another joy was reading Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple short stories. If you have a few evenings or some down time for spring break or summer vacation, I suggest you pick up the volume. It is just like visiting with an old friend on a dark and stormy night…
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015