What is the cost of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violation? One subset of that question is what is the cost of not cooperating and not remediating during the pendency of such investigations? Those were two of the questions, which seemed to permeate the resolution of the long running FCPA matter involving the LATAM Airlines Group S.A. (LATAM). The settlement documents released included an Information, detailing the criminal charges; a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), and a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Cease and Desist Order (Order) outlining the civil violations. LATAM’s predecessor-in-interest is LAN Airlines S.A. (LAN). Today I want to look at the underlying facts and disposition and tomorrow I will consider some of the lessons learned.
Yet before we get to any of these facts, the question which I was asked the most about this case was who was the foreign official bribed in this matter? I have read the Information outlining the criminal conduct and the criminal charges brought; the DPA, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Press Release and the SEC Order outlining the civil violations involved. The bribe payments were made by a LAN Consultant, who was an Argentine government official, to labor union officials in Argentina to secure labor peace for the airline. This person was only identified as “Consultant” in the Information and was further identified in the Order as “a Cabinet Advisor in the Ministry of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services, Department of Transportation. On January 31, 2005, the Secretary of Transportation appointed the consultant as a Cabinet Advisor “ad-honorem” pursuant to an unpublished Resolution.” This Consultant, a foreign government official under the facts of this case, who made $1.15MM in corrupt payments to Argentinian labor unions.
The bribery scheme was a fairly standard, uninspired scheme in comparison to some of the schemes we have recently seen in FCPA enforcement actions. The pedestrian bribery program was probably due to the fact there was no need to hide it from senior management as it involved, according to the Information, a “LAN Executive” who was a “high-level executive at LAN.” (LAN was the predecessor of LATAM). This LAN Executive “LAN negotiated and executed a fictitious $1.15 million consulting agreement with Consultant, through a company he owned and operated, in order to funnel bribes to labor union officials.”
Of course the agreement was never signed by the corrupt LAN Executive, nor were any of the terms and conditions of the Consultant’s services ever delivered. Indeed, it was this LAN Executive who instructed the company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to make the corrupt payments. In short, the contract was a sham from the start and was simply used to funnel money to the Consultant to pay bribes to labor union officials to keep the peace. Another LAN subsidiary was created to make the corrupt payments and even then, the payments made to the Consultant were to his bank account in the US. The relevant time period of the bribe payments was 2006-2007.
While LAN may not have been a completely corrupt organization, about the best thing one can say about it is that it had no commitment to compliance. They did not have any person tasked with heading the compliance function until at least 2008. It was not until 2013 that LATAM adopted a Code of Conduct, which included anti-corruption provisions. Finally, it was not until 2014 that the company even bothered to implement a new compliance program that included, according to the Order, “an Anti-Corruption Guide, a Gifts, Travel, Hospitality and Entertainment Policy, an Escalation Policy, and Procurement and Payment policies.”
This is one of the rare FCPA enforcement actions where a criminal violation of the Accounting Provisions is found. There were violations of both the Books and Records and Internal Controls Provisions. Regarding the Books and Records Provisions, the Information stated that LATAM did “knowingly and willfully falsified and caused to be falsified its books, records, and accounts and did not, in reasonable detail, accurately and fairly reflect its transactions and dispositions, to wit: the defendant knowingly falsified records relating to the retention and nature of services of, and payments to, Consultant in order to conceal the true purpose of retaining Consultant”.
Regarding the Internal Controls Provisions, the Information stated, “During the relevant period, LAN knowingly and willfully failed to implement a sufficient system of internal accounting controls. In particular and as relevant here, LAN had deficient internal accounting controls that did not require, among other things, (a) due diligence for the retention of third party consultants; (b) a fully executed contract with a third party before payment could be made to it; (c) invoices issued to the LAN entity that in fact engaged the third party; (d) documentation or other proof that services had been rendered by a third party before payment could be made to it; (e) that payment to third parties retained by LAN or LAN entities be made to bank accounts held in the names of those third parties; or (f) oversight of the payment process to ensure that payments were made pursuant to appropriate controls, including those described above.”
In addition to the conduct detailed above, LAN did not self-disclose the FCPA violations to the DOJ and did not cooperate with the DOJ and SEC until some point later in the investigation. LATAM paid a stiff amount for its recalcitrance. As was stated in the DOJ Press Release, “LATAM agreed to pay a $12.75 million criminal penalty, continue to cooperate with the department’s investigation, enhance its compliance program and retain an independent corporate compliance monitor for a term of at least 27 months.” The company also paid a hefty SEC penalty, “it agreed to pay $6.74 million in disgorgement and $2.7 million in prejudgment interest.” The total amount was $22.2MM in fines and penalties.
Finally, as was stated in several places in the resolution documents and citing to the DOJ Press Release, “LATAM failed to discipline in any way the employees responsible for the criminal conduct, including at least one high-level company executive, and thus the ability of the compliance program to be effective in practice is compromised.” All of this means the individual referred to as “LAN Executive” is still in the company and most probably still an executive.
This enforcement action also saw the re-emergence of the requirement for a Corporate Monitor. The period of the monitorship was listed at 27 months and is charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the company’s new compliance program and compliance with the FCPA. The Monitor is also mandated to assess the Board of Directors’ and senior management’s commitment to the corporate compliance program.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016