I continue my review of the Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI) Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement action today by focusing on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Declination to Prosecute. Yesterday, I considered the underlying facts reported to review what lessons could be applied by a compliance practitioner to a corporate anti-corruption compliance program. Today, I want to consider the information available on the actions by JCI, beginning with the self-disclosure, which led to the DOJ to grant a Declination.
The commentary on the DOJ Declination has ranged from the FCPA Professor, who argued there was no viable cause of action against JCI for the illegal conduct of its subsidiary, China Marine, and hence the Declination was without substance; to Mike Volkov who called the declination a ‘head scratcher’ and noted “there appears to be plenty of justification to stretch here in this case when you basically have a recidivist continuing to violate the law”, in arguing there were potential criminal charges to pursue. I want to consider the matter from the angle of the new DOJ Pilot Program and see what, if anything, might be gleaned from that perspective.
One of the difficulties in evaluating any Declination is the paucity of facts available to the compliance practitioner to evaluate. In the JCI case we have the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) resolution via a Cease and Desist Order (Order) that lays out the facts relevant to that enforcement action. However, this Order is the product of negotiations between the SEC and JCI. This means the company can seek to keep out facts, which would point to criminal liability, reputational damage, embarrassing senior executives or a plethora of other issues the company does not want in the public domain. There is no way to know if the facts laid out in the Order are all the facts in the case that were known to the DOJ or even disclosed to the DOJ so to base an argument on this underlying premise puts you on wobbly ground. The foregoing is one of the reasons I have argued for my information to be made public around Declinations so that compliance practitioners might understand the full underlying facts.
Yet, even if one took the facts presented in the Order as only facts of this matter, there is information that could lead one to reasonably conclude that criminal charges could be considered under the FCPA. The Accounting Provisions, both Books and Records and Internal Controls, are generally thought to be civil side requirements only. However the statute does make violations of the Accounting Provisions under the following:
(4) No criminal liability shall be imposed for failing to comply with the requirements of paragraph (2) of this subsection except as provided in paragraph (5) of this subsection.
(5) No person shall knowingly circumvent or knowingly fail to implement a system of internal accounting controls or knowingly falsify any book, record, or account described in paragraph (2).
Paragraph 2 refers to the Internal Controls requirements of the FCPA. This means someone must knowingly falsify such records or fail to implement a system of internal controls. The facts laid out in the Order would appear to provide at least an argument that this threshold was met. JCI’s internal controls were so poor that the company “did not understand some of the highly customized transactions at China Marine or the projects involving the sham vendors.” Additionally someone at the corporate office had to certify the financial statements were true and correct and who ever did could also have violated the FCPA. Volkov noted the DOJ could “stretch” to bring criminal charges but either through the argument of conscious avoidance or simply on the facts laid out in the Order, I find an argument for criminal liability plausible. Of course, these arguments do not convict JCI of criminal violation of the FCPA, only a trier of fact can do so, yet they make clear that there are credible arguments which could be pursued which makes a Declination an appropriate mechanism for the DOJ to use, in its discretion.
What led the DOJ to exercise its discretion in issuing the Declination? We can find some guidance from the four requirements under the Pilot Program. First, that there be self-disclosure, which was present in this matter. The Order stated that the company self-disclosed within one month after receiving a second anonymous whistleblower compliance. Second is cooperation during the investigation. The Order stated JCI provided “thorough, complete and timely cooperation” which consisted of the following:
- JCI promptly and routinely provided the staff with the results of its investigation as it progressed, and provided all supporting documentation requested.
- JCI provided factual chronologies, hot document binders, and interview summaries, as well as English translations of numerous documents and emails.
- JCI made employees available for interviews.
- JCI provided “real time” downloads of employee interviews and made other foreign employees available for interview.
- When the company caught a Chinese employee shredding documents, it quickly secured the office to preserve evidence.
- JCI’s cooperation assisted the staff’s investigation.
- JCI’s timely self-report as well as the thorough productions allowed the staff to initiate and complete its investigation quickly.
The next requirement under the Pilot Program is for extensive remediation during the pendency of the investigation. Here the Order laid out some of the steps taken by JCI, including:
- JCI terminated or separated sixteen employees implicated in or associated with the illegal scheme and placed all suspect vendors on a do-not-use/do-not-pay list.
- JCI has closed down its China Marine offices and moved all remaining China Marine employees, none of whom perform a sales or procurement function, into existing offices.
- JCI enhanced its integrity testing and internal audits to reevaluate vendor onboarding for all JCI business worldwide.
- JCI implemented random site audits to ensure the delivery of goods on purchase orders.
The final requirement under the Pilot Program is that the company disgorges profits it received from its ill-gotten gain. The Order said, “From 2007 to 2013, JCI obtained a benefit of $11.8 million as a result of over $4.9 million in improper payments made to or through approximately eleven problematic vendors for the purpose of foreign and commercial bribery, and embezzlement.” This corresponds to the amount paid as disgorgement.
For any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner reviewing the JCI enforcement action, it does not matter whether you believe JCI committed criminal acts or not. The reality is that the DOJ is once again laying out conduct it will consider to award the lowest sanction possible, a Declination. There have now been three given since the announcement of the Pilot Program in April. You should study each of these and if you find yourself in a FCPA investigation, use each Declination as a roadmap for your actions during the pendency of the investigation.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2016