On February 14, the SEC announced a settlement with a real estate investment manager based in Arizona over allegations that he defrauded investors. According to the complaint, the investment manager allegedly told investors he would make personal investments in real estate projects which he failed to do, instructed some investors to “falsely state that they were ‘accredited investors’” to avoid registration requirements for the offerings, and falsely represented that he would personally manage the projects when, instead, he entrusted management to a real estate broker who was later imprisoned for other crimes. The settlement requires the investment manager to disgorge $51,358 plus interest of $4,893.98 and pay a penalty of $450,000.
The DOJ’s Fraud Section recently published an “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs.” The guidelines were released on February 8 without a formal announcement. Their stated purpose is to provide a list of “some important topics and sample questions that the Fraud Section has frequently found relevant in evaluating a corporate compliance program.” The guidelines are divided into 11 broad topics that include dozens of questions. The topics are:
- Analysis and Remediation of Underlying Conduct
- Senior and Middle Management
- Autonomy and Resources
- Policies and Procedures
- Risk Assessment
- Training and Communications
- Confidential Reporting and Investigation
- Incentives and Disciplinary Measures
- Continuous Improvement, Periodic Testing and Review
- Third Party Management
- Mergers & Acquisitions
According to the Fraud Section, many of the topics also appear in, among other sources, the United States Attorney’s Manual, United States Sentencing Guidelines, and FCPA Resource Guide published in November 2012 by the DOJ and SEC. While the content of the guidelines is not particularly groundbreaking, it is nonetheless noteworthy as the first formal guidance issued by the Fraud Section under the Trump administration and new Attorney General Jeff Sessions. By consolidating in one source and making transparent at least some of the factors that the Fraud Section considers when weighing the adequacy of a compliance program, the guidelines are a useful tool for companies and their compliance officers to understand how the Fraud Section and others at the DOJ may proceed in the coming months and years.
However, while the guidelines may give some indication of what the DOJ views as a best practices compliance program, they caution that the Fraud Section “does not use any rigid formula to assess the effectiveness of corporate compliance programs,” recognizes that “each company’s risk profile and solutions to reduce its risks warrant particularized evaluation,” and makes “an individualized determination in each case.”
On February 8th, a former executive of a Hungarian telecommunications company settled a 2011 civil complaint filed by the SEC. The trial of the remaining co-defendants is scheduled for May 8. As part of the settlement, the former executive agreed to pay a $60,000 civil penalty and did not admit or deny the SEC’s allegations. The former executive also admitted that U.S. courts had jurisdiction over the case. The issue of jurisdiction had been contested; in 2013, the court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.
The SEC’s complaint alleged that the former executive, along with two other co-defendants, authorized bribes to Macedonian government officials and others. In 2014, the SEC dropped allegations regarding payments to government officials in Montenegro, substantially narrowing the allegations in the case. The company and its parent settled allegations regarding payments to government officials in Macedonia and Montenegro with the SEC and DOJ in 2011. Prior Scorecard coverage of the company’s investigation can be found here.
This outcome of this lengthy case illustrates that individual defendants can still achieve relatively favorable outcomes when they choose to litigate FCPA cases, even after the corporate defendants have reached a resolution.
Houston-based oil company announced in a February 9, 2017 press release that the DOJ had formally closed its FCPA investigation into the company’s oil exploration operations in Angola and would not prosecute the company. The press release noted that the DOJ’s investigation “was the last remaining FCPA investigation by any U.S. regulatory agency into [the company’s Angolan operations.” The DOJ’s declination letter came more than two years after the SEC closed its own FCPA investigation and declined to bring an enforcement action.
As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, the parallel investigations began in 2011, and were prompted by allegations concerning the connection between senior Angolan government officials and a local partner in the company-led deepwater oil venture. According to the company’s 10-K filing for FY 2012, the company had voluntarily contacted the DOJ when the SEC launched its initial inquiry and “offered to respond to any requests the DOJ may have.”
On February 6, 2017, a federal jury in San Francisco awarded the former general counsel of a life sciences company $10.9 million in a landmark FCPA whistleblower-retaliation case brought under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), the Dodd-Frank Act, and California state law. After three hours of deliberation, the jury found that the company’s former general counsel of nearly 25 years, was fired for reporting suspected FCPA violations to the company’s audit committee in February 2013, a protected activity under SOX’s anti-retaliation provisions. Although the former general counsel did not report his concerns to the SEC, the court held in 2015 that internal whistleblowing under SOX was also protected by the Dodd-Frank Act’s anti-retaliation provisions, opening the door to Dodd-Frank’s double back-pay remedy. The company’s last-minute motion to block purported attorney-client privileged information from trial –“virtually all of the evidence and testimony Plaintiff might rely upon to prove his case” – was denied by the court in December 2016.
The jury ultimately awarded the former general counsel $2.96 million in back-pay – to be doubled under Dodd-Frank – plus $5 million in punitive damages. As detailed in a previous FCPA Scorecard post, the company paid $55 million in November 2014 to settle DOJ and SEC allegations that the company violated the FCPA in Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The former general counsel’s report to the audit committee had involved separate allegations that the company violated the FCPA in China.