Distributors under the FCPA

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If there was ever a question that distributors were covered under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), in 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) made it emphatically clear that this class of entities in a company’s sales chain would be treated that same as any other sales agent, reseller or any other entity which sells a US company’s products outside the United States. While the terms agent, reseller and distributor have distinct definitions in the legal world, they no longer do for FCPA purposes.

The three enforcement actions which made clear that there were no distinctions between agents and distributors in 2012 were the Smith & Nephew, Inc., (S&N) Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) for criminal FCPA violations, the Oracle SEC Complaint for books and records violations and the Eli Lilly and Company (Lilly) SEC Compliant for books and records violations. Each of these enforcement actions had different FCPA violations and they each revealed separate steps which a company should take to both prevent and detect FCPA violations in their company.

Smith & Nephew

On February 1, 2012, the DOJ announced that it entered into a DPA with Smith & Nephew, Inc., a medical equipment manufacturer, for violations of the FCPA. The violations revolved around Greek distributors of S&N who paid bribes to Greek doctors so that they would purchase and use S&N products. According to the Criminal Information, “S&N, certain of its executives, employees, and affiliates agreed to sell to [the] Greek Distributor at full list price, then pay the amount of the distributor discount – between 25 and 40 percent of the sales made by [the] Greek Distributor – to an off-shore shell company controlled by [the] Greek Distributor, in order to provide off-the-books funds for [the] Greek Distributor to pay cash incentives and other things of value to publicly-employed Greek HCPs to induce the purchase of S&N products, while concealing the payments.” Additionally, S&N “falsely recorded or otherwise accounted for the payments to the shell companies on its books and records as ‘marketing services’ in order to conceal the true nature of the payments in the consolidated books and records of S&N and GmbH.”

Oracle

Oracle got into FCPA hot water because its Indian subsidiary directed its distributor to set up a separate slush fund of monies which could be, and were, used to pay monies to persons unknown. As specified in the SEC Compliant, “certain Oracle India employees created extra margins between the end user and distributor price and directed the distributors to hold the extra margin in side funds. Oracle India’s employees made these margins large enough to ensure a side fund existed to pay third parties. “At the direction of the Oracle India employees, the distributor then made payments out of the side funds to third parties, purportedly for marketing and development expenses.” The SEC Compliant noted that “about $2.2 million in funds were improperly “parked” with the Company’s distributors.” To compound this problem, employees of Oracle India concealed the existence of this side fund from Oracle in the US and hence there was an incorrect accounting in Oracle’s books and records.

Lilly

In Brazil, Lilly used the distributor model to market its drugs through third-party distributors who then resold these products to public and private entities. As noted by Matt Ellis, in his post entitled “Eli Lilly’s Distributor in Brazil: The Non-Obvious FCPA Risk”, the discounts that distributors typically receive from manufacturers such as Lilly can be problematic under the FCPA because “enforcement officials can see these discounts as potential “loose money” that can be used for bribe payments. This is especially the case when the distributor is engaging in other activities on behalf of the producer, like marketing, licensing, and customs clearance.”

This was the situation that Lilly found itself in in Brazil, where Lilly sold drugs to distributors who then resold the products to both public and private entities. It was the classic distributor model where Lilly sold the drugs to the distributors at a discount and then the distributors would resell the products “at a higher price and then took their discount as compensation.” There was a fairly standard discount given to the distributors which generally ranged “between 6.5% and 15%, with the majority of distributors in Brazil receiving a 10% discount.”

However, in early 2007, at the request of a Lilly sales manager, the company awarded an unusually high discount of between 17% and 19% to a distributor for the sale of a Lilly drug to the government of one of the states of Brazil. The distributor used approximately 6% of this additional discount to create a fund to pay Brazilian government representatives to purchase the Lilly drugs from him. Further, the Lilly sales manager who requested this unusual discount was aware of the bribery scheme. Moreover, this increase in the discount was approved by the company with no further inquiry as to the reason for the request or to substantiate the basis for such an unusually high discount. If there were any internal controls they were not followed.

Prevention and Detection

These three separate bribery schemes call for three different but overlapping responses. In the case with Lilly, the SEC Complaint noted the following “Lilly-Brazil’s pricing committee approved the discounts without further inquiry. The policies and procedures in place to flag unusual distributor discounts were deficient.” Lastly, as stated by Ellis, “It noted that the company relied on representations of the sales and marketing manager without adequate verification and analysis of the surrounding circumstances of the transactions.”

The Lilly enforcement action also makes clear the need for internal audit to follow up with ongoing monitoring and auditing. Internal audit can be used to help determine the reasonableness of a commission rate outside the accepted corporate norm. As noted by Jon Rydberg, of Orchid Advisors, in an article entitled “Eli Lilly’s Remedial Efforts for FCPA Compliance – After the Fact”, the company should be “implementing compliance monitoring and corporate auditing specifically tailored to anti-corruption” for the distributor sales model.

The Oracle enforcement action demonstrates that Oracle needed to institute the proper controls to prevent its employees at Oracle India from creating and misusing the parked funds in the distributor’s account. The Company needed to audit and compare the distributor’s margin against the end user price to ensure excess margins were not being built into the pricing structure. Oracle should have sought to either (1) seek transparency in its dealing with the distributor or (2) audit third party payments made by the distributors on Oracle’s behalf, both of which would have enabled the Company to check that payments were made to appropriate recipients.

What are some of the factors that demonstrate the distributors used by S&N were fraudulent and did not have a legitimate business purpose? It was clear that S&N did not perform sufficient due diligence on these distributors nor did they document any. I would note that the distributor was domiciled in a location separate and apart, the UK, from the sole location it was designed to deliver products or services into, Greece. This clearly demonstrated that the entities were used for a purpose that the company wished to hide from Greek authorities. While it is true that a distributor might sell products into a country different than its domicile, if the products are going into a single country, this should have raised several Red Flags.

However, the biggest indicium of corruption was the amount of the commission paid. The traditional sales model for a distributor has been to purchase a product, take the title, and therefore the risk, and then sell it to an end user. Based upon this sales model, there has been a commission structure more generous than those usually accorded a reseller or sales agent, who is usually only a negotiator between the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and the end user. This difference in taking title, and risk of loss, have led to a cost structure which has provided a deeper discount of pricing for distributors than commission rates paid to resellers or sales agents. The sales structure used by S&N had pricing discounts of between 26-40% off the list price. Further, this money was used precisely to pay bribes to Greek Doctors to use S&N products.

These three enforcement actions make clear that distributors will be treated like any other representative in the sales chain. This means that distributors need to go through the same rigorous due diligence and review, contracts and management going forward as agents or resellers.