Does Your Company Still Allow Facilitation Payments?

by Thomas Fox
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IMG_3289One of the more confusing areas of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is in that of facilitation payments. Facilitation payments are small bribes but make no mistake about it, they are bribes. For that reason many companies feel they are inconsistent with a company culture of doing business ethically and in compliance with laws prohibiting corruption and bribery. Further, the FCPA Guidance specifies, “while the payment may qualify as an exception to the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions, it may violate other laws, both in Foreign Country and elsewhere. In addition, if the payment is not accurately recorded, it could violate the FCPA’s books and records provision.” Finally, further the FCPA Guidance states, “Whether a payment falls within the exception is not dependent on the size of the payment, though size can be telling, as a large payment is more suggestive of corrupt intent to influence a non-routine governmental action. But, like the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions more generally, the facilitating payments exception focuses on the purpose of the payment rather than its value.” [emphasis in original text]

In recent remarks, Thomas C. Baxter, Executive Vice President and General Counsel at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicated a general unease with facilitation payments. Baxter was quoted in the FCPA Blog for the following, “Baxter said an organizational policy that allows some types of official corruption — including facilitating payments – “diminishes the efficacy of compliance rules that are directed toward stopping official corruption.”” Further, “While I understand that the exception is grounded in a practical reality, I feel that zero tolerance for official corruption would have been a better choice. To any public servant with an extended hand, I would say in a loud and clear voice, “pull it back and do your job.” And, let me note the OECD Working Group on Bribery recommends that all countries encourage companies to prohibit or discourage facilitating payments.”

In addition to these clear statements about whether the FCPA should continue to allow said bribes; you should also consider the administrative nightmare for any international company. The UK Bribery Act does not have any such exception, exemption or defense along the lines of the FCPA facilitation payment exception. This means that even if your company allows facilitation payments, it must exempt out every UK Company or subsidiary from the policy. Further, if your company employs any UK citizens, they are subject to the UK Bribery Act no matter who they work for and where they may work in the world so they must also be exempted. Finally, if your US Company does business with a UK or other company subject to the UK Bribery Act, you may be prevented contractually from making facilitation payments while working under that customer’s contract. As I said, an administrative nightmare.

  1. The Statute

When the FCPA was initially passed in 1977, the facilitating payment exception was found under the definition of foreign official. However, with the 1988 Amendments, a more explicit exception was written into the statute making it clear that the anti-bribery provisions “shall not apply to any facilitating or expediting payment to a foreign official, political party, or party official the purpose of which is to expedite or to secure the performance of a routine governmental action . . .” The statute itself provided a list of examples of facilitation payments in the definition of routine governmental actions. It included the following:

  • Obtaining permits, licenses, or other official documents;
  • Processing governmental papers such as visas and work orders;
  • Providing police protection, mail services, scheduling inspections;
  • Providing utilities, cargo handling; or
  • Actions of a similar nature.

It is important to note that the language of the FCPA makes it clear that a facilitation payment is not an affirmative defense but an exception to the general FCPA proscription against bribery and corruption. Unfortunately for the FCPA Practitioner there is no dollar limit articulated in the FCPA regarding facilitation payments. Even this limited exception has come under increasing criticism. As far back as 2009, the OECD studied the issue and recommended that member countries encourage their corporations to not allow the making of facilitating payments, “in view of the corrosive effect of small facilitation payments, particularly on sustainable economic development and the rule of law.”

Interestingly, one of the clearest statements about facilitation payments comes not from a FCPA case about facilitation payments but the case of Kay v. Rice, 359 F.3d 738, 750-51 (5th Cir. 2004). This case dealt with whether payment of bribes to obtain a favorable tax ruling was prohibited under the FCPA. In its opinion the Fifth Circuit commented on the limited nature of the facilitating payments exception when it said:

A brief review of the types of routine governmental actions enumerated by Congress shows how limited Congress wanted to make the grease exceptions. Routine governmental action, for instance, includes “obtaining permits, licenses, or other official documents to qualify a person to do business in a foreign country,” and “scheduling inspections associated with contract performance or inspections related to transit of goods across country.” Therefore, routine governmental action does not include the issuance of every official document or every inspection, but only (1) documentation that qualifies a party to do business and (2) scheduling an inspection—very narrow categories of largely non-discretionary, ministerial activities performed by mid- or low-level foreign functionaries.

2. Enforcement Actions

Con-way

The FCPA landscape is littered with companies who sustained FCPA violations due to payments which did not fall into the facilitation payment exception. In 2008, Con-way Inc., a global freight forwarder, paid a $300,000 penalty for making hundreds of relatively small payments to Customs Officials in the Philippines. The value of the payments Con-way was fined for making totaled $244,000 and were made to induce the officials to violate customs regulations, settle customs disputes, and reduce or not enforce otherwise legitimate fines for administrative violations.

Helmerich and Payne

In 2009, Helmerich and Payne, Inc., paid a penalty and disgorgement fee of $1.3 million for payments which were made to secure customs clearances in Argentina and Venezuela. The payments ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 but were not properly recorded and were made to import/export goods that were not within the respective country’s regulations; to import goods that could not lawfully be imported; and to evade higher duties and taxes on the goods.

Panalpina

Finally, there is the Panalpina enforcement action. As reported in the FCPA Blog, this matter was partly resolved last year with the payment by Panalpina and six of its customers of over $257 million in fines and penalties. Panalpina, acting as freight forwarder for its customers, made payments to circumvent import laws, reduce customs duties and tax assessments and to obtain preferential treatment for importing certain equipment into various countries but primarily in West Africa.

DynCorp

Then there is the DynCorp International investigation matter. As reported in various sources the matter relates to approx. $300,000 in payments made by subcontractors who wished to speed up their visa processing and expedite receipt of certain licenses on behalf of DynCorp. This investigation has been going on for several years and there is no anticipated conclusion date at this time.

3.      Some Guidance

So what does the Department of Justice (DOJ) look at when it reviews a company’s FCPA compliance program with regards to facilitation payments? Initially, if there is a pattern of such small payments, it would raise a Red Flag and cause additional investigations, but this would not be the end of the inquiry. There are several other factors which the DOJ could look towards in making a final determination on this issue. The line of inquiry the DOJ would take is as follows:

  1. Size of payment – Is there an outer limit? No, there is no outer limit but there is some line where the perception shifts. If a facilitating payment is over $100 you are arguing from a point of weakness. The presumption of good faith is against you. You might be able to persuade the government at an amount under $100. But anything over this amount and the government may well make further inquiries. So, for instance, the DOJ might say that all facilitation payments should be accumulated together and this would be a pattern and practice of bribery.
  2. What is a routine governmental action? Are we entitled to this action, have we met all of our actions or are we asking the government official to look the other way on some requirement? Are we asking the government official to give us a break? The key question here is whether you are entitled to the action otherwise.
  3. Does the seniority of the governmental official matter? This is significant because it changes the presumption of whether something is truly discretionary. The higher the level of the governmental official involved, the greater chance his decision is discretionary.
  4. Does the action have to be non-discretionary? Yes, because if it is discretionary, then a payment made will appear to be obtaining some advantage that is not available to others.
  5. What approvals should be required? A facilitation payment is something that must be done with an appropriate process. The process should have thought and the decision made by people who are the experts within the company on such matters.
  6. Risk of facilitation payments and third parties? Whatever policy you have, it must be carried over to third parties acting on your behalf or at your direction. If a third party cannot control this issue, the better compliance practice would be to end the business relationship.
  7. How should facilitation payments be recorded? Facilitation payments must be recorded accurately. You should have a category entitled “Facilitation Payments” in your company’s internal accounting system. The labeling should be quite clear and they are critical to any audit trail so recording them is quite significant.
  8. Monitoring programs? There must always be ongoing monitoring programs to review your company’s internal controls, policies and procedures regarding facilitation payments.

So we return to the question of when does a grease payment become a bribe? There is no clear line of demarcation. The test seems to turn on the amount of money involved, to whom it is paid and the frequency of the payments. Additionally, accurate books and records are a must. Finally, remember that the defense of facilitation payments is an exception to the FCPA prohibition against bribery. Any defendant which wishes to avail itself of this exception at trial would have to proffer credible evidence to support its position, but at the end of the day, it would be the trier of fact which would decide. So, much like any compliance defense, the exception is only available if you use it at trial and it would be difficult to imagine that any company will want to use the facilitation payment exception.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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