One of my favorite movies is Bad Day at Black Rock. It is one of the few movies to combine elements of film noir into something approaching a traditional Western. It also attacks directly the prejudice and hate against Japanese-Americans in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. I thought about that eponymous title when I read a recent article in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “GSK salesmen want ‘bribes’ reimbursed”, by reporters Patti Waldmeir and Andrew Ward.
You know it is going to be a bad day when your employees line up to testify against your company in an ongoing investigation for bribery and corruption. But those rainy day sighs can go up to the Bad Day at Black Rock level when these same employees publicly announce that the company they work for owes them for the creation of fraudulent invoices used by a business unit to fund bribery and corruption which violates not only the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and the UK Bribery Act but also domestic Chinese anti-corruption laws. This happened to the UK pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) last month when it was announced that certain current employees in its China operation were petitioning the company to reimburse them for bribes they were ordered to pay by their superiors.
In their article, Waldmeir and Ward wrote “the UK pharmaceutical company at the centre of a Chinese corruption scandal, is facing protests from junior employees who say the company is refusing to reimburse them for bribes they were ordered to pay by their superiors.” While my initial thought was that these Chinese employees had quite a bit of ‘cheek’ in raising this claim, the more I read into the story, the more I think it may portend serious problems for GSK in any attempt to defend the company going forward. Waldmeir and Ward reported “some Chinese sales staff are complaining that GSK has denied bonuses, threatened dismissal or refused to reimburse them for bribes they say were sanctioned by their superiors to boost the company’s drug sales. In some cases, managers instructed them to purchase fake receipts that were used to cover up bribes paid in cash or gifts to doctors and hospitals, according to salesmen interviewed by the Financial Times.”
The article went on to highlight just how some of these fake invoices, used to gain funds from the corporate headquarters to facilitate bribery and corruption, were generated. “In some instances, managers disguised their involvement by using their personal email address to instruct staff to pay bribes and by ordering junior staff to claim on their personal expense accounts – even if the bribe was actually paid out by the manager – according to these people.” Last March, a group of current GSK employees sent a letter to the company that said, in part, ““All the expenses were approved by the company,” the group wrote in a letter to management. “The expenses were paid with our own money, and although the receipts were not compliant, it was our managers who told us to buy the fake receipts,” said one former GSK salesman.”
The article quoted that GSK said, “We have zero tolerance for unethical or illegal behaviour and anyone who conducts such behaviour has no place in our company. We believe the vast majority of our employees uphold our values and we welcome employees speaking up if they have concerns.” Talk about a ‘Speak Up’ culture at your company. Probably not exactly what the company had in mind when it invited employees to raise their concerns.
However, as damning as this is, and it would certainly appear to be quite damning, was the following revelation, which was also reported by Waldmeir and Ward, regarding witness prep during GSK’s internal investigation. They wrote, “Some staff were warned not to implicate their supervisors, according to a former salesman: “Our manager approached each person before they were questioned and asked them not to mention his name. He even prepared a story for them to tell the investigator.””
Dissecting all of the above, it would appear that GSK has several real problems on several fronts from this article. The first is that there appears to have been clear China business unit management participation in the bribery and corruption scheme. While it is still not clear whether the corporate home office was involved in the scheme, simply knew of it or choose to bury its collective head in the sand as to what was going on in China, if your in-country business unit management is involved, it is not too many steps to the corporate home office. Conversely, the question might be that if this fraud against the corporate home office was so open and obvious, why did the corporate office not detect it going forward?
Yet the real issue for the corporate office may be the information about employees being coached to hide evidence during the investigation. If such activity was limited to the ‘managers’ in the Chinese business units only, what does it say about a corporate office, which allows such witness intimidation? Think that is an investigation best practice? However, if the corporate office was involved in any way in such witness intimidation, it will bode extremely poorly in the eyes of the Chinese regulators, the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which has opened an investigation into the GSK matter and probably the US Department of Justice (DOJ) as well, since GSK is still subject to the Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) it signed back in July of 2012; when it pled guilty and paid $3 billion to resolve fraud allegations and failure to report safety data in what the DOJ called the “largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history” according to its press release. Think witness tampering or hiding of evidence might garner the attention of the DOJ for a company already under the equivalent of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA)?
In addition to all of the above conduct, it will be interesting to see the effect of this ongoing investigation on the stock value of GSK. In a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, entitled “FCPA Hits Companies Harder if they Committed Fraud”, Sam Rubenfeld reported “A study of U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement issued by the Searle Civil Justice Institute, a research division of The Law & Economics Center at George Mason University School of Law found that public companies lost an average of 2.9% of market capitalization as a result of an investigation. But, the study found, the number masks an important distinction: Companies charged with bribery only suffered an initial 1.5% loss, while those charged with bribery and financial fraud saw a initial drop of 16.3% in market cap.” It will be interesting to see the effect the apparent fraudulent activities of GSK’s China employees will have on not only the overall penalty assessed against GSK but if there is any attendant drop in shareholder value.