Thinking Through Risk Rankings of Third Parties

by Thomas Fox
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7K0A0014-2One question often posed to me is how to think through some of the relationships a company has with its various third parties in order to reasonably risk rank them. Initially I would break this down into sales and supply chain to begin any such analysis. Anecdotally, it is said that over 95% of all Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement actions involve third parties so this is one area where companies need to put some thoughtful consideration. However, the key is that if you employ a “check-the-box” approach it may not only be inefficient but more importantly, ineffective. The reason for this is because each compliance program should be tailored to an organization’s specific needs, risks and challenges. The information provided below should not be considered a substitute for a company’s own assessment of the corporate compliance program most appropriate for that particular business organization. In the end, if designed carefully, implemented earnestly, and enforced fairly, a company’s compliance program—no matter how large or small the organization—will allow the company, generally, to prevent violations, detect those that do occur, and remediate them promptly and appropriately.

Sales Side

I tend to view things in a straightforward manner when it comes to representatives on the sales side of your business. I believe that third party representatives you might have, whatever you might call them, i.e. sales reps, sales agents, sales agents, commissioned sales agents, or anything else, are high risk and therefore they should receive your highest level of scrutiny. This is also true with any party that might be called, charitably or not, ‘a partner’ whether that is a joint venture (JV) partner, plain old partner, Teaming Partner or another monickered ‘partner’. However, under this approach you should also consider the perception of corruption in the geographic area that you will use the third party. I recognize that you can overlay a financial threshold but the reality is that if a sales representative generates such a small amount of money for your business you probably do not need them as representative.

At least with distributors, I have seen merit in more sophisticated approaches such as that set out by David Simon, a partner at Foley & Lardner LLP, who advocates a risk analysis should more appropriately based on the nature of a company’s relationships with their distributors. The goal should be to determine which distributors are the most likely to qualify as agents; for whose acts the company would likely to be held responsible.  He argues that it is a continuum of risk; that is, on the low-risk end are distributors that are really nothing more than re-sellers with little actual affiliation with the supplier company. On the high-risk end are distributors who are very closely tied to the supplier company, who effectively represent the company in the market and end up looking more like a quasi-subsidiary than a customer.

Simon looks at agency principles to guide his analysis of whether a distributor qualifies as an agent for FCPA purposes. He argues that factors to consider include:

  • The volume of sales made to the distributor;
  • The percentage of total sales of the distributor’s total business the principal’s product represents;
  • Whether the distributor represents the principal in the market, including whether it can (and does) use the company trademarks and logos in its business; and

Whether the principal company is involved in the running of the distributor’s business (such as by training the distributor’s sales agents, imposing performance goals and objectives, or providing reimbursement for sales activity).

Once a company segregates out the high-risk distributors that likely qualify as agents and potentially subject the company to FCPA liability from those that are mere re-sellers and pose less FCPA risk, FCPA compliance procedures can be tailored appropriately. For those distributors that qualify as “agents” and also pose FCPA risk, full FCPA due diligence, certifications, training and contract language are imperative. For those that do not, more limited compliance measures that reflect the risk-adjusted potential liability are perfectly appropriate.

Supply Chain

This determination of the level of due diligence and categorization of a supplier should depend on a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, whether the supplier is (1) located, or will operate, in a high risk country; (2) associated with, or recommended or required by, a government official or his or her representative; (3) currently under investigation, the subject of criminal charges, or was recently convicted of criminal violations, including any form of corruption; (4) a multinational publicly traded corporation with a recognized exemplary system of compliance and internal controls, that has not been recently investigated or convicted of any corruption offense or that has taken appropriate corrective action to remedy such conduct; or (5) a provider of widely available services and products that are not industry specific, are offered to the public at large and do not fall under the definition of Minimal-Risk Supplier detailed below.

A High-Risk Supplier is an individual or an entity that is engaged to provide non-project specific goods or services to a company. It presents a higher level of compliance risk because of the presence of one or more of the following factors: (a) It is based or operates in a country (including the supply of goods or services to a company) that poses a high risk for corruption, money laundering, or commercial bribery; (b) It supplies goods or services to a company from a high-risk country; (c) It has a reputation in the business community for questionable business practices or ethics; or (d) It has been convicted of, or is alleged to have been involved in, illegal conduct and has failed to undertake effective remedial actions. Finally, it presents one or more of the following factors,: (1) It is located in a country that has inadequate regulatory oversight of its activities; (2) it is in an unregulated business; (3) its ultimate or beneficial ownership is difficult to determine; (4) the company has an annual spend of more than $100,000 with the supplier; (5) it was established or registered in a jurisdiction where ownership is not transparent or that permits ownership in the form of bearer shares; (6) it is registered or conducts business in a jurisdiction that does not have anti-corruption, anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism laws comparable to those of the United States and the United Kingdom; or (7) it lacks a discernable and substantial business history.

A Low-Risk Supplier is an individual or a non-publicly held entity that conducts business such as a sole proprietorship, partnership or privately held corporation, located in a Low-Risk Country. Some indicia include that it (1) supplies goods, equipment or services directly to a company in a Low-Risk Country; (2) a company has an annual spend of less than $100,000 with the supplier; and (3) the supplier has no involvement with any foreign government, government entity, or Government Official. However, if the supplier has other indicia of lower risk such that it is a publicly-held company, it may be considered a Low-Risk Supplier because it is subject to the highest disclosure and auditing and reporting standards such as those under the US Securities Exchange Act of 1934, including those publicly traded on a reputable and highly regulated stock exchange, such as the New York or London exchanges, and are, therefore, subject to oversight by highly regarded regulatory agencies.

Below the high and low risk categories I would add the category of ‘Minimal-Risk Suppliers’ who generally provide to a company goods and services that are non-specific to a particular project and the value of the transaction is $25,000 or less. Some examples might be for the routine purchase of fungible items and services, including, among others: Office supplies, such as paper, furniture, computers, copiers, and printers; Industrial or factory supplies, including cleaning materials, solvents, safety clothing and off-the-shelf equipment and parts; Crating and other standard materials for packing products for shipping; Leasing and rental of company cars and other equipment; and Airline or other travel tickets or services. This category would also include those third parties that provide widely available services and products that are not industry specific, are offered to the public at large. Here you might think of periodicals, florists, daily limousine and taxi, airline and food delivery (including coffee shops, pizza parlors and take out) services.

Last, but certainly not least, is the category of Government Service Providers, which includes entities that generally come into a company through the supply chain, who interact with a foreign government on behalf of your company. Examples might be customs brokers, providers who obtain and process business permits, licenses, visas, work permits and necessary clearances or waivers from government agencies; perform lobbying services; obtain regulatory approvals; negotiate with government agencies regarding the payment of taxes, tax claims, and tax audits. These third parties present some of your highest risks so they need to have not only the highest level of scrutiny but post contract-signing management as well.

The risk ranking of third parties is one of the areas that seems to continue to cause confusion, if not outright bewilderment. The manner in which the articulated risk rankings presented herein is not to be the ‘be-all and end-all’. As the FCPA Guidance reminds us, “An effective compliance program promotes “an orga­nizational culture that encourages ethical conduct and a commitment to compliance with the law.”…A well-constructed, thought­fully implemented, and consistently enforced compliance and ethics program helps prevent, detect, remediate, and report misconduct, including FCPA violations.” If you think through your risk rankings and can articulate a reasonable basis for doing so followed by documentation, I think your own risk ranking system will survive regulatory scrutiny.

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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Thomas Fox
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