Carlton Fisk, The Homer and Oversight of a Profitable Subsidiary

Thomas Fox
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Fisk HomerToday we celebrate one of the great moments in World Series history. At approximately at 12:34 AM on this date in 1975, Carlton Fisk came to bat at the bottom of the 12th, in Game 6 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds. He hit a pitch down the left field line. He stood at the plate, bouncing up and down and flailing at the ball as though he was helping an airplane land on a dark runway. “I was just wishing and hoping,” he said at a ceremony some years later. “Maybe, by doing it, you know, you ask something of somebody with a higher power. I like to think that if I didn’t wave, it would have gone foul.” Whether or not the waving was responsible, the ball bounced off of the bright-yellow foul pole above the Green Monster for a home run. Fenway’s organist played the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah while Fisk rounded the bases. One for the ages indeed as it appeared the Baseball Gods might finally be smiling on the Red Sox nation. Alas, they lost the next game and it was not to be for another 30 years.

I thought about Fisk’s homer and the ultimate heartbreak of Red Sox nation once again in 1975 when I read about several recent issues involving corruption and corporate responsibility for oversight, or perhaps more appropriately, the lack thereof. The first was an article in the New York Times (NYT), entitled “Another Scandal Hits Citigroup’s Moneymaking Mexican Division”, by Michael Corkery and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. Their article spoke about the continuing travails of Citigroup’s Mexican subsidiary Banamex. Back in February, the company revealed “a $400 million fraud involving the politically connected, but financially troubled, oil services firm Oceanografía.”

However, company investigators have unearthed another problem at the Mexico unit. The article reported “An internal investigation, begun by Citigroup in July, found evidence that the security unit was overcharging vendors and may have been taking kickbacks, a person briefed on the investigation said. The internal inquiry also found shell companies that had been set up to look like vendors and receive payments from the Banamex unit.” In a statement reported in the piece, Citigroup’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Michael L. Corbat “called the conduct of the individuals in the security unit ‘appalling’”.

What I found most interesting in the article was the response of Citigroup and what its implications might mean for the compliance practitioner, particularly one whose company is under scrutiny for a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The NYT piece made clear that the Mexico unit is so profitable that it figuratively “mints money” for the company. Moreover, “despite the latest headline-grabbing turmoil at Banamex, Citigroup does not want to cede any ground in Mexico where it dominates a large portion of the retail market.”

What is the responsibility for a US corporate parent when a foreign subsidiary ‘mints money’ for the company? Should the corporate parent pay closer attention to make sure the subsidiary is doing business in compliance with the FCPA and other relevant laws? In the past few posts, I have discussed some of the specific internal controls a compliance practitioner might consider for a company’s international operations. One of the problems Citigroup is facing with the conduct of its Mexico subsidiary is the company’s concern of “lax controls and oversight”. Moreover, there is concern that some part of the ongoing troubles in the Mexico unit relates to its head, Manuel Medina-Mora. Citigroup Chairman Michael O’Neill, was said to have “privately expressed concerns to board members that Mr. Medina-Mora, who is also co-president of the parent company, has not always relayed problems in the region to executives at the bank’s headquarters on Park Avenue, according to the people briefed on the matter. Instead of looping in executives in New York, Mr. Medina-Mora has at times chosen to handle the issues himself.”

How much oversight should a parent corporation have over a subsidiary? At a basic level it would seem that oversight should be enough to prevent and detect illegal conduct. Clearly, a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) should be considering the entity-wide internal controls for a company. Under the FCPA accounting provisions, issuers can be held liable for the conduct of their foreign subsidiaries, even though the improper conduct occurred outside of the US. The scope of liability is based on the issuer’s incorporation of the subsidiary’s financial statements in its own records and SEC filings.

While a CCO should expect (and the DOJ & SEC for that matter) that internal controls at locations outside the US are of the same effectiveness as internal controls in US business units and at the US corporate office; unfortunately, that might not always be the case. It is often the case that corporate level internal controls are stronger than those in foreign business units. The Citigroup situation with its Mexican subsidiary would seem to be a clear example of the oft-cited reason that many companies were built through acquisitions, resulting in many business units (both in and outside the US) having completely different accounting and internal control systems than US corporate office. There is often a tendency to leave acquired companies in the state in which they were acquired, rather than trying to integrate their controls and conform them to those of current business units. After all, the reason for the acquisition was the profitability of the acquired company and nobody wants to be accused of negatively impacting profitability, especially one that ‘mints money’.

The second example is one a bit closer to home and it is that of the General Motors (GM) legal department. In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) entitled “GM Says Top Lawyer to Step Down”, John D. Stroll and Joseph B. White, with contributions from Christopher Matthews and Joann S. Lublin, reported that GM General Counsel (GC) Michael Millikin will retire early next year. Millikin was criticized after the GM internal investigation found that he ran the GM legal department in such a hands off manner that he did not know about his legal department’s own settlements for product liability claims involving faulty ignition switches until February of this year. His defense was that his own lawyers “left him in the dark” even though there was evidence that he had been repeatedly warned, “GM could face punitive damage awards related to its failure to address the safety defect.” Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill summed up sentiment about Milliken with her statement “This is either gross negligence or gross incompetence.” In other words if you are a GC or CCO you had better know what is going on in your own department. What would it say about a CCO who did not know that compliance department members were dealing with violations of the FCPA without informing him or her? It would say that the CCO failed to exercise leadership and oversight.

And while you are watching things closely, you may want to check out a clip of Carlton Fisk’s famous homer by clicking here.

 

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.

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