Enforcement Week I: Troubling Questions Raised in HSBC Prosecution

by Thomas Fox

We had an interesting week of anti-corruption enforcement actions last week, both in the US and the UK. We have now had four Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement actions since the announcement of the Department Of Justice (DOJ) Pilot Program in April. I thought this would be a good time to review some of the recent enforcement actions, to see what lessons they may impart to the compliance practitioner. So this week will be dedicated to blog post dealing with enforcement. I will begin with a troubling report issued by a committee of the US House of Representative over the Department of Justice’s handling of the money laundering enforcement action against the UK bank, HSBC back in 2012.

Of all the things that US Congress criticized former Attorney General (AG) Eric Holder over, one might think his protections of financial institutions might not have been one of them. Yet last week there was a scathing report issued, entitled “Too Big To Jail, by the GOP staff of the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, which was discussed by Gretchen Morgenson in her New York Times (NYT) Fair Game column entitled “Kid Gloves For a Bank With Clout. The report deals with the DOJ investigation into the UK financial institution HSBC and subsequent resolution of allegations that the bank “laundered nearly $900 million for drug traffickers” and sanctioned countries.

While the report does not deal with the DOJ’s lack of prosecution of individuals from the 2008 financial crisis, it certainly provides insight into how Holder conducted such resolutions with large financial institutions and may well explain how it occurred that there were no individual prosecutions. The piece begins that even with a nearly $2bn fine, it was not “a body blow” to HSBC. Of course, there was the ubiquitous Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) put in place, where the DOJ would “delay or forgo prosecution of a company if promises to change its behavior.”

While I am most generally supportive of the practice of using corporate DPAs to help enhance compliance programs, Morgenson’s article does bring up some troubling questions about how and why HSBC was able to get off with not only an agreement not to prosecute any individuals at the bank going forward, but even have individual incentives removed from the final DPA. The House report found that DOJ leadership, in the form of AG Holder, “overruled an internal recommendation to prosecute HSBC” because of concerns that prosecution of HSBC “could result in a global financial disaster.”

That final line is one we have (unfortunately) heard before. However, the NYT article also reports on how HSBC was able to “soften the deal”. The original agreement with HSBC had language which “provide no protection from prosecution for employees who ‘knowingly and willfully” processed financial transactions with countries under American sanctions”. University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor David A. Skeel, who was quoted in the piece, said, “This is one case where it looks like the government might have been able to prosecute misbehaving executives during the crisis period, yet waived its right to do so.” Not failed to do so, but waived its right to do so.

Even more inextricably, the DPA waived future penalties for bank executives who failed to comply with the DPA. Originally there were sanctions against bank executives who did not meet the compliance obligations set forth in the DPA. These sanctions were financial penalties in the form of loss of bonuses. However, in the final version this language was removed and the House report noted the DPA, “apparently leaves open the possibility for executives to get their bonuses, despite failing to meet compliance standards.”

Another troubling aspect unearthed by the House report was ‘how much influence officials at the Financial Services Authority – Britain’s top financial regulator at the time – had on the Justice Department’s process in the HSBC matter”. Morgenson quoted a Washburn University School of Law professor, Mary Kreiner Ramirez for the following, “It would seem that in making the decision with respect to HSBC, (AG) Holder gave more attention to the concerns expressed by the F.S.A than he did with respect to our own agencies.” Moreover, the FSA got the documents on apparently something close to a real-time basis as “at the time events were unfolding.”

There has been both legal and academic criticism of DPAs. However the article brings up another criticism of the settlement vehicles, which is less discussed, the internal process by which a settlement is reached. Edward J. Kane, a professor of finance at Boston College, noted, “The fact that so many of these cases are settled rather than going to court means we don’t get an airing of facts and challenges of fact.”

The Yates Memo would seem to be one response to pre-emptively address some of the concerns raised by the lack of individual prosecution. For if the DOJ now requires prosecutors to go after culpable individuals in white collar crime cases such as the HSBC money laundering prosecution or cases under the FCPA for that matter, any settlement via a DPA would not exempt out future prosecutions against culpable individuals. Further, it would also seem that the DOJ would strengthen up the compliance program components of any DPA to have appropriate financial disincentives for the lack of compliance program adherence. When you put on top of this the Yates Memo requirement that companies must dig up facts on culpable individuals and turn those facts over to the DOJ, it would seem that individuals would be more in the sights of DOJ for prosecution.

The other factor not fully explored by commentators is that DPAs, Non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) and other settlement mechanisms are the product of negotiations by the parties, i.e. the government and the company involved. In the context of FCPA resolutions with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), no company is going to put facts supporting a criminal indictment or even claim of criminal conduct in a civil based Cease and Desist Order or other form of civil based resolution. To do so would open up the company to a very high degree of liability, which is not required if the DOJ declines to prosecute a company for criminal violations of the FCPA. That explains why there is never evidence of criminal liability in a resolution document if there is no criminal charge.

Yet the House report does point up some troubling questions about not only how the HSBC settlement was reached but also the lack of prosecutions against any financial institutions after the 2008 financial crisis.

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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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