Gordon Lightfoot, the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Bio-Rad FCPA Settlement, Part I

by Thomas Fox

Wreck of the Edmund FitzgeraldThis month there are two dates that are forever tied together in the annuals of maritime tragedies and great songwriters. November 10 is the 39th anniversary of the sinking of the Great Lakes freighter the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, who sank 17 miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior taking all 29 crewmembers to the bottom with her. Next Monday, November 17, is the 76th birthday of the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who memorialized the tragedy in the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which he released on the album Summertime Dream in 1976. The song went all the way to Number 2 on the charts. I can still hear Lightfoot’s haunting tale in my head to this day and for me, it was his greatest single.

Earlier this month, Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc. (Bio-Rad) concluded a multi-year Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) investigation and enforcement action. It was notable for many reasons. First and foremost was the stunning bribery and corruption scheme that the company engaged in; multiple bribery schemes in multiple countries. Also notable were the results that the company achieved. While we do not yet know if there will be any individual prosecutions of this matter, the company received a Non-Prosecution Agreement (NPA) from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and a relatively small fine of $14.35MM for what clearly would appear to be criminal violations of the FCPA. Perhaps equally stunning is the amount of profit disgorgement that the company agreed to with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), that amount being $40.7MM.

As with the Layne Christensen FCPA enforcement action from October, both settlement documents provide a wealth of very useful information for the compliance practitioner to use to not only help create a best practices compliance program, but also review your company’s compliance program to see if there might be areas of risk which need to be assessed or have greater compliance scrutiny. Over the next couple of blog posts I want to explore the Bio-Rad FCPA settlement, discuss some of the lessons learned for the compliance practitioner and explore what this settlement may unveil for future FCPA enforcement actions.

With his usual thoroughness, the FCPA Professor went into deep dive mode to lay out the underlying facts involved in this matter, in a post entitled “Bio-Rad Laboratories Agrees To Pay $55 Million To Resolve FCPA Enforcement Action”. According to the NPA, Bio-Rad had bribery schemes running in the following countries: Russia, Vietnam and Thailand. In Russia, persons identified as ‘Manager-1’ who was a high-level manager of the company’s Emerging Markets sales region and ‘Manager-2’ who worked for Manager-1 and was described as a high-level accounting manager of the company’s Emerging Markets sales region, engaged with ‘Agent-1’ paying him “a commission of 15-30% purportedly in exchange for various services outlined in the agency contracts, including acquiring new business by creating and disseminating promotional materials to prospective customers, installing Bio-Rad products and related equipment, training customers on the installation and the use of Bio-Rad products, and delivering Bio-Rad products.”

The commission rates were approved by Manager 1 and 2 even though they were both aware that Agent 1 did not and indeed could not perform the contracted services. Payments were made to a level of $200,000 or less because that was the spending authority of the managers, which did not require a higher level of company review. Both managers communicated with Agent 1 through multiple fraudulent email addresses to avoid detection by the company. Finally, Agent 1 had a 100% success rate in obtaining sales into Russia.

In Vietnam, the system was much simpler and even more directly corrupt. The Bio-Rad country manager was authorized to approve contracts up the amount of $100,000 and to pay sales commissions up to $20,000 without further review. This un-named country manager simply authorized cash payments to officials at state-owned hospitals to obtain or retain business for the company. When the country manager was finally challenged on this direct bribery scheme, he simply “proposed a solution that entailed employing a middleman to pay the bribes to the Vietnamese government officials as a means of insulating Bio-Rad from liability.” The bribery funds were created by giving these middlemen, named distributors, deep discounts “which the distributor would then resell to government customers at full price, and pass through a portion of it as bribes.” These bribes were recorded on the company’s books and records as “commissions”, “advertising fees” and “training fees”.

In Thailand, the company acquired a 49% interest in a joint venture (JV) through acquisition. Initially I would note that there is no record that Bio-Rad either performed pre-acquisition due diligence or engaged in any post acquisition integration or remediation so that an ongoing bribery scheme which began under a previous company’s ownership continued after Bio-Rad took control of the Thailand JV. The bribery scheme involved paying an agent “an inflated 13% commission, of which it retained 4%, and paid 9% to Thai government officials in exchange for profitable business contracts.” Just to top it all off, the agent involved in the bribery scheme was Bio-Rad’s JV partner.

I would say that all of the above is very bad conduct. Yet, Bio-Rad was able to garner a NPA from the DOJ and a civil Cease and Desist Order from the SEC. How did they accomplish this? In the DOJ Press Release, it stated, “The department entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the company due, in large part, to Bio-Rad’s self-disclosure of the misconduct and full cooperation with the department’s investigation…In addition, Bio-Rad has engaged in significant remedial actions, including enhancing its anti-corruption compliance programs globally, improving internal controls and compliance functions, developing and implementing additional due diligence and contracting procedures for intermediaries, and conducting extensive anti-corruption training throughout the organization.”

For the compliance practitioner, yet once again the DOJ and SEC are sounding a LOUD and CLEAR message that even with very bad conduct, the systemic failure of internal controls and having a culture that turned a very blind eye at best to what was going on; you can make a comeback. Moreover, you can make such a spectacular comeback that does not even sustain a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) let alone have to accept a guilty plea. It all starts with putting a best practices compliance program in place and the DPA lists the steps that any company should consider in its compliance regime.

  1. High level commitment by providing visible support by senior management.
  2. An appropriate corporate policy around anti-corruption.
  3. Specific policies and procedures in the following areas: (a) gifts, (b) hospitality, entertainment and travel, (c) customer travel, (d) political contributions, (e) charitable donations and sponsorship, (f) facilitation payments and (g) solicitation and extortion.
  4. Appropriate internal controls to ensure transactions are authorized and properly recorded.
  5. A periodic risk-based review. In other words, a risk assessment. Policies and procedures need to be reviewed no less than annually and updated as appropriate.
  6. The compliance function should have proper Board oversight, independence to act and support within the organization.
  7. Compliance shall provide training on and guidance to the business units on its anti-corruption compliance program.
  8. There should be mechanisms for employees to report internally compliance issues of concern with no fear of retaliation.
  9. A company must maintain and provide “effective and reliable” processes and resources to responding to any raised issues.
  10. A company must use both incentives to encourage behavior and discipline of those employees who violate its compliance program.
  11. Third parties must be subjected to an appropriate due diligence based vetting process, have an appropriate contract and thereafter be managed going forward after the contract is signed.
  12. There should be a protocol for evaluation of any potential acquisitions or merger candidates and then appropriate review and remediation after any acquisition is complete.
  13. There should be ongoing monitoring and testing of the compliance program going forward.

At the conclusion of its NPA, Bio-Rad agreed to ongoing compliance reporting, at annual anniversaries of the date of the NPA by reporting to the DOJ the results of its remediation efforts over the past year. This is one of the most significantly overlooked positive aspects of any FCPA resolution. This allows the DOJ to have a continued view into the company’s compliance function. It is not an ongoing monitor but it does give the DOJ a transparent view into the company’s work towards the overall goal of putting a best practices compliance program in place and not simply stopping work when the settlement is signed. It keeps the company on its toes and allows the DOJ to continue to assess the company’s actions around anti-corruption compliance.

In the next blog post on Bio-Rad, I will review some of the specific bribery schemes that the company used and discuss how a compliance practitioner might use them for some lessons learned.

For a YouTube version of Gordon Lightfoot signing The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, click 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.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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Thomas Fox

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