The Avon FCPA Settlement, Part II

by Thomas Fox
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Bad ConductI am back from my holiday break and am looking forward to many good ideas for blogs in the coming year. However before we get to 2015, I have to finish out some matters from 2014. Today I continue my look at the Avon Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement action, which was announced earlier this month. In today’s post I will look at the bribery scheme and cover-up that Avon employed. Tomorrow I will conclude with some final lessons to be gleaned from the Avon enforcement action for both the compliance practitioner and greater corporate world. Avon Products (China) Co. Ltd. is referred to as ‘Avon China’ and Avon Products, Inc. (the US parent) is referred to as ‘Avon’.

With a sustained plan that one can only say was well thought out, Avon set out to conquer the Chinese market for door-to-door sales. To do so, Avon had to navigate a bureaucratic maze. This maze began with a Test License obtained in 2005 and later a national direct selling license together with approvals from each province and municipality where the company wanted to sell its products. To obtain the required licenses, the company set a bribery scheme which worked at all levels of the company’s China subsidiary, Avon China, and reached back to the home office in the US, Avon Products. Both of these entities were the subject of the FCPA enforcement action concluded earlier this month. The bribery scheme itself paid out over $8MM in bribes before it was concluded.

To facilitate this process Avon China set up a business unit entitled the Corporate Affairs Group and later a more focused sub-group as part of the scheme called the Direct Selling Special Task Force. These two groups led the company’s efforts to bribe its way into the China market. They did so through a variety of means, as set out in the settlement documents. Unless cited otherwise, the quotes below are from the Avon China Criminal Information.

Gifts

Avon was fond of giving very high priced gifts to various Chinese government officials. Inevitably, Avon China employees would falsely describe the gift itself in the company’s books and record. To add to this deception, Avon China would omit from the books and records not only who the gift was provided to but also the purpose of the gift. This part of the bribery scheme allowed the gifts of Louis Vuitton products to be described as a “public relations expense” and “Public Relations Business Entertainment”; while the gift of a Gucci bag was described as “business entertainment”.

Meals and Entertainment

This part of the bribery scheme was a clear favorite of Avon China. The aforementioned Direct Selling Special Task Force was ubiquitous in the meals and entertainment arena where its members simply used the term “relations” to refer to “things of value provided to government officials or goodwill that had been obtained by giving such things, including non-business meals and entertainment.” Specifically noted in this part of the bribery scheme were payments of approximately $8,100 described as “sales-business entertainment” provided to a government official so he would approve a product that did not meet Chinese government standards. Other false excuses provided were describing such payments as “business entertainment” and “employee ‘accommodation’ expenses”.

Non-Business Travel

Avon China doled out a huge amount of bribes through the mechanism of phony travel for alleged business purposes. Avon China would claim they were bringing various Chinese government officials (also Wives, Girlfriends and other family members) to locations for business-related travel but in reality the trips were mostly sight-seeing excursions, gambling junkets, a beach vacation and other entertainment which had nothing to do with business purposes. So a trip alleged to be a “site visit/study visit” to the corporate headquarters in New York City and the company’s research and development (R&D) facility in upstate New York became a $90,000, 18-day travel extravaganza to “Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Philadelphia, Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Washington DC.” (Oh, and one half-day at the company’s upstate New York R&D facility.) Other favorite venues for Chinese government officials and their families were the gambling mecca of Macau, Hong Kong, Hainan Island, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Sanya. Needless to say, none of these locations had any Avon corporate offices, manufacturing or R&D facilities.

Cash

Always a favorite of bribers everywhere, Avon did not neglect to lay out large amounts of cash. Avon China used a variety of orchestrations to hide these payments including simply stealing it from a (apparently) huge petty cash fund, directing Avon China employees to charge for non-existent expenses and keep the reimbursements from corporate, lying in the books and records by calling such bribe payments as “management expenses-government relations expenses” and even submitting “a handwritten certificate, purportedly from a Chinese government agency, falsely stating that the official would give the funds to the government bureau.”

Payment Through Third Parties

Using an entity identified as “Consulting Company A”, Avon China paid a large number of bribes throughout the period in question. Initially it should be noted that this entity raised numerous red flags that were never investigated or cleared. These began with the fact that it was a Chinese government official who recommended the retention of Consulting Company A to perform ‘lobbying’ services for Avon China. Thereafter the company performed no background investigation into the ownership structure of the company, did not include any compliance terms and conditions in the contract, did not even communicate to this third party of Avon’s Code of Conduct prohibition against bribery of government officials. Beyond these issues, in large part Consulting Company A never performed any legitimate services for Avon China. What Consulting Company A did provide to Avon China was a way to funnel bribe payments to Chinese government officials.

Corporate Connivance in Scheme (AKA The Cover-Up)

While all of the above was bad, one thing which catapulted the Avon FCPA bribery scandal into the realm of seriously bad was the company’s discovery of the bribery scheme and resulting cover-up. According to the Criminal Information for Avon Products, in 2005 a senior auditor in Avon’s internal audit group, “reported to Avon’s Compliance Committee, which was comprised of several senior Avon executives, that Avon China executives and employees were not maintaining proper records of entertainment for government officials” and that an Avon China executive had explained the practice “was intentional because information regarding that entertainment was ‘quite sensitive.’” This led to a Draft Audit Report, reviewed at the highest levels of Avon China and Avon in the US, which concluded that Avon China’s Corporate Affairs Group’s expenses included: “(1) high value gifts and meals that were offered to Chinese government officials; (2) the majority of expenses relating to gifts, meals, sponsorship and travel of substantial monetary value was to maintain relationships with government officials; (3) a third party was paid large amounts of money to interact with Chinese government officials but was not contractually required to follow the FCPA, was not monitored by Avon China, and was paid for vague and unknown services; and (4) the payments, and the lack of accurate, detailed records may violate the FCPA or other anti-corruption laws.”

So what was the company’s response to this information? The internal auditors who prepared the report were required to remove the above language and whitewash the report. Evidence of reviewed misconduct was reduced to two hand-written pages, which were then taken out of China and hand-carried to Avon’s corporate headquarters. All copies of the Draft Audit Report were ordered to be retrieved and destroyed. Finally, as noted in the Criminal Information of Avon China, in January 2007, an Avon executive reported to the Avon Compliance Committee “that the matter reported in 2005 regarding the potential FCPA violations by AVON CHINA executives and employees had been closed as “unsubstantiated” which terminated Avon’s investigation into AVON CHINA’s corrupt conduct.”

Tomorrow we take a look at some of the key lessons to be learned from Avon FCPA enforcement action.

 

 

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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