Wal-Mart: Be A Leader In Compliance

by Thomas Fox

Lou Reed died yesterday. He was one of the most influential figures in rock and roll history and pop culture over the past 50 years. Starting with his band, the Velvet Underground, Rolling Stone magazine said that the group’s “debut [album] The Velvet Underground & Nico stands as a landmark on par with the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde.” Moreover, his work was “embraced by future generations, cementing the Velvet Underground’s status as the most influential American rock band of all time.” But his influence went simply beyond rock and roll, including all things hip and cool from fashion to even introducing Dion at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Reed could even be fashionable while advertising in a TV commercial for Nissan Xterra. Lou Reed was a true leader, in many areas.

In a post last week, entitled “Wal-Mart’s latest FCPA disclosure (October 2013)”, the FCPA Blog reported that Wal-Mart has spent over $155 MM in “costs incurred for the ongoing inquiries and investigations” and costs which “relate to global compliance programs and organizational enhancement.” This is in addition to the reported $157MM in costs for these matters in 2012. So for those of you keeping score at home, that is $312MM in costs related to the company’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) investigation so far. Wal-Mart is well on its way to becoming the leader in the all-time costs for a FCPA investigation.

Also in the FCPA Blog last week, Michael Scher wrote an impassioned piece entitled “Wal-Mart and the FCPA: An open letter to the DOJ and SEC”. In this post Scher said, “We considered in a prior post the new spirit of tough enforcement at the DOJ and SEC and the need to seize the opportunity for more advocacy by the compliance profession, in particular to head off a resolution of the Wal-Mart investigation harmful to compliance officers and the public.” He urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to thoroughly investigate and bring severe sanctions against the company, if warranted by the company’s actions. His tack differed from that of Matt Ellis, who last December, in a blog post on FCPAméricas entitled “Wal-Mart, Go Big on FCPA Compliance”, urged the company to “innovate by playing to its strengths.” These strengths include both physical size and financial resources which would allow it to “use its enormous leverage in international markets to educate foreign audiences on compliance.” Further, he wrote that “Maybe it could use the high visibility placement of its stores throughout Mexico to begin to teach communities how to identify and avoid risks of petty corruption? It could partner with local municipalities to launch reporting centers in its Supercenters.”

Both of these articles stake out positions with much merit. I would like to suggest another approach; which can be summarized as follows: Wal-Mart – Be a Leader in Compliance. The conduct in which Wal-Mart has engaged in is all in the past. The company cannot change those actions, whatever they may have been, but what the company can control is its actions going forward. So here are my suggestions on how Wal-Mart can be a leader in compliance.

Lead in the Retail Industry

The first thing that I recommend Wal-Mart do is call an executive meeting of the largest retail industry trade group that the company belongs to. I would say that Wal-Mart wants to lead the retail industry in its fight against bribery and corruption on a world-wide basis. Wal-Mart could certainly take some of Matt Ellis’ suggestions to the group about ‘going big’ on compliance. But Wal-Mart, as a leader, could say that we need to agree amongst ourselves that we will not engage in bribery and corruption, nor will we tolerate members that do so. We will urge that our members engage in “Ethical Capitalism” along the lines as laid out by Dov Seidman. We will ask that our retail industry trade group institute an industry wide Code of Practice, similar to that instituted by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), which is designed “to stamp out bribery and corruption, particularly in emerging markets.”

Lead at the Chamber of Commerce

In the past, Wal-Mart has supported the US Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to amend the FCPA to add a compliance defense. Some argue this would level the playing field with the US government, while others claim that such a defense would help companies to understand their obligations under the FCPA. Wal-Mart can make clear that it understands quite simply that they, and other US companies, should not do business through bribery and corruption. Wal-Mart should aver that it will take the responsibility upon themselves to lead by example and put a best practices compliance program in place, not only to do business within the parameters of the FCPA but also because it makes good business sense to do so. Wal-Mart should demonstrate they now understand a compliance program is not a set of burdensome rules and procedures, which are designed to constrain how a person does business, but they are essential to the long term success of any organization. The company should embrace that concept and the belief that it should lie at the heart of the way a company does business.

Lead at the Board

While there is some debate as to how the allegations of corruption came up to the corporate headquarters or the initial company response about them; the FCPA Professor has made clear that he believes this scandal is largely a failure of corporate governance. As corporate governance starts at the Board, Wal-Mart should commit to having the most active and knowledgeable Board on anti-corruption matters there is in the US. Wal-Mart should bring in Jeff Kaplan (or some equally notable practitioner, such as the FCPA Professor) to lead Board training on the roles and responsibilities of a Board in overseeing compliance. While the Board does not have to, nor should it, delve down into the weeds of the company’s compliance program, it must understand the parameters and actions of the company’s compliance program going forward and be ready to act if allegations of bribery and corruption are brought forward.

Lead at the CCO Position

One thing that Donna Boehme consistently discusses in talks, articles, tweets, in person and just about everywhere else is that the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) must be separate from and not report to the General Counsel (GC). The CCO cannot be in any merged unit of the company’s overall legal group. Further, the CCO should report directly to the Audit or other appropriate committee of the Board and not to the GC. The reason for this is clear; it is so that the CCO can have the true independence to make the determinations of what the company can do ethically and in compliance with all relevant national and international anti-corruption legislations. If you keep your CCO buried under the GC on the organization chart, it is clear that legal is more important than compliance.

Lead by Working with the DOJ

Lastly, I would suggest that Wal-Mart call Chuck Duross and Kara Brockmeyer and ask for a meeting. In that meeting the company should lay out all the steps it takes to be a leader in compliance. Its lawyers can certainly make clear that they will defend the company, consistent with the ethical duties and Wal-Mart’s rights as a corporate citizen. Further, the FCPA Guidance suggests that the three goals of a compliance program should be to prevent, detect and then remediate. The conduct that did or did not occur from 2000-2006 is in the past. Wal-Mart is committed to working to remediate what it can do so now. Will such conduct aid it with the DOJ and SEC? Perhaps, but more importantly, Wal-Mart should desire to show that a company can work with the DOJ and SEC, consistent with both their obligations as the enforcement agencies, all towards the goal of greater compliance.

The one thing that I disagree with Michael Scher on is that the DOJ has to hammer Wal-Mart with fines, penalties or criminal prosecutions to support the compliance profession, compliance with the FCPA and doing business ethically. There are business solutions to business problems. If Wal-Mart decides to be a leader in compliance and does so in a public manner, that can do as much for moving forward the compliance profession, FCPA and other anti-corruption law compliance and the general proposition of doing business ethically as well as severe sanctions. Further, if Wal-Mart takes these steps, it can control its future rather than simply reacting going forward.

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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