What Can You Do When Risk Changes in a Third Party Relationship?

by Thomas Fox

RiskThe GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) corruption matter in China continues to reverberate throughout the international business community, inside and outside China. The more I think about the related trial of Peter Humphrey and his wife, Yu Yingzeng for violating China’s privacy laws regarding their investigation of who filmed the head of GSK’s China unit head in flagrante delicto with his Chinese girlfriend, the more I ponder the issue of risk in the management of third parties under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “Chinese Case Lays Business Tripwires”, reporters James T. Areddy and Laurie Burkitt explored some of the problems brought about by the investigators convictions.

They quoted Manuel Maisog, chief China representative for the law firm Hunton & Williams LLP, who summed up the problem regarding background due diligence investigations as “How can I do that in China?” Maisog went on to say, “The verdict created new uncertainties for doing business in China since the case hinged on the couple’s admissions that they purchased personal information about Chinese citizens on behalf of clients. Companies in China may need to adjust how they assess future merger partners, supplier proposals or whether employees are involved in bribery.”

I had pondered what that meant for a company that wanted to do business in China, through some type of third party relationship, from a sales representative to distributor to a joint venture (JV). What if you cannot get such information? How can you still have a best practices compliance program around third parties representatives if you cannot get information such as ultimate beneficial ownership? At a recent SCCE event, I put that question to a Department of Justice (DOJ) representative. Paraphrasing his response, he said that companies still need to ask the question in a due diligence questionnaire or other format. What if a third party refuses to answer, citing some national law against disclosure? His response was that a company needs to very closely weigh the risk of doing business with a party that refuses to identify its ownership.

The more that I thought about that answer the more I became convinced that it was not only the right answer under any type of FCPA compliance program but also the right response from a business perspective. A company must know who it is doing business with, for a wide variety of reasons. The current situation in China and even the convictions of Humphrey and Yu do not change this basic premise. You can ask the question. If a party does not want to disclose its ownership, you should consider this in any business relationship going forward.

The Humphrey and Yu conviction do not prevent you from asking the question about ownership. Their convictions mean that you may not be able to verify that information through what many people thought was publicly available information, at least publicly available in the west. I was struck by one line in the Areddy and Burkitt article, “It’s not just that the tactical business practices need to change; it’s the mind set” quoting again from Maisog.

I breakdown the management of third parties under the FCPA into five steps, which are:

  1. Business Justification and Business Sponsor;
  2. Questionnaire to Third Party;
  3. Due Diligence on Third Party;
  4. Compliance Terms and Conditions, including payment terms; and
  5. Management and Oversight of Third Parties After Contract Signing.

The due diligence step is but one of these five. Further due diligence is performed in large part to verify the information that you receive back from a proposed third party. So what if you can longer use avenues previously open to you in markets such as China? Perhaps there are other ways to manage this issue. Areddy and Burkitt also interviewed Jerry Ling, a partner at Jones Day, for the following “companies will need to analyze Chinese accounting documents themselves and conduct more in-person interviews with anyone they want to know more about in China.”

Ling’s point dovetails directly into what I heard from the DOJ representative. There is nothing about the Chinese law, or any other country’s law, which prevents you from asking some basic questions that are found in the Step 2 Questionnaire cited above. You can always ask who the owners of a company are, whether they are direct or beneficial. You can always ask if a company, its owners or its senior management have been involved in any incidents involving bribery and corruption and you can always ask if the company has a Code of Conduct and/or compliance program and whether its owners or senior management are aware of the FCPA and have had training on it.

Assuming the company will answer your questionnaire, the difficulty you may find yourself in now is verifying the information that you receive. In Ronald Reagan parlance, you may trust but you may not be able to verify it. Ling said in the WSJ article that “The challenge now for clients is that it’s hard to get good information.”

However, due diligence is but one step in the management of any third party in a FCPA compliance program. Just as when risk goes up and you increase your management around that risk, the situation is similar in here. Putting it another way, if you cannot obtain private information such as personal identification numbers during the due diligence process, you can put greater management around the other steps that you can take. Further, there has been nothing reported which would suggest that publicly filed corporate licenses or other information that might show ownership can no longer be accessed. Court records and public media searches also seem to still be available.

But what if you simply cannot determine if the information you are provided regarding ownership is accurate or even truthful? You can still work to manage the relationship through your commercial terms by setting your commission or other pay rates at a reasonable amount of scale. If you are dealing with a commissioned sales representative, you can probably manage this area of the relationship by setting the commission in the range of 5%. You can also manage the relationship by reviewing invoices to make sure there is an adequate description of the services provided so that they justify whatever compensation the third party is entitled to receive under the contract. You may also want to schedule such a third party for an audit ahead of other parties to help ensure adherence to your compliance terms and conditions.

There may be times when you cannot verify the true or ultimate beneficial owner of a third party. That does not have to be the end of the analysis. If that situation arises, you may want to see if there are other risk mitigation tools at your disposal. Put another way, if such a red flag arises, can it be cleared? Can it be managed? If your company is looking a major deal for multi-millions and your agent will receive a six or seven figure commission, the risk of not knowing with certainty may be too great because in such a case, an unknown owner could be a government official who has awarded the contract. But if your agent receives a considerably smaller commission and hence there is a considerably small amount of money to constitute a bribe, you may be able to manage that risk through a close and effective relationship management process.


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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