Figuring out how to get corporate executives to obey the law has been a perennial challenge. The Justice Department has apparently concluded that the key to compliance may be to threaten something CEOs and other C-Suite bigwigs love dearly: their annual bonuses.
As Law360 reports, compliance experts are abuzz about an unusual provision the DOJ included in the plea agreement it recently negotiated with Denmark’s Danske Bank. The company had agreed to forfeit $2 billion and plead guilty to fraud in connection with allegations that its lax anti-money-laundering (AML) controls allowed shady customers from Russia and other eastern European countries to funnel suspicious funds through Danske’s subsidiary in Estonia.
What is remarkable in the plea agreement is a requirement that Danske tie its executive bonuses to compliance with the stricter AML procedures the bank agreed to implement. The agreement states:
“The Bank will implement evaluation criteria related to compliance in its executive review and bonus system so that each Bank executive is evaluated on what the executive has done to ensure that the executive’s business or department is in compliance with the Compliance Programs and applicable laws and regulations. A failing score in compliance will make the executive ineligible for any bonus for that year.”
The bank is also supposed to structure its compensation system to “incentivize future compliant behavior and discipline executives for conduct occurring after the filing of the Agreement that is later determined to have contributed to future compliance failures.”
Tying executive compensation to compliance is not entirely new. For example, last year the SEC adopted a rule requiring executives at publicly traded companies to return bonuses in the event of erroneous financial reporting. The use of such clawbacks was raised in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act and took a dozen years to come into existence.
I am of two minds about this innovation. On the one hand, it is encouraging that DOJ is experimenting with new ways to punish corrupt behavior in the corporate world. Imposing consequences on individual executives is an improvement over the usual practice of simply having the company pay a monetary penalty to make the case go away.
On the other hand, it is a bit dismaying that the punishment being contemplated for those executives is quite so mild. Taking a hit to a bonus worth six or seven figures may be unpleasant to a corporate executive, but it is far from a multi-year prison sentence.
The focus on financial incentives and disincentives for individual business offenders is consistent with the approach DOJ tends to take when cases are brought against companies. As I wrote about recently, the Department is offering corporations new inducements – in the form of reduced monetary penalties — to get them to voluntarily disclose misconduct. This is addition to continuing the practice of allowing companies to enter into leniency agreements known as deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements so they do not have to plead guilty to criminal charges.
Time and again, we see corporate miscreants treated with kid gloves. The repeated calls for getting tough on crime never seem to apply when the offenses occur in the suites rather than the streets.