ABB Ltd, an industrial equipment giant based in Switzerland, seems to have a problem doing business honestly. The company has a tendency to get caught paying bribes to government officials around the world to obtain contracts to supply its goods and services.
The latest example of this came last week, when the U.S. Justice Department announced that ABB would pay a criminal penalty of $315 million to resolve allegations relating to the bribery of a high-ranking official at South Africa’s state-owned energy company. DOJ brought its action under a U.S. law, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but in coordination with prosecutors in Switzerland and South Africa.
At first glance, one might think DOJ is throwing the book at ABB. Yet a closer reading of the announcement reveals that the company is the recipient of a kind of leniency agreement known as a deferred prosecution agreement. Under this arrangement, ABB Ltd pays a penalty but avoids having a criminal conviction.
DOJ did compel two of ABB’s foreign subsidiaries to enter guilty pleas, but freeing the parent of that consequence was a significant concession that allows the company to continue doing business as usual.
In its press release, DOJ congratulates itself on the handling of the case, stating: “This resolution demonstrates the Criminal Division’s thoughtful approach to appropriately balancing ABB’s extensive remediation, timely and full cooperation, and demonstrated intent to bring the misconduct to the department’s attention promptly upon discovering it, while also accounting for ABB’s historical misconduct.”
The last phrase is alluding to the fact that this is not the first time ABB has been charged with bribery by DOJ. In 2010 the company and two subsidiaries were charged in connection with bribes paid to a Mexican state-owned utility company and to officials in Iraq. The outcome was amazingly similar to this year’s case. The parent was offered a deferred prosecution agreement, while two subsidiaries pled guilty. The parties paid criminal penalties totaling $19 million.
There was also a Groundhog Day quality to the announcement last week by the SEC, which handled the parallel civil case against ABB and fined the company $75 million. After mentioning that it relieved ABB of having to pay an additional $72 million in disgorgement because of reimbursements it made to the South African government, the SEC casually noted that “ABB was the subject of two prior FCPA cases by the SEC in 2004 and 2010.” The 2010 case was related to the DOJ action cited above, while the 2004 SEC matter concerned illicit payments in Nigeria, Angola and Kazakhstan.
There is something almost comical about this history. ABB keeps getting caught breaking the rules and keeps promising to mend its ways. DOJ and the SEC keep giving special consideration to a company whose business model seems to depend on the use of improper payments.
Leniency deals such as deferred prosecution agreements are supposed to act as a deterrent against future misconduct, but the arrangement loses all meaning if the company continues to offend and is then offered another agreement. The financial penalties rise, but they are still insignificant for a company with annual revenues of about $30 billion and assets of about $40 billion.
Finding the most effective way to handle corporate crime is no easy task, yet DOJ should at least deny leniency deals to repeat offenders.