Archive for the ‘Bribery’ Category

Corporate Recidivism

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

The announcements by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission that they had each charged Tyco International with engaging in foreign bribery was not just another all-too-familiar instance of corporate misconduct. It is an indicator of how a large corporation can be repeatedly drawn to illicit behavior even after being embroiled in a huge scandal that shook it to its core.

In the early 2000s, Tyco ranked with Enron and WorldCom as the leading symbols of the sleazy side of big business. In 2002 its chairman and CEO Dennis Kozlowski resigned amid reports that he was being investigated for evading more than $1 million in sales taxes due on artwork for his $18 million apartment on Park Avenue.

That was just the beginning. Kozlowski and Tyco’s former chief financial officer Mark Swartz were then indicted in a racketeering lawsuit charging them with looting the company of some $600 million through stock fraud, falsified expense accounts and other means. During their trial, details were revealed about Kozlowski’s lavish lifestyle—including what would become an infamous $6,000 shower curtain—based on what the prosecution called his misappropriation of company funds. In 2005, the two men were convicted of fraud, conspiracy and grand larceny; they were sentenced to 8-25 years in prison.

While the actions of Kozlowski and Swartz were meant to enrich themselves, Tyco benefited from other questionable maneuvers, such as the transfer of its corporate domicile offshore to Bermuda to avoid paying some $400 million a year in federal income taxes. In December 2002 the company, acknowledging what had long been suspected, admitted that for years it had engaged in financial gimmickry to inflate its reported earnings.

An internal investigation documented that Tyco managers had been openly encouraged to engage in creative accounting to give investors a misleadingly rosy view of how the company was performing. At the time, Tyco reduced its stated earnings by $382 million and later reported another $1 billion in accounting irregularities. In 2006 Tyco agreed to pay $50 million to settle SEC charges related to the accounting improprieties, and the following year it paid $3 billion to settle related class-action investor lawsuits.

In an effort to improve its reputation with shareholders, Tyco has undergone several restructurings and spinoffs. It also moved its legal headquarters from Bermuda to Switzerland, where the tax avoidance possibilities are apparently even more attractive.

Yet the one thing that should have been the top priority—ending its ethical shortcomings—apparently fell off the list, if the new SEC complaint is any indication.

According to the agency, Tyco repeatedly violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act through illicit payments to officials in more than a dozen countries during a period that began before 2006 and continued at least until 2009. After settling its earlier case with the SEC, Tyco allegedly continued to cook its books to disguise the bribes its subsidiaries were paying in places such as Turkey, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

At the same time the SEC and Justice Department revealed their actions against Tyco, the agencies announced that the company had settled the civil and criminal charges by agreeing to pay a total of $26 million—less than what it paid the SEC six years ago.

This comes across as a slap on the wrist for a company which had previously been accused of serious accounting fraud and which was supposed to cleaning up its act. The fact that Tyco could be granted a non-prosecution agreement for the criminal conspiracy charge is especially odious.

Both the SEC and Justice seemed to be trying to justify the light penalties by praising Tyco for cooperating in the investigation of the bribery. Yet this is the same company that was supposed to have rooted out its culture of corruption long ago.

It didn’t do a very good job of that, and the $26 million penalties—for a company with more than $17 billion in annual revenue and $1.7 billion in profits—does not create much pressure to end the profitable misconduct.

If there’s one thing that can be said for Kozlowski and the others who looted Tyco and cooked its books, it’s that they thought big. The prosecutors deciding on penalties for the company’s misdeeds should do the same.

Corruption and Concentration

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

The United States has by far the fattest military budget in the world, but soon the biggest company providing much of that weaponry could be European. Britain’s BAE Systems and Airbus parent EADS have announced plans to join forces, creating the world’s largest aerospace and military contracting corporation.

Business analysts are focusing on the challenge such a merger would pose to the companies’ U.S. rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin, while little mention is being made of the fact that the deal would bring together two of the most ethically challenged large corporations in the world today.

For most of the past decade, BAE has been confronted with allegations that the company engaged in widespread bribery in its dealings with foreign governments. The charges began to receive significant attention in June 2003, when The Guardian reported that the U.S. government had privately accused BAE of offering bribes to officials in the Czech Republic. The Guardian went on to report that BAE was facing bribery allegations in three additional countries: India, South Africa and Qatar. Among the charges was that BAE had paid millions of pounds in secret commissions to obtain a huge deal, backed by the British government, to sell Hawk jets to South Africa. There were subsequent allegations that the company had formed a £20 million slush fund (later said to be £60 million) for paying bribes to officials in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s.

Despite denials by the company, Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launched a criminal investigation of the bribery charges, focusing on the allegations regarding Saudi Arabia. BAE and the Saudi embassy reportedly lobbied intensively to have the probe terminated, and in December 2006 their effort paid off. The British government called a halt to the case because of national security concerns. (In April 2008 Britain’s High Court ruled that the termination of the investigation was unlawful, but in July 2008 the House of Lords overruled the court.) The SFO did, however, continue to investigate BAE’s questionable behavior in six other countries. The company was also being investigated by Swiss officials for possible money laundering violations.

Unable to escape these allegations, BAE announced in June 2007 that it would commission its own purportedly independent examination of the issues led by Lord Woolf, former lord chief justice of England and Wales. The Woolf Committee’s 150-page report, released in May 2008, stated that BAE’s top executives “acknowledged that the Company did not in the past pay sufficient attention to ethical standards and avoid activities that had the potential to give rise to reputational damage.” However, the report seems to have bowed to the wishes of the company that the focus be placed on the future rather than the past. The report provided what it called “a route map for the Company to establish a global reputation for ethical business conduct.” Among its 23 recommendations is that BAE “continue to forbid facilitation payments as a matter of global policy.” Given the less than draconian nature of the recommendations, it is no surprise that BAE agreed to adopt all of them.

A new front in BAE’s problems with questionable payments opened in late July 2008, when the Financial Times reported that it had seen documents suggesting that the company had paid at least £20 million to a company linked to a Zimbabwean arms trade close to controversial President Robert Mugabe.

In February 2010 BAE reached settlements with the U.S. Justice Department and the U.K. Serious Fraud Office concerning the longstanding bribery charges. The company agreed to pay $400 million in the U.S. and the equivalent of about $47 million in Britain to resolve the cases.

Confidential U.S. government cables given leaked to the press by Wikileaks in 2011 indicated that BAE had paid more than £70 million in bribes to Saudi officials to support its help win a contract for fighter jets.

EADS has been embroiled in its own corruption controversies. In mid-2006 a scandal emerged regarding EADS co-chief executive Noel Forgeard. French and German market regulators announced that they were looking into the timing of substantial sales of EADS stock by Forgeard and members of his family that occurred just before the company announced delays in the production of the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet. Forgeard initially claiming the timing was coincidental, but within a few weeks he was forced to resign, as was the head of Airbus, Gustav Humbert.

That did not put an end to the insider trading investigation. In December 2006 French police searched the Paris headquarters of EADS and that of its main French shareholder, the Lagardère conglomerate. In April 2008 a formal complaint was filed against EADS as well as more than a dozen current and former executives. The following month preliminary charges were brought against Forgeard and then against former deputy chief executive Jean-Paul Gut. In December 2009, however, French authorities concluded there was insufficient evidence against the executives.

Prior to the insider trading affair, EADS and/or Airbus had been named in numerous scandals around the world involving alleged bribery. A 2003 article in The Economist described a pattern of foreign bribes paid by Airbus throughout its history, noting that the French government tolerated such payments until 2000.

One of the most significant controversies occurred in Canada, where former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was investigated over charges that he took bribes from German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber to induce Air Canada (then government controlled) to purchase $1.2 billion worth of Airbus planes in 1988. Mulroney denied the allegation vehemently and sued his own government, winning an apology and a cash settlement. The allegations were kept alive when Schreiber brought a civil suit against Mulroney, but Schreiber ended up making contradictory statements about the matter.

In December 2007 the government of India cancelled a $600 million order for military helicopters from Eurocopter after allegations that there had been corruption in the bidding process.

Just last month, it was reported that Britain’s SFO has launched a criminal probe of claims that a unit of EADS bribed officials in Saudi Arabia to win a $3 billion communications contract. The company asked PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a parallel investigation.

Given the records of these two corporations, the regulators who will be deciding whether to approve the merger should also consider what conditions could be imposed on the combined company to get it to put an end to its legacy of corruption.

Will Discredited Murdoch Get His U.S. Comeuppance?

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

The recently released UK parliamentary report on the phone hacking scandal involving News Corporation is destined to become a classic exposition of corporate misconduct.

Its authors appear to have exhausted their thesaurus in coming up with various ways of accusing the company and its top executives, including CEO Rupert Murdoch, of deceit. The company’s long-time claim that the hacking was the work of a single “rogue reporter” is described as “false” (p.7) and “no longer [having] any shred of credibility” (p.67). Various assertions made by the company are said to have been “proven to be untrue” (p.9). Company officials are portrayed as having acted “to perpetuate a falsehood” (p.84), “failing to release to the Committee documents that would have helped to expose the truth” (p.14) and as having “repeatedly stonewalled, obfuscated and misled” (p.68).

The report does not come out and directly call Rupert Murdoch a dirty rotten liar, but it makes the same point in a more biting way when it says of the media mogul’s official testimony: “Rupert Murdoch has demonstrated excellent powers of recall and grasp of detail, when it has suited him” (p.68).

In language rare for a government document to use about a powerful corporation and its top executive, the report declares:

On the basis of the facts and evidence before the Committee, we conclude that, if at all relevant times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications. This culture, we consider, permeated from the top throughout the organisation and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International. We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company (p.70).

As satisfying as this statement is to read, my primary reaction is: what took so long? Murdoch has been the CEO of News Corp. for more than 30 years, and during that time he has done untold damage to the integrity and quality of the media industry worldwide. The phone hacking scandal was not an aberration in the history of the company or the career of its leader.

Murdoch has been unfit to lead at least since the 1970s, when he began acquiring major publications in the United Kingdom and the United States and infusing them with an insidious combination of sensationalism and Neanderthal politics. In the UK he also declared war on the newspaper unions.

Once he was firmly established as a print baron, Murdoch moved into broadcasting and film through the acquisition of Metromedia’s U.S. TV stations and the Twentieth Century-Fox movie studio. In the process he ran roughshod over federal newspaper/broadcasting cross-ownership regulations and played a major role in the decision by the feds to undermine those rules. Murdoch used his U.S. broadcasting empire not just to make money but to exercise a toxic influence on political discourse, especially through the Fox News Channel launched in 1996.

For Murdoch there has never been a clear dividing line between business and politics. He’s used his properties to promote his political views, and he’s used his political connections—even in a place such as China—to advance his business interests.

This practice has extended into the realm of book publishing, in which Murdoch has played a major role since the acquisition of HarperCollins (previously Harper & Row) in 1987. Murdoch has been accused of using Harper to curry favor with key political figures via lavish book deals. The most notorious of these cases involved none other than Newt Gingrich, who was revealed in 1994 to have received a $4.5 million advance on a two-book deal at a time when he was Speaker of the House and thus in a position to influence legislation to the benefit of News Corp.

It came out that Gingrich met with Murdoch personally shortly before signing the deal was struck. Although Gingrich called the criticism “grotesque and disgusting,” the controversy forced him to forgo the advance. HarperCollins also offered generous advances to other public figures such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While the legal troubles of Murdoch and News Corp. continue in the UK, the question is whether there will be consequences on this side of the Atlantic, where the company is headquartered. The bribery aspects of the phone hacking call out for prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and there has been speculation about such as investigation since last summer.

For too long, Murdoch has sidestepped U.S. law to build his empire, even going so far as to become an American citizen to get around restrictions on foreign media ownership. There would a delicious irony if what finally brought his comeuppance is misbehavior outside the country.

Wal-Mart and Watergate

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Wal-Mart has been probably been accused of more types of misconduct than any other large corporation. The latest additions to the list are bribery and obstruction of justice. In an 8,000-word exposé published recently in the New York Times, top executives at the giant retailer are reported to have thwarted and ultimately shelved an internal investigation of extensive bribes paid by lower-level company officials to expand Wal-Mart’s market share in Mexico.

While Wal-Mart’s outrageous behavior is often in a class by itself, the bribery aspects of the allegations are far from unique. In fact, Wal-Mart is actually a late arrival to a sizeable group of major corporations that have found themselves in legal jeopardy because of what in corporate circles are politely called questionable foreign payments.

That jeopardy has grown more significant in recent years as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice have stepped up enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, which prohibits overseas bribery by U.S.-based corporations and foreign companies with a substantial presence in the United States.

It is often forgotten that the Watergate scandal of the 1970s was not only about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Investigations by the Senate and the Watergate Special Prosecutor forced companies such as 3M, American Airlines and Goodyear Tire & Rubber to admit that they or their executives had made illegal contributions to the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Subsequent inquiries into illegal payments of all kinds led to revelations that companies such as Lockheed, Northrop and Gulf Oil had engaged in widespread foreign bribery. Under pressure from the SEC, more than 150 publicly traded companies admitted that they had been involved in questionable overseas payments or outright bribes to obtain contracts from foreign governments. A 1976 tally by the Council on Economic Priorities found that more than $300 million in such payments had been disclosed in what some were calling “the Business Watergate.”

While some observers insisted that a certain amount of baksheesh was necessary to making deals in many parts of the world, Congress responded to the revelations by enacting the FCPA in late 1977. For the first time, bribery of foreign government officials was a criminal offense under U.S. law, with fines up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to five years.

The ink was barely dry on the FCPA when U.S. corporations began to complain that it was putting them at a competitive disadvantage. The Carter Administration’s Justice Department responded by signaling that it would not be enforcing the FCPA too vigorously. That was one Carter policy that the Reagan Administration was willing to adopt. In fact, Reagan’s trade representative Bill Brock led an effort to get Congress to weaken the law, but the initiative failed.

The Clinton Administration took a different approach—trying to get other countries to adopt rules similar to the FCPA. In 1997 the industrial countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reached agreement on an anti-bribery convention. In subsequent years, the number of FCPA cases remained at a miniscule level—only a handful a year. Optimists were claiming this was because the law was having a remarkable deterrent effect. Skeptics said that companies were being more careful to conceal their bribes, and prosecutors were focused elsewhere.

Any illusion that commercial bribery was a rarity was dispelled in 2005, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker released the final results of the investigation he had been asked to conduct of the Oil-for-Food Program in Iraq. Volcker’s group found that more than half of the 4,500 companies participating in the program—which was supposed to ease the impact of Western sanctions on Iraq—had paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to the government of Saddam Hussein. Among those companies were Siemens, DaimlerChrysler and the French bank BNP Paribas.

The Volcker investigation, the OECD convention, and the Sarbanes-Oxley law (whose mandates about financial controls made it more difficult to conceal improper payments) breathed new life into FCPA enforcement during the final years of the Bush Administration and after President Obama took office.

The turning point came in November 2007, when Chevron agreed to pay $30 million to settle charges about its role in Oil-for-Food corruption. Then, in late 2008, Siemens agreed to pay the Justice Department, the SEC and European authorities a record $1.6 billion in fines to settle charges that it had routinely paid bribes to secure large public works projects around the world. This was a huge payout in relation to previous FCPA penalties, yet it was a bargain in that the big German company avoided a guilty plea or conviction that would have disqualified it from continuing to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts.

In February 2009 Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root agreed to pay a total of $579 million to resolve allegations that they bribed government officials in Nigeria over a ten-year period. A year later, the giant British military contractor BAE Systems reached settlements totaling more than $400 million with the Justice Department and the UK Serious Fraud Office to resolve longstanding multi-country bribery allegations. In April 2010 Daimler and three of its subsidiaries paid $93 million to resolve FCPA charges. Other well-known companies that have settled similar bribery cases since the beginning of 2011 include Tyson Foods, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson. In most cases companies have followed the lead of Siemens in negotiating non-prosecution or deferred prosecution deals that avoided criminal convictions.

A quarter century after the Watergate investigation revealed a culture of corruption in the foreign dealings of major corporations, the new wave of FCPA prosecutions suggests that little has changed. There is one difference, however. Whereas the bribery revelations of the 1970s elicited a public outcry, the cases of the past few years have generated relatively little comment in the United States—except for the complaints of corporate apologists that the FCPA is too severe. Among those apologists are board members of the Institute for Legal Reform (a division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), whose ranks have included the top ethics officer of Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart case could turn out to be a much bigger deal than previous FCPA cases—for the simple reason that the mega-retailer appears to have forgotten Watergate’s central lesson that the cover-up is often punished more severely than the crime. A company that has often avoided serious consequences for its past misconduct may finally pay a high price.