In the latest example of ongoing efforts at the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission to crack down on violators of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), Daimler agreed last week to pay $185 million in penalties to settle charges it repeatedly and systematically paid bribes to foreign-government officials. The company also agreed to retain an independent compliance monitor for three years, selecting former FBI director Louis Freeh for the post.
The SEC had alleged that employees at the German automaker made improper payments to officials in at least 22 different countries over a period of more than 10 years. “It is no exaggeration to describe corruption and bribe-paying at Daimler as standard business practice,” said Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in a statement.
The facts of the Daimler case are typical of FCPA investigations, according to Alexandra Wrage, president of TRACE International, a nonprofit membership organization that helps companies develop and implement antibribery programs. But the revelation that Daimler employees continued to pay bribes as late as 2008 — four years after the SEC began its investigation of the company, and well after news broke of major FCPA violations at Siemens, another German multinational — came as a surprise, she says.
“It’s striking that this sort of a case, at this level and this widespread, was going on so recently at a large, publicly traded company,” says Wrage. “Particularly in Germany, where Siemens really startled people.”
For finance chiefs, the case highlights the need to design and monitor comprehensive antibribery programs at their company. “The documents in the Daimler case make it pretty clear that the company took a couple of initial steps that were probably in the right direction, but they didn’t back it up,” says Wrage. “CFOs who think they’re OK because their company has posted something on the Internet saying ‘Bribery is bad’ in a couple of different languages need to know that that’s not going to cut it.”
U.S. authorities also recently reached a settlement with British defense contractor BAE Systems, which agreed to pay a total of nearly $500 million in penalties to the U.S. and U.K. governments after a joint investigation found the company lacked an adequate anticorruption program. The two governments are also collaborating on an ongoing investigation of aluminum producer Alcoa.
Although Mark Mendelsohn, deputy chief of the DoJ’s fraud section and a key figure in FCPA enforcement, is expected to leave his post soon, Wrage says the government is maintaining its focus on foreign bribery. The SEC, for example, is dedicating a team of 25 lawyers to the issue. “The SEC is staffing up with a new team, and the pipeline is full of these cases,” says Wrage. “If you as a CFO have all the risk that Sarbanes-Oxley and other laws bring, why you wouldn’t take the FCPA seriously is beyond me.”