All Over This One

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In the United States, bribery of a public official is illegal. Public officials, on a state, local or national level, tend to hold a lot of power. It would not be right to allow those among us with deep pockets to use the contents of said pockets to get unfair benefits, such as no-bid contracts, tax breaks and “get out of jail free” passes. In 1977, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) made it illegal for U.S. persons, companies and their subsidiaries to bribe foreign government officials. The FCPA was further amended in 1998 to apply to foreign people and companies whose payments pass through the United States. The FCPA also applies if a foreign party authorizes a bribe via an email that is stored on a server in the United States. It is a far-reaching law with two main provisions – an anti-bribery provision that is generally enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and accounting and record-keeping provision that is generally enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

A huge incentive to not violate the FCPA is the severity of the punishment. The criminal and civil fines for violating the FCPA apply to companies and individuals alike. Companies can be fined up to a maximum of twice the benefits sought by the bribe. For individuals, fines can be up to $5 million and 20 years in jail. Fines and jail time can apply for either the corrupt payment or violation of the books and records provision. In addition to the fines, companies may also receive sanctions such as the loss of export licenses and disqualification from U.S. government contracting. For example, in 2008, Siemens was fined more than $1.3 billion by the DOJ, the SEC and German regulators and, more recently, Walmart is under investigation for bribery of officials in Mexico, China and elsewhere.

To avoid the fines and jail time, individuals and firms must comply with both provisions of the FCPA. The first, bribery, seems straightforward but I shall go over it so we are clear.

  1. Do not make payments to public officials in order to get special favors. An officer at state-owned entity is also considered a public official. It is safest, and ethical, to not pay bribes to anyone. However, be mindful of the fact that bribes of public officials will get you into the most trouble.
  2. If you invite public officials on a trip to show off your business or to a conference, do not throw in extras, such as a trip to Disneyland for their family. Keep it all above-board and about business.
  3. “Gifts” such as watches that costs thousands of dollars or a suitcase of cash are taboo.
  4. Payments related to the political campaigns of foreign governments are also not allowed.

The accounting provisions are where the forensic accountant is very active, working for both the companies and for the DOJ and SEC. Corporations covered by the FCPA are required to make and maintain books and records that accurately and fairly reflect their transactions and to devise and keep a sufficient system of internal controls. This is so that government agencies inspecting the books and records of the corporation will be able to easily see that the corporation is in compliance with the anti-bribery laws. The controls are so that the employees of the corporation do have the opportunity to commit fraud or bribery. When companies and individuals are paying bribes to public officials, it is highly likely that they will try to hide these transactions in their ledgers so they are not immediately identifiable as illegal transactions.

Companies with international operations will often have a department that review the books and internal control systems to ensure that they are complying with FCPA provisions. From time to time, the company may call in a forensic accountant to perform an internal investigation. This may happen either because the company suspects that untoward behavior has occurred or as a periodic review of their books and systems.

The DOJ and SEC will also employ the services of forensic accountants when they investigate companies and individuals that they suspect of violating the FCPA. When cases like this happen, there will be forensic accountants working for both the government agencies and the entity being investigated. In addition to discovering whether or not bribery has occurred, the company and the government agencies seek to determine the extent of the violations and determine the value of the gains realized and, therefore, the fines and other penalties to be levied by the government and avoided by the corporation. These investigations can be very extensive and span several continents, depending on the size and reach of the corporation. Financial forensic experts are instrumental and very involved in these investigations, tracing payments and working diligently to find what the corporation has tried to hide both on and off its books.

Often, an element of a FCPA settlement is the appointment of a multi-year monitor. This happens after the investigation and is an area where forensic accountants can use their expertise to examine the company’s control environment and record-keeping and assess the progress the company has made toward compliance with the law.

In recent years, the DOJ and the SEC have become very aggressive about enforcing the FCPA. In addition to this, other nations have enacted their own anti-bribery laws; the U.K. Bribery Act of 2010 has been in force since July 2011 and criminalizes bribe payments to private individuals as well as government officials. Also, there is more and more international cooperation in the investigation and enforcement of this law. Through it all, the work and expertise of financial forensic experts are extensive and vital. A lot of big firm lawyers think of the FCPA when they think of forensic accountants. It is indeed one of the many places you will find the financial forensic expert.

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One thought on “All Over This One

  1. […] paper to read about a bribery investigation that the SEC has launched. As I have discussed before, bribery of foreign public officials by US companies is illegal and it appears that the SEC is looking into whether this has happened with JPMorgan’s China […]

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