Bharti Walmart India – Internal FCPA Investigation – Part II

The previous post raised more questions than gave answers. In light of the on-going investigation, it is difficult to predict results. However, I looked at the recently released FCPA Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. It sets some clear guidelines and mentions earlier cases with similar issues. It is a good read for Indian managers working in multinationals dealing with FCPA compliance requirements. I am sharing below some insights about the implications of the case.

1.      Liability of Indian Employees

As per reports, the CFO and the legal team were suspended during the course of the investigation. If the US Department of Justice decides to pursue a criminal case, these employees can be prosecuted.

Interestingly enough, the Indian managers consider their capability to bribe various government officials to get a job done as strength. One often hears them saying – “Oh, I have a contact; s/he will do the job for X amount of money. Don’t worry about the legal provisions, they can be circumvented.” Since one rarely hears any action being taken by regulators on the provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act of India, hardly anyone hesitates to take or accept a bribe.

However, Indian employees working in multinationals have to think twice about paying a bribe to get a job done. The FCPA guidelines are strict. It states – “The FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions can apply to conduct both inside and outside the United States. Issuers and domestic concerns—as well as their officers, directors, employees, agents, or stockholders—may be prosecuted for using the U.S. mails or any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce in furtherance of a corrupt payment to a foreign official.” Hence, even sending mails to US boss or colleague that involves a discussion of a bribe payment can make an Indian employee liable. Considering the provisions, the best policy for Indian employees is to keep their hands clean and follow the legal process diligently.

Another aspect to note is that a bribe does not need to be paid to hold an employee liable. The guidance note says – “Also, as long as the offer, promise, authorization, or payment is made corruptly, the actor need not know the identity of the recipient; the attempt is sufficient. Thus, an executive who authorizes others to pay “whoever you need to” in a foreign government to obtain a contract has violated the FCPA—even if no bribe is ultimately offered or paid.” Hence, Indian management and employees both can be prosecuted on this basis.

2.      Challenges for Licenses

With the opening of the retail sector, multinationals need to obtain various licenses to operate in India. The challenge is getting the licenses according to their business strategy and plan.

For instance, IKEA recently obtained from Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB) to invest euros 1.5 billion to open 25 stores in India. However, IKEA was granted permission to open single brand stores for furniture only. It was denied permission to sell textiles, office supplies, food and drinks.

Now the question is, under these circumstances what options will the foreign investor consider? Will they agree to sell products according to permission? The permissions maybe denied for the most profitable lines of products. It may not make sense to sell products with low margins. Hence, they will have the difficult choice of either not entering the Indian market or attempt to influence the government agencies to grant permissions for selling other products. If the second option is chosen, there is a high probability of bribes being paid. More so, since Indian government officials know what will hurt the business venture of the foreign company, they might use denial tactics to coerce the organization into paying bribes. Hence, it is a vicious circle.

A LinkedIn member gave a useful suggestion to curb bribes in the licensing process. Rangarajan Gopalan, Investigator US Department of Homeland Securities in New Delhi,  suggested a single window concept for obtaining licenses in retail industry. If government implements the suggestion, the retail companies will not have to run around 32 different agencies to get licenses.

3.      Partner Liabilities  

In the event of the holding-subsidiary relationship or joint venture partnership, the Indian company can be charged jointly and/or separately.

The guidance note illustrated the implications with a previous case. For instance, “a four-company joint venture used two agents—a British lawyer and a Japanese trading company—to bribe Nigerian government officials in order to win a series of liquefied natural gas construction projects. Together, the four multi-national corporations and the Japanese trading company paid a combined $1.7 billion in civil and criminal sanctions for their decade-long bribery scheme. In addition, the subsidiary of one of the companies pleaded guilty and a number of individuals, including the British lawyer and the former CEO of one of the companies’ subsidiaries, received significant prison terms.”

Hence, if the US company is ignorant of the bribes being paid by Indian employees to conduct business, the Indian employees can face criminal charges and the Indian organization may have to pay hefty fines.

Closing Thoughts

The Indian organizations need to assess their FCPA compliance level and not take the issue lightly. The repercussions of ignoring the issue are huge. The legal and reputation risks can put the company to a great disadvantage. Moreover, the employees must follow the legal process rather than find ways to circumvent it.

 References: 

  1. FCPA Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  2. FIPB clears IKEA retail store plan
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