Board Investigations and the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – Part I

Board Investigations and the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – Part I

 On this day in 1923, the tomb of King Tut was opened. It created a worldwide stir that has in many ways continued down into the 21st century. Clearly, the boy ruler influenced Steve Martin (How’d you get so funky?, Funky Tut). Moreover, when the King Tut exhibit first toured the US in the 1970s, it sold out everywhere that it went. And, of course, there was the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, which led to some great Universal classic horror pictures. This curse may have killed the dig’s benefactor, Lord Carnarvon who died just months after entering the tomb in November 1923, but the archeologist who discovered King Tut, Howard Carter, seemingly outlived the curse, dying at the age of 64 on the eve of World War II.

I thought about the techniques employed by these two archeologists in the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb when I read an article in the Corporate Board magazine, entitled “Successful Board Investigations” by David Bayless and Tammy Albarrán, partners in the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP. Why the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb? It is because if a Board of Directors does not get an investigation which it handles right, the consequences can be quite severe. Over the next two posts I will explore the article by Bayless and Albarrán. Today in Part I, I will review the author’s five key objectives, which they believe a board must pursue to ensure a successful investigation. Tomorrow. in Part II, I will review the authors seven considerations to facilitate a successful board investigation.

The authors recognize that the vast majority of investigations will be handled or directed by in-house counsel. However, if and when such an investigation is needed, it is critical that it be handled with great care and skill. The authors note that “While this task is fraught with peril, there are a number of steps a board can take to ensure that the investigation accomplishes the board’s goals, which will enable it to make informed decisions, and withstands scrutiny by third parties” because it is this third party scrutiny, in the form of regulators, government officials, judges/arbitrators or plaintiffs’ counsel in shareholder actions, who will be reviewing any investigation commissioned by a Board of Directors. The authors believe that there are five key goals that any investigation led by a Board of Directors must meet. They are:

Thoroughness - The authors believe that one of the key, and most critical, questions that any regulator might pose is just how thorough is an investigation; to test whether they can rely on the facts discovered without having to repeat the investigation themselves. Regulators tend to be skeptical of investigations where limits are placed (expressly or otherwise) on the investigators, in terms of what is investigated, or how the investigation is conducted. This question can be an initial deal-killer particularly if the regulator involved views an investigation insufficiently thorough, its credibility is undermined. And, of course, it can lead to the dreaded ‘Where else’ question.

  • Objectivity - Here the authors write that any “investigation must follow the facts wherever they lead, regardless of the consequences. This includes how the findings may impact senior management or other company employees. An investigation seen as lacking objectivity will be viewed by outsiders as inadequate or deficient.” I would add that in addition to the objectivity requirement in the investigation, the same must be had with the investigators themselves. If a company uses its regular outside counsel, it may be viewed with some askance, particularly if the client is a high volume client of the law firm involved, either in dollar amounts or in number of matters handled by the firm.
  • Accuracy - As in any part of a best practices anti-corruption compliance program, the three most important things are Document, Document and Document. This means that the factual findings of an investigation must be well supported. For if the developed facts are not well supported, the authors believe that the investigation is “open to collateral attack by skeptical prosecutors and regulators. If that happens, the time and money spent on the internal investigation will have been wasted, because the government will end up conducting its own investigation of the same issues.” This is never good and your company may well lose what little credibility and good will that it may have engendered by self-reporting or self-investigating.
  • Timeliness - Certainly in the world of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement, an internal investigation should be done quickly. This has become even more necessary with the tight deadlines set under the Dodd-Frank Act Whistleblower provisions. But there are other considerations for a public company such as an impending Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) quarterly or annual report that may need to be deferred absent as a timely resolution of the matter. Lastly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) or SEC may view delaying an investigation as simply a part of document spoliation. So timeliness is crucial.
  • Credibility - One of the realities of any FCPA investigation is that a Board of Directors led investigation is reviewed after the fact by not only skeptical third parties but also sometimes years after the initial events and investigation. So not only is there the opportunity for Monday-Morning Quarterbacking but quite a bit of post event analysis. So the authors believe that any Board of Directors led investigation “must be (and must be perceived as) credible as to what was done, how it was done, and who did it. Otherwise, the board’s work will have been for naught.”

To help manage these five issues the authors have seven tangible considerations they suggest that a Board of Directors follow to help make an investigation successful. In a later post I will review and scrutinize these seven considerations.

 Visit the FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog, hosted by Thomas Fox, for more commentary on FCPA compliance, indemnities and other forms of risk management for a worldwide energy practice, tax issues faced by multi-national US companies, insurance coverage issues and protection of trade secrets.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

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