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Whom to suspend during any Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) investigation is always a delicate question to answer. Unfortunately there is never an easy answer. As the Volkswagen (VW) emission-testing scandal continues to reverberate, it continues to bring up some very knotty questions, which have bedeviled the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner in many areas. Today there is an example around internal investigations.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) entitled “Scope of VW Suspensions Grows”, William Boston reported on the ongoing internal investigation by the company’s outside counsel Jones Day. Boston noted that VW had “suspended a larger number of engineers than previously acknowledged, following a recommendation from the law firm conducting” the investigation. The article went on to state, “Jones Day urged suspension of anyone who could have been involved in the scam – from high level decision makers to ordinary engineers – to prevent possible perpetrators from tampering with the evidence”.
This final statement emphasizes a key consideration in a FCPA investigation, which is to tie down the evidence. White collar practitioner and FCPA counsel Mara Senn has said that “probably from the government’s perspective, the most important aspect of setting up an investigation in a way that makes them feel comfortable, is ensuring that all data is locked down.” However, if you are worried about evidence tampering you may have a bigger problem on your hands.
Pointing up the difficulties in making such a blanket sweep an un-named source, who provided this information to Boston, was quoted as saying “We had to suspend everyone in this area to get them out of the way of this process. This is necessary for the investigation, but it’s really hard for us because we are now missing their professional knowledge and experience.”
This issue brings up another point that Senn has discussed, around when to suspend or discipline an employee during an internal investigation. Senn related, “That is a very case-by-case difficult question to answer, but in general, I think it’s better to keep them around for as long as you may need them. Once they’ve been fired or otherwise disciplined, really, even if you keep them around, they’re going to be less cooperative with you and possibly, if you fire them, not cooperative at all. You can require them to be cooperative in the termination agreement, but obviously in practice, cooperation can mean a lot of different things.”
In view of the recent Schrems decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), I also wonder how the investigation will fair with the German based employees? Obviously there will be data that in the US would be deemed company-owned but in Europe it may well be private to the employee being investigated. This problem became even greater with the recent decision by Privacy Regulators from 28 EU nations that backed the ECJ’s Schrems decision that invalidated the Safe Harbor regime. As reported by Jo Sherman in the FCPA Blog, “that closed the legal pipeline by which data has flowed freely from the EU to the U.S. for the last 15 years. The rationale for the court decision and the subsequent backing of the EU Data Protection Authorities is that the surveillance powers of the U.S. government are considered to be too excessive and disproportionate, and can override the data protections for EU citizens under the Safe Harbor framework.”
As well known UK data privacy expert Jonathan Armstrong has stated, “that the only way at this point was to obtain the consent of the person being investigated. However the obtaining of such consent raises a host of other problems. He said, “Can I really get consent in an internal investigation? Can I go along, speak to my Austrian agent and say, “Peter, I just need you to sign this form to transfer your data to the US”? Now, for consent to be valid the European legislation it has to be fully explained, it has to be honest, it can’t be deceptive. I’ve got to say to him, “I want you to sign this form because I want to investigate you. I want to run a full FCPA investigation; you’re the prime suspect. I want to take a look at your emails and I have to inform you that by the way, you have the right not to consent and if you don’t consent there’s no way I can investigate you. Could you sign the form, please?”” As Armstrong went on to note, “What answer is he likely to give in an internal investigation and how would the US authorities feel if I go and tip off the main suspect that he’s under investigation?”
Yet there is another concern for the Jones Day investigators going forward. Sherman stated in the FCPA Blog, “EU Data Protection Authorities are already prepared to bring enforcement actions early next year against EU-U.S. data transfers that were previously protected by the Safe Harbor framework but are now considered to potentially violate privacy rights of EU citizens.” So the lawyers might put themselves at risk if they violate the privacy rights of Europeans in a manner that would not offend US law enforcement authorities.
Yet regarding any use of the evidence that you might gather, Armstrong put it more starkly when he said, “you’re going to get no sympathy from the bribery prosecutors, bribery regulators if you mess this up. The SFO [Serious Fraud Office] has already lost the case, allegedly, on the way in which the US firm involved conducted the investigation. They will have, rightly I think, no sympathy at all for people whose investigations are themselves conducted unlawfully. It’s going to need a lot of careful thought to structure data transfers, even to structure interviews. How do you move those interview notes about, how do you look at emails, all of this stuff is going to be absolutely critical not only so that you don’t break data privacy data protection laws, but also tipping off witness, you know, interfering with the scene of an investigation, et cetera, et cetera. All of these things are critical.” I would only add whatever level of sympathy you might receive from the SFO, it is likely to be distinctly lower at the Department of Justice (DOJ) or Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Visit FCPA Compliance and Ethics, 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.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015
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