The First FCPA Enforcement Action Against a Foreign Issuer, Plus an Interesting Issue

The First FCPA Enforcement Action Against a Foreign Issuer, Plus an Interesting Issue

 This article was reprinted with permission from FCPA Professor

[This post is part of a periodic series regarding "old" FCPA enforcement actions]

In 1996, the SEC brought this civil complaint against Montedison, an Italian corporation with headquarters in Milan that had interests in the agro-industry, chemical, energy and engineering sectors.  The enforcement action was principally a financial fraud case as the SEC alleged that the company committed “financial fraud by falsifying documents to inflate artificially the company’s financial statements.”  (See here for the SEC’s release).

However, the enforcement action also included allegations that Montedison violated the FCPA’s books and records and internal control provisions based on allegations that the company concealed “hundreds of million of dollars of payments that, among other things, were used to bribe politicians in Italy and other persons.”

As described in the SEC’s complaint, Montedison wanted to enter into a joint venture with an Italian state energy agency and “determined to secure political backing” to change the terms of the underlying joint venture agreement as well as overturn a judge’s decision that had the effect of making the proposed transaction more difficult.  According to the complaint, “Montedison determined that to achieve these ends, the company would need to pay extensive bribes.”

The complaint then states:

“In an attempt to do so, Montedison management entered into an arrangement with a Rome real estate developer (the “Developer”), who was developing real estate complexes in Rome for Montedison at that time.  Under their agreement, Montedison, directly or through companies it controlled, effected numerous real estate purchases and sales at artificially high prices.  The artificial prices had the effect of transferring hundreds of million of dollars to the Developer.  On information and belief, the Developer used this money to bribe politicians in Italy and other persons on Montedison’s behalf.”

For example, the complaint alleges that Montedison, through a wholly-owned subsidiary, overpaid the Developer approximately $95 million and agreed to pay an additional $123 million “for properties that were either owned by, or had connections to, various politicians.

As noted in the SEC’s complaint, “despite these efforts, Montedison’s management was ultimately unsuccessful” in its bribery scheme.

According to the complaint:

“The fraudulent conduct … continued undetected for several years because of a seriously deficient internal control environment at Montedison.  In fact, Montedison’s internal controls were so deficient that, according to Montedison, neither the company itself, nor its auditors, have been able to reconstruct previously what occurred and who was responsible.”

The Montedison enforcement action was the first SEC Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action against a foreign issuer and was based on the company having American Depository Receipts ADRs listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Montedison did not immediately resolve the SEC’s complaint as is the norm today.  Rather, the 1996 complaint was resolved in 2001.   As noted in the SEC’s release Montedison was ordered to pay a civil penalty of $300,000 and resolved the enforcement action without admitting nor denying liability for the allegations in the complaint.  According to the release, “the fraudulent conduct was disclosed only after new management was appointed when Montedison disclosed it was unable to service its bank debt.  Virtually all of the former senior management at Montedison responsible for the fraud were convicted by Italian criminal authorities and were sued by the company.”

The release notes as follows.

“Montedison was acquired by Compart, S.p.A., in late 2000 and its ADRs were delisted. Compart then changed its name to Montedison. No securities of Compart are listed for sale by U.S. stock exchanges. Compart, which agreed to the settlement on behalf of the former Montedison, was not a defendant in the Commission’s complaint.”

In original source media reports, Paul Gerlach (SEC Associate Enforcement Director at the time) stated:

“The case’s message is if you are a foreign company wanting to trade stock here, you are going to have to adhere to the same reporting, accounting and internal control standards followed by U.S. companies.”

Of interest, a 1996 Washington Post article about the enforcement action noted:

“The commission has been locked in debate with the NYSE for years over whether foreign companies that raise money from U.S. investors should be held to the same reporting standards as U.S. companies. SEC officials have argued that loosening the standards would hurt U.S. investors. The exchange has responded that overly stringent rules will discourage foreign companies from raising capital in the United States and erode the preeminent position of U.S. securities markets.”

Why, despite the SEC’s allegations, was Montedison not charged with FCPA anti-bribery violations?  Jurisdictional issues aside, according to a knowledgeable source at the SEC at the time, there was a belief that there were no “foreign” officials involved because Montedison, an Italian company, allegedly bribed Italian officials.

It’s an interesting question.

Does the “foreign” in official mean as it relates to the specific company at issue or as to the U.S.?

I believe that the legislative history supports the later, but will also add that Congress likely never understood that it was legislating as to foreign issuers when the FCPA was passed in 1977 because there were few foreign issuers.  Today, there are approximately 1,000 foreign issuers.  (See here and here).

In most FCPA enforcement actions against foreign issuers (Siemens, Daimler, Total, Technip, Alcatel-Lucent, etc.) the question is not relevant as, for example, German or French officials were not among the officials allegedly bribed.

 Read more articles on the FCPA by Mike Koehler at FCPA Professor.

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