Ask a European about e-discovery, or e-disclosure as it is called in the UK, and you will often be met with a look of distaste. Much like SUVs or obesity, electronic discovery is viewed as an unpleasant, uniquely American phenomenon. But, in reality, there are fat people in Paris, Range Rovers all over London, and a lot of electronic discovery happening all across Continental Europe – whether people like to admit it or not.
One reason for that is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This US law, which has inspired similar legislation in other countries, prohibits companies from engaging in corruption, such as bribing government officials to win large contracts. That sounds simple enough, but it’s not always easy to do. For example, an American friend of mine runs a travel website in China. To advertise, he hired people to hand out flyers at all the major train stations. But after a few weeks, his employees began to get hassled by station officials who said they needed an official “permit”. So he did what anyone would do and paid the “permit fees” even though no paperwork for this “permit” was ever produced. When his US auditors looked at that, they immediately cried foul. He was then compelled to end the practice and bring in a law firm to conduct a full FCPA investigation. The result: lots of legal bills, no more advertising in train stations, and a more powerful Chinese-run competitor who has no such qualms about paying “permit fees”.
In speaking to Daniel Dorsky, Tyco’s Compliance Counsel and an expert in FCPA issues, I discovered that my friend’s experience is no longer the exception. From what Daniel described, enforcement of the FCPA has been stepped up dramatically in the past couple of years. Apparently, 2007 was the watershed. Prior to that, no one really worried about the FCPA too much. But two years ago, the Department of Justice (DoJ) under Mark Mendelsohn, began to take a different approach. First, the fines became much stiffer as, for example, Baker Hughes got hit with a $44 million penalty, by far the largest ever at the time. Second, the DoJ started to prosecute executives personally, bringing 15 criminal cases against individuals. Nothing focuses the mind like the threat of jail time, and FCPA compliance suddenly took on greater urgency.
The number of FCPA enforcement actions continued to increase in 2008, most notably with the infamous Siemens case. By the time the dust settled, the CEO of Siemens had been fired and the company was reeling from a $1.4 billion fine. Nor do things look like they are slowing down in 2009. In the first few months of this year, ABB took an $800 million accounting reserve for FCPA issues, Halliburton got fined $177 million, KBR $502 million, and the KBR CEO, Albert Stanley, got 7 years in jail to go along with his $11 million personal fine. These companies are also now vulnerable to civil suits. While there’s no private right of action under the FCPA, that does not stop securities fraud class actions or shareholder lawsuits, which charge that defendants either understated the risks or overstated the controls in their disclosures.
There are a number of reasons why FCPA enforcement actions will likely increase further in the coming months and years. The FBI recently created an FCPA taskforce of 8-12 agents, bringing all the standard law enforcement tools to FCPA compliance (e.g., wire-taps, subpoenas, informants, warrants, etc.). Many other countries are starting to enforce similar laws, with much encouragement from the US which does not want to see American businesses disadvantaged by doing the right thing. And international law enforcement agencies are cooperating more than ever before. For example, last summer in Paris, international agencies held their first FCPA conference to share information.
All of this is driving a boom in e-discovery as General Counsels and Compliance Officers regularly conduct investigations of their overseas subsidiaries to ensure FCPA compliance. These investigations often center on “red flag” countries like China, Brazil, or Russia, where compliance is most difficult. They almost always involve outside counsel, and require the processing, analysis and review of large volumes of electronic information. This applies to European companies as much as it does to American ones. Non-US nationals can be prosecuted if either communications or money goes via the US, and many European countries are following the DoJ’s lead (e.g., $600 million of Siemens’ $1.4 billion fine came from German authorities).
So no matter how Europeans feel about e-discovery, or e-disclosure, they will be doing more of it in the coming years, much like their American counterparts. It’s fair to say that, in this domain, as perhaps in others, Europeans and Americans have much more in common than they might think.