ABB FCPA Resolution: Part 3 – The Bribery Schemes | Thomas Fox – Compliance Evangelist

We continue our exploration of the latest resolution of a Foreign Corruption Practices Act (FCPA) violation involving the Swiss construction giant, ABB Ltd. The most obvious significance is from the fact that ABB is now the first three-time convicted violator of the FCPA, having prior FCPA resolutions in 2004 and 2010. The moniker of a three-time FCPA violator is certainly not one that any corporation wants to claim, yet here we are. The total fine and penalty for the violation was $315 million, with credited amounts going to South Africa, Switzerland, and Germany for ABB’s violations of those country’s anti-corruption laws. There was also a $75 million fine credited to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). In addition to the SEC Order, the DOJ Press Release and Plea Agreement are also available. Conspicuously missing at this point are resolution documents from South Africa, Switzerland, and Germany.

We are exploring this FCPA enforcement action to see what lessons might be garnered from it. While we are doing so, please keep three key questions in mind: (1) How did ABB obtain such a superior resolution? (2) As a three-time FCPA violator, how did the company avoid a monitor? (3) Why was there no requirement for Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) certification? Today, we consider the bribery schemes used by ABB to fund the bribes.

Bribery Pre-Payment

One of the things we rarely see is the pre-payment of a bribe for a contract to be awarded corruptly in the future as usually there is a quid pro quo or payment made after a contract is corruptly awarded. Perhaps the corrupt Eskom official who awarded the contract to ABB saw their actions in passing on internal and confidential information, which ABB used to secure the contract, as worthy of payment, perhaps the Eskom official wanted a show of ‘good-faith’. Whatever the reason, the corrupt Eskom official wanted an upfront, pre-payment for the corruption award of the contract to ABB.

As I detailed previously the corrupt Subcontractor 1 who was the lead bribe facilitator was awarded a contract worth $7.2 million and then paid, according to the Plea Agreement, $798,000 as an ‘advanced payment’ ($720,000 according to the SEC Order) and that money was to be paid to the corrupt Eskom official. However corrupt Subcontractor 1 balked at making the payment and kept the money for themselves. ABB’s answer was to bring in a corrupt Subcontractor 2 to facilitate this pre-payment to the corrupt Eskom official.

Funding Through Variation Orders

Because of the original contract with the corrupt Subcontractor 1, ABB had to come up with another mechanism to fund the bribe payments to the corrupt Eskom official. The solution was elegantly simple, the ‘Variation Order’. Under this, “The scheme was effectuated through the abuse of “variation orders” provided for in the contract between ABB-South Africa and Eskom. These provisions allowed Eskom to make changes to the contract and resulted in ABB-South Africa claiming additional costs from Eskom. Eskom Official and Capture Team Lead agreed upon a target price, which ABB-South Africa would then quote based on proposals that included inflated, unnecessary, or unjustified costs and Eskom would officially approve. An official at Service Provider B then ensured that money was transmitted to Eskom Official and his family members from the payments.”

The Variation Orders were not based on the value of additional work but were costed out by the corrupt Eskom official and ABB jointly. They would figure out how much the bribe needed to be and then would hit on a “target price” for the Variation Order. In less than two years, from 2016-2017, ABB corruptly paid some $37 million in bribes to the corrupt Eskom official. As the SEC Order somewhat dryly noted, “The various payments to Service Provider B, much of which was intended as bribes for Eskom Official, were inaccurately reflected in ABB-South Africa’s books and records as legitimate engineering services and involved the use of false purchase orders and contracts. ABB-South Africa’s books and records were consolidated into ABB’s for purposes of Commission filings.”

While these bribery schemes were not all that sophisticated, they do point out a key issue for compliance professionals. In high-risk jurisdictions, there must be continual monitoring of billings from and payments to government and state-owned entity customers. As previously detailed the mechanisms by which corrupt Subcontractors 1 and 2 were onboarded clearly presented red flags which were not followed up on by ABB compliance. These funding mechanisms also demonstrated significant red flags which should have been more scrupulously reviewed as well. Compliance does not stop when the contract is signed, it must be an ongoing prevention, detection, and remediation program.

In short, there is much to unpack in this matter. Join us tomorrow where we look at the ABB self-disclosure, investigative and remedial responses which led to its superior result.

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