Impact of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines at 30 | Thomas Fox – Compliance Evangelist

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations (FSGO) by the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) turn 30 this year. For compliance officers, this was perhaps the most significant government release. It did not create the compliance profession, but it certainly put compliance professionals in the forefront of the design, creation and implementation of corporate compliance programs. The FSGO also laid out for the first time, the government’s expectations of what a well-designed compliance program should look like in practice. This led to a dramatic increase in compliance professionals. Earnie Broughton, writing in the ECI blog, said, “In many ways the promulgation of the guidelines was a defining moment in our collective journey in understanding and realizing the benefits of good corporate character.”

In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 291,000 compliance officers in the US. But more than driving the compliance profession and a concomitant increase in compliance professionals the FSGO has in many ways shaped the structure of the 21st century corporation and dramatically improved corporate governance. In these ways, it laid the environmental, social and governance (ESG) foundations. Last month the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) released a summary of the FSGO and how it helped drives these changes, “The Organizational Sentencing Guidelines: Thirty Years of Innovation(the History).

Regarding the FSGO themselves, they take a “carrot and stick” approach to the sentencing scheme that bases the fine range on the culpability of the organization. The guidelines instruct courts to determine culpability by considering six factors. The four aggravating factors, “that increase the ultimate punishment of an organization are: (i) the involvement in or tolerance of criminal activity; (ii) the prior history of the organization; (iii) the violation of an order; and (iv) the obstruction of justice.” The two mitigating factors are: “(i) the existence of an effective compliance and ethics program; and (ii) self-reporting, cooperation, or acceptance of responsibility.” Rather amazingly, the History reported that only 1.5% overall of all organizations sentenced “received the five-point culpability score reduction for disclosing the offense to appropriate authorities prior to a government investigation in addition to their  full cooperation and acceptance of responsibility.” Obviously, there is still room for improvement.

Rather unsurprisingly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) drew heavily on the FSGO for two key documents which laid out the foundations of an effective compliance program. The first was the 2012 FCPA Resource Guide (developed and released jointly with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)) and its update, the 2021 FCPA Resource Guide, 2nd edition. The second was the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs, initially released in 2019, and the 2020 Update to the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs. The History noted that the Evaluation and its update, “was first developed in 2017 under the leadership of the DOJ’s first “corporate compliance expert”” and “provides greater clarity on some key issues prosecutors consider when assessing the adequacy of corporate compliance programs during charging and settlement decisions, by laying out “fundamental questions” that prosecutors should ask about compliance programs:

  • Is the corporation’s compliance program well designed. There were three key questions for consideration:
  • Is the program being applied earnestly and in good faith?
  • In other words, is the program being implemented effectively?
  • Does the corporation’s compliance program work in practice?

The Evaluation and its Update then proceed to describe “in detail the topics that prosecutors should consider when answering those questions.”Demonstrating its influence far beyond the DOJ, SEC and other government agencies, the Delaware court decision in Caremark demonstrates a key effect in the transformation of compliance programs, policies and procedures in the corporate world. The Caremark decision was a departure from prior Delaware case law which said that a board did not have to look for wrongdoing but only had to investigate if informed about it. That was from an old 1963 decision and the Court relied on the 1992 US Sentencing Guidelines to note how such views were no longer accepted. Board obligations had changed by 1996 with the following, “obligation to be reasonably informed concerning the corporation, without assuring themselves that information and reporting systems exist in the organization that are reasonably designed to provide to senior management and to the board itself timely, accurate information sufficient to allow management and the board, each within its scope, to reach informed judgments concerning both the corporation’s compliance with law and its business performance.”

Caremark considered the proposed settlement of a derivative suit seeking to impose personal liability on members of the board of directors. The History noted, “the court considered whether director liability could stem from unconsidered action by the board. After observing that “[t]he Guidelines offer powerful incentives for corporations today to have in place compliance programs to detect violations of law, promptly to report violations to appropriate public officials when discovered, and to take prompt, voluntary remedial efforts,” the court concluded that “[a]ny rational person attempting in good faith to meet an organizational governance responsibility would be bound to take into account [the organizational guidelines].”

This meant that a director has a good faith duty to see that the organization establishes adequate information and reporting systems. i.e., a compliance program. No doubt due to the significance of the Delaware courts, “following the Caremark decision, federal and state courts recognized the importance of compliance programs in the context of shareholder derivative suits.” Caremark  and its progeny are now the law of the land regarding corporate governance and compliance across most states in the US.

All of these changes and much more point to the far- and wide-ranging impact of the FSGO.  “What began as an “experiment” to encourage legal compliance and foster more ethical business practices is now widely accepted as a success.” Moreover, “evidence suggests that compliance and ethics programs implemented using the guideline criteria produce positive effects on an organization’s behavior” and that the FSGO has had a significant impact on public and private sector actors.” Finally, the History concludes that the influence of FSGO “is now spreading around the globe, suggesting that the hallmarks of an effective compliance and ethics program have universal appeal.”

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