December 12, 2011
Corporate Criminal Liability- Prosecutors in the Boardroom and the Call for an Affirmative Defense
Posted by Marcia Narine

Massey Energy and Walmart made headlines last week for different reasons. Massey had the worst mining disaster in 40 years, killing 29 employees and entered into a nonprescution agreement with the Department of Justice. The DOJ has stated in the past that these agreements balance the interests of penalizing offending companies, compensating victims and stopping criminal conduct “without the loss of jobs, the loss of pensions, and other significant negative consequences to innocent parties who played no role in the criminal conduct, were unaware of it, or were unable to prevent it.”

Massey’s new owner Alpha Natural Resources, has agreed to pay $210 million dollars in fines to the government, compensation to the families of the deceased miners and for safety improvements (the latter may be tax-deductible). The government’s 972-page report concluded that the root cause was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life threatening safety violations. The company maintained a doctored set of safety records for investigators, intimidated workers who complained of safety issues, warned miners when inspectors were coming (a crime), and had 370 violations. The mine had been shut down 48 times in the previous year and reopened once violations were fixed.  112 miners had had no basic safety training at all.  Only one executive has been convicted of destroying documents and obstruction, and investigations on other executives are pending. However, the company itself has escaped prosecution for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Act, conspiracy or obstruction of justice. Perhaps new ownership swayed prosecutors and if Massey had its same owners, things would be different. But is this really justice? The miner’s families receiving the settlement certainly don’t think so.

Walmart announced in its 10-Q that based upon a compliance review and other sources (Dodd-Frank whistleblowers maybe?), it had informed both the SEC and DOJ that it was conducting a worldwide review of its practices to ensure that there were no violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).  Although no facts have come out in the Walmart case and I have no personal knowledge of the circumstances, let’s assume for the sake of this post that Walmart has a robust compliance program, which takes a risk based approach to training its two million employees in what they need to know (the greeter in Tulsa may not need in-depth training on bribery and corruption but the warehouse manager and office workers in Brazil and China do). Let’s also assume that Walmart can hire the best attorneys, investigators and consultants around, and based on their advice, chose to disclose to the government that they were conducting an internal investigation.  Let’s further assume that the incidents are not widespread and may involve a few rogue managers around the world, who have chosen to ignore the training and the policies and a strong tone at the top.

As is common today, let’s also assume that depending on what they find, the company will do what every good “corporate citizen” does to avoid indictment --disclose all factual findings and underlying information of its internal investigation, waive the attorney client privilege and work product protection, fire employees, replace management, possibly cut off payment of legal fees for those under investigation, and actively participate in any government investigations of employees, competitors, agents and vendors.

Should this idealized version of Walmart be treated the same as Massey Energy? (For a great compilation of essays on the potential conflicts between the company and its employees, read Prosecutors in the Boardroom: Using Criminal Law to Regulate Corporate Conduct, edited by Anthony and Rachel Barkow).  Should they both be charged and face trial or should they get deferred or nonprosecution agreements for cooperation? Do these NPAs and DPAs erode our sense of justice or should there be an additional alternative for companies that have done the right thing -- an affirmative defense?

A discussion of the history of corporate criminal liability would be too detailed for this post, but in its most simplistic form, ever since the 1909 case of New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Co v. United States, companies have endured strict liability for the criminal acts of employees who were acting within the scope of their employment and who were motivated in part by an intent to benefit the corporation.  As case law has evolved, companies face this liability even if the employee flouted clear rules and mandates and the company has a state of the art compliance program and corporate culture.  In reality, no matter how much money, time or effort a company spends to train and inculcate values into its employees, agents and vendors, there is no guarantee that their employees will neither intentionally nor unintentionally violate the law.

The DOJ has reiterated this 1909 standard in its policy documents. And because so few corporations go to trial and instead enter into DPAs or NPAs, we don’t know whether the compliance programs in place would have led to either the potential 400% increase or 95% decrease in fines and penalties under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines because judges aren’t making those determinations. The DPAs are now providing more information about corporate compliance reporting provisions, but again, even if a company already had all of those practices in place, and a rogue group of employees ignored them, the company faces the criminal liability. The Ethical Resource Center is preparing a report in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Sentencing Guidelines with recommendations for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, members of Congress, the DOJ and other enforcement agencies. They are excellent and timely, but they do not go far enough.

A Massey Energy should not receive the same treatment as my idealized model corporate citizen Walmart. Instead, I agree with Larry Thompson, formerly of the DOJ and now a general counsel and others who propose an affirmative defense for an effective compliance program- not simply as possible reduction in a fine or a DPA or NPA.

While the ideal standard would require prosecutors to prove that upper management was willfully blind or negligent regarding the conduct, this proposed standard may presume corporate involvement or condonation of wrongful conduct but allow the company to rebut this presumption with a defense.

In the past decade, companies drastically changed their antiharassment programs after the Supreme Court cases of Fargher and Ellerth allowed for an affirmative defense. The UK Bribery Act also allows for an affirmative defense for implementing “adequate procedures” with six principles of bribery prevention. Interestingly, they too are looking at instituting DPAs.

I would limit a proposed affirmative defense to when nonpolicymaking employees have committed misconduct contrary to law, policy or management instructions. If the company adopted or ratified the conduct and/or did not correct it, it could not avail itself of the defense. The company would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: it has implemented a state of the art program approved and overseen by the board or a designated committee; clearly communicated the corporation’s intent to comply with the law and announced employee penalties for prohibited acts; met or exceeded industry standards and norms; is periodically audited and benchmarked by a third party and has made modifications if necessary; has financial incentives for lawful and penalties unlawful behavior; elevated the compliance officer to report directly to the board or a designated committee (a suggestion rejected in the 2010 amendments to the Sentencing Guidelines); has consistently applied anti-retaliation policies for whistleblowers; voluntarily reported wrongdoing to authorities when appropriate; and of course taken into account what the DOJ has required of offending companies and which is now becoming the standard. The court should have to rule on the defense pre-trial.

Instead of serving as vicarious or deputized prosecutors, under this proposed standard, a corporation’s cooperation with prosecutors will be based on factors more within the corporation's control,rather than the catch-22 they currently face where if employees are guilty, there is no defense. And if the employees are guilty, this would not preclude the government from prosecuting them, as they should.

Responsible corporations now spend significant sums on compliance programs and the reward is simply a reduction in a fine for conduct for which it is vicariously liable and which its policies strictly prohibited. A defense will promote earlier detection and remedying of the wrongdoing, reduce government expenditures, provide more assurance to investors and regulators, allow the government to focus on companies that don’t have effective compliance program, and most important provide incentives for companies to invest in more state of the art programs rather than a cosmetic, check the box initiative because the standard would be higher than what is currently Sentencing Guidelines.

Perhaps only a small number of companies may be able to prevail with this defense.  Frankly, corporations won’t want to bear the risk of a trial, but they will at least have a better negotiating position with prosecutors. Moreover, companies that try in good faith to do the right thing won’t be lumped into the same categories as those who invest in the least expensive programs that may pass muster or worse, engage in clearly intentional criminal behavior.  If companies have the certainty that there is a chance to use a defense, that will invariably lead to stronger programs that can truly detect and prevent criminal behavior.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Business Ethics, Business Organizations, Businesses of Note, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Crime and Criminal Law, Current Affairs, Junior Scholars, Organizational Theory, Wal-Mart, White Collar Crime | Bookmark

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