Saturday, June 09, 2007

We Don't Pay Foreign Officials - Why Are We At Risk?

As they expand internationally, our clients want to be good corporate citizens and understand that payments should not be made to foreign officials in order to get business. Yet, many mid-market companies would be surprised to learn that they are at risk for failing to recognize "red flags" and failing to follow even basic corporate compliance practices.

The reason is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the heightened enforcement activity over the past 18 to 24 months - companies are facing the highest level of scrutiny since the Act's introduction in the 1970s.

Are employees on that trip to Beijing handing over fists of cash to ministry officials in order to land new business or obtain approval for a new venture? Perhaps not so likely. What about that recent distributor in New Delhi and its relationship with government officials - is "don't ask, don't tell" good enough? Are you confident that you are not dealing with government officials - have you really explored the ownership of that "private" company in Shanghai or that hospital system in Bahrain?

If a U.S. company is faced with a murky set of facts, it may have sufficient "knowledge" of a possible improper payment to open the door to an investigation and potential fines (or worse). "Red flags" can include the insertion of a local intermediary without a clear business purpose. Due diligence on relationships and transactions is an important part of the response. Contractual language piously prohibiting corrupt payments is advisable, but will not be sufficient without more, including evidence that the company took steps to implement a compliance program and educate employees (something more than "thou shall not hand over bags of cash").

Better a little up-front investment than a front-page Wall Street Journal or Crain's article and a cloud over the international team.

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