Friday, July 1, 2011

The U.K. Bribery Act Goes Live

At the time of this post, the U.K. Bribery Act has been live for about ten hours, yet there has not been an enforcement action. Given that the Act is not retrospective and applies only to bribes paid after July 1st, this is hardly surprising, but I hope you appreciate the Friday humor.

U.K. corporates and others subject to the Bribery Act are doing business around the world, including in high-risk jurisdictions, and a healthy dose of corporate hospitality is no doubt occurring at Wimbledon. In other words, the world has not changed.

Today, of course, is the day the U.K. Bribery Act finally goes live.

As explained is this U.K. Ministry of Justice circular, "the Bribery Act replaces the offences at common law and under the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889, the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 and the Prevention of Corruption Act 1916 (known collectively as the Prevention of Corruption Acts 1889 to 1916) with a new consolidated scheme of bribery offences."

The FCPA-like provision of the Bribery Act is Section 6 described in the circular as follows. "Section 6 is designed to deal with the corruption of decision making in publicly funded business transactions through the personal enrichment of foreign public officials by those seeking business opportunities. The offence is committed where a person offers, promises or gives a financial or other advantage to a foreign public official with the intention of influencing the official in the performance of his or her official functions. There must also be an intention to obtain or retain business or a business advantage on the part of the perpetrator. However, the offence is not committed where the official is permitted or required by the applicable written law to be influenced by the advantage."

As to corporate liability, the circular states as follows. "The Bribery Act includes a new form of corporate criminal liability where there is a failure to prevent bribery perpetrated on behalf of a “relevant commercial organisation” (Section 7). This new corporate liability for bribery [...] does not in any way change the existing common law principle governing the liability of corporate bodies for criminal offences that require the prosecution to prove a fault element or ‘mens rea’ in addition to a conduct element. This common law principle, sometimes referred to as the “identification principle”, will therefore continue to operate so that where there is evidence to prove that a person who is properly regarded as representing the “directing mind” of the body in question possessed the necessary fault element required for the offence charged the corporate body may be proceeded against."

As to the Section 7 offense, the circular states as follows. "The offence at section 7 of the Act creates a new form of corporate criminal liability. The offence applies only to a “relevant commercial organisation” as defined at section 7(5) and focuses on a failure by such an organisation to prevent a person “associated with” it from committing a section 1 or 6 bribery offence in order to obtain or retain business or an advantage in the conduct of business for that organisation. It creates direct rather than vicarious liability and its commission does not amount to the commission of a substantive bribery offence under section 1 or 6. A commercial organisation will have a full defence if it can show that despite a particular case of bribery it nevertheless had adequate procedures in place designed to prevent persons associated with it from bribing."

As Michael Volkov (here) nicely stated - "The longest pre-game show in history is drawing to a close. The new world will shortly be upon us. Will the UK Bribery Act be a game-changer or will it fizzle out like Y2K? Everyone has their predictions; everyone has their focus and emphasis."

Here is my two cents.

As with any new law, there is likely to be a learning phase for both the enforcement agencies and those subject to the law. That was certainly the case in the U.S. in the years following passage of the FCPA in 1977. Thus, it very well may be the case that there are no enforcement actions for some time (recognizing that it often takes a few years from beginning of an inquiry to resolution of an action). Thus the greatest immediate impact of the Bribery Act is sure to be the compliance ethic it inspires. I expect that the enforcement actions that may develop over time to focus on egregious instances of corporate conduct on which no reasonable minds would disagree. I do not get the sense, based on public comments of the Ministry of Justice and the Serious Fraud Office, that the envelope will be pushed too far in the early years of the Bribery Act.


See here for the text of Richard Alderman's (Director of the U.K. Serious Fraud Office) recent speech on the Bribery Act.

In a signature departure from U.S. enforcement policy concerning merger and aquisition issues, Alderman stated as follows. "I know that there are many occasions when an acquiring company takes over a target company and discovers either before or after the event that there are serious problems about corrupt activities in the target company. My view is that when an ethical acquiring company identifies these issues, then it is in everyone's interest that that acquiring company gets on and sorts out the problems that it has inherited. I have difficulty in seeing that any SFO investigation at the corporate level would be justified although I would have to consider carefully the position of any individuals." (As highlighted in this recent post, several FCPA enforcement actions have been based on successor liability theories).


In this speech, Alderman stated the following regarding the "foreign public official" term in the Bribery Act.

"Who then is a foreign public official? This is the subject of litigation at the moment in the US and I am following this with interest. The test I use is one that was set out by the OECD in the commentary on the OECD Convention. What we look at is whether or not the foreign State is in a position to influence the foreign company. We therefore look at the relationship between the company and the State to see whether effectively this commercial organisation is being run by the State. This can lead us into some tricky areas. We have received questions about banking officials in countries where the State has a very major interest in the Bank and exercises that interest very actively. Are those officials foreign public officials? Our view is that in those circumstances the individual is likely to be a foreign public official. On the other hand if the State has a major interest but does not control the operations of the Bank, then I think we could have a different situation."


Keeping with today's U.K. theme, earlier this week Bloomberg reported (here) that the SFO is assisting the SEC "on inquiries involving financial institutions and whether bribes were paid in transactions with sovereign wealth funds."

As previously reported by the Wall Street Journal (see here) the SEC is "examining whether Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other financial firms might have violated bribery laws in dealings with Libya's sovereign wealth fund." The SFO's inquiry appears to be related to HSBC Holdings Plc's interactions with Libya's sovereign wealth fund.

Other financial services firms that have reportedly received letters of inquiry from the SEC include Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup.


A good holiday weekend to all.

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