Uncontested Sanctions Proceedings – the SDO Option

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The World Bank’s Suspension and Debarment Officer takes into account “a past systemic deficiency of corporate controls” and “mitigating factors” in deciding the sanction against Berger Group Holdings, Inc.

1. In uncontested sanctions proceedings Berger Group Holdings, Inc. (“BGH”), the controlling affiliate of Louis Berger Group, Inc. (“LBG”), has accepted the sanction of a one-year conditional non-debarment recommended by Pascal Dubois, the World Bank’s Suspension and Debarment Officer (“SDO”) with effect from 29th January 2015.  LBG was sanctioned to a single year of debarment with conditional release after accepting making corrupt payments to government officials in Vietnam under two World Bank financed projects.  The amounts of the payments are not specified in the SDO’s publication of her decision.

2. Initially Dubois had recommended a sanction of two years conditional non-debarment against BGH, but took into account “additional mitigating factors” provided by the Company in their written Explanation, as allowed for under the Bank’s Sanctions Procedures, which effectively halved the period of sanction.  The published notice issued by Dubois office, the Office of Suspension and Debarment (“OSD”) includes the following:
“In determining this recommended sanction, the SDO took into account that, while the evidence did not support a finding that Berger Holdings was directly involved in the corrupt practices at issue, the evidence did support a finding that Berger Holdings bore a degree of responsibility for its failure to adequately supervise its subsidiary, particularly given the direction to Berger Holdings “members” to assist in Berger Holdings subsidiaries’ compliance efforts, as well as the apparent involvement of Berger Holdings executives in directing LBG efforts in Vietnam. In addition the SDO noted that while Berger Holdings’ failure of oversight might otherwise be seen as an isolated incident, the evidence relating to the history of fraudulent activity by Berger Holdings subsidiaries identified in 1990 and 2000 World Bank sanctions cases, a 2006 Asian Development Bank sanctions case and a 2010 Deferred Prosecution Agreement with the United States Department of Justice indicates a past systemic deficiency of corporate controls, warranting the recommendation of a conditional non-debarment.”

3. LBG had initially been subject to a recommendation of three years debarment by Dubois prior to submission of the written Explanation.  The notice explains the reduction of the recommended debarment period by two thirds in its case as follows: “In determining this recommended sanction, the SDO took into account, as aggravating factors, the involvement of LBG management in the misconduct and the fact that LBG engaged in a repeated pattern of misconduct. The SDO took into account, as mitigating factors, the fact that LBG terminated the employment of individuals responsible for the misconduct and that LBG has implemented an effective compliance program, without prejudice … The SDO also took into account INT’s representations as to extent of LBG’s cooperation during the course of the investigation, noting in particular that LBG (a) undertook a robust internal investigation of misconduct at the company, (b) voluntarily refrained from bidding on Bank-financed projects and (c) provided INT with extensive documentary evidence.

4. It is noteworthy that the earlier recommendation for LBG acknowledged the implementation of a compliance program, but did not include evidence as to the extent of its implementation. In this instance, it appears that the SDO was provided in the Explanation with sufficient evidence to determine that an ‘effective’ compliance program was now in place at the company.  These proceedings show the benefits to companies facing and admitting sanctions proceedings of making full use of opportunity provided by the written Explanation to the SDO together with supporting evidence to prove that the mitigating factors are present and thus convince the SDO to reduce the level of sanction.

5. The mitigating factors identified by the SDO mirror some of those provided for in the World Bank Sanction Guidelines. The guidelines indicate that significant reductions of up to 50% of the sanction period can be allowed when a company has taken voluntary corrective action, and up to 33% may be reduced for cooperation with the investigation. In exceptional cases an even greater reduction may be warranted. By contrast the Guidelines also set out the most common aggravating factors, such as Interference with the Investigation, which could increase the sanction by 1-3 years and a Past History of Adjudicated Misconduct, which brings a guideline 10 year increase.

6. The differing sanctions imposed against Berger Group Holdings Inc. and Louis Berger Group Inc. serve as a useful reminder that the individual culpability of each accused entity should be considered rather than a single sanction imposed against a whole group of companies. In this case the parent company received a significantly lesser sanction than its subsidiary on the basis that it bore a degree of responsibility for failing to adequately supervise Louis Berger Group Inc. and was not directly involved in the corrupt practices at issue.

7. Louis Berger included in its press release of 4 February 2015 the following reflection on the issue of allocating the sanction:
“While we believe it would have been more appropriate if the World Bank had sanctioned Louis Berger International or one of its subsidiaries that now owns the Asia operations where these activities occurred, today’s development is an important milestone in our five year reform program”.

8. These proceedings also highlight the option of utilizing the uncontested sanctions process in cases where a company prefers not to challenge the accusations or sanctions recommended by the SDO.  Other options that are usually considered include entering into a Negotiated Resolution Agreement with the Bank’s Integrity Vice Presidency (“INT”) – and on this issue see the recent article posted by the BWL MDB Team on this website – or having the case determined by the Sanctions Board, particularly if the misconduct allegation is disputed or the recommended SDO sanction is considered to be too severe.

Companies facing or fearing sanctions proceedings by one of the Multilateral Development Banks have a range of options available in dealing with those proceedings each of which has advantages and disadvantages and may wish to contact the BWL MDB Team of Neil Macaulay, Lee Marler, and Jazz Omari  through enquiries@brettonwoodslaw.com or on +44 (0) 20 7764 0745 for confidential advice and guidance in respect of the particular circumstances of their case.

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