“They trusted us” — Judge Stanley Sporkin explaining why 450 corporations self- reported in the 1970s Volunteer Program without a promise of immunity.
This is the first part of an occasional series. The entire paper will be published by Securities Regulation Law Journal early next year.
Can one man make a difference? Stanley Sporkin is proof that the answer is “yes.” In the early 1970s he sat fixated by the Watergate Congressional hearings. As the testimony droned on about the burglary and cover-up, the Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC” or “Commission”) Enforcement Division sat mystified. Witnesses spoke of corporate political contributions and payments. “How does a public company book an illegal contribution” the Director wondered. “Public companies are stewards of the shareholder’s money – they have an obligation to tell them how it is used” he thought. He decided to find out.
The question spawned a series of “illicit” or foreign payments cases by the Commission resulting in the Volunteer Program. Under the Program, crafted by Director Sporkin and Corporation Finance Director Alan Levinson, about 450 U.S. corporations self-reported illicit payments which had been concealed with false accounting entries. There was no promise of immunity but the Director had a reputation for doing the right thing, being fair. Ultimately the cases and Program culminated with the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”), signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
Today a statute born of scandal and years of debate continues to be debated. Business groups and others express concern about the expansive application of the FCPA by enforcement officials and the spiraling costs to resolve investigations. Enforcement officials continue to call for self-reporting, cooperation and more effective compliance. While the debate continues, both sides might do well to revisit the roots of the FCPA. The success of the early investigations and the Volunteer Program is not attributable to overlapping enforcement actions, endless investigations, draconian fines and monitors. Rather, it was a focus on effective corporate governance – ensuring that executives acted as the stewards of shareholder funds. Director Sporkin call this “doing the right thing.” A return to that focus may well end the debate and yield more effective compliance and enforcement.
The Watergate Congressional hearings transfixed the country. A scandal was born from a burglary at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. by the Committee to Reelect the President, known as CREP. The hearings were punctuated by a series of articles in The Washington Post based on conversations with a source known only as “deep throat.” Later the two reporters would become famous. President Richard Nixon would resign in disgrace. His senior aides would be sentenced to prison. See generally, Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (1974).
A little-noticed segment of the hearings involved corporate contributions to politicians and political campaigns. Most observers probably missed the slivers of testimony about illegal corporate conduct since they were all but drowned in the seemingly endless testimony about the burglary, cover-up and speculation regarding the involvement of the White House.
One man did not. Then SEC Enforcement Director and later Federal Judge Stanley Sporkin was fixated. He listened carefully to the comments about corporate political contributions. The Director wondered how the firms could make such payments without telling their shareholders: “You know, I sometimes use the expression, ‘only in America could something like this happen.’ There I was sitting at my desk . . . and at night while these Watergate hearings were going on I would go home and they’d be replayed and I would hear these heads of these companies testify. This fellow Dorsey from Gulf Oil . . . and it was interesting that somebody would call Gulf Oil and they would say we need $50,000 for the campaign. Now everybody, I knew that corporations couldn’t give money to political campaigns . . . what occurred to me was, how do you book a bribe . . . ” A Fire Side Chat with the Father of the FCPA and the FCPA Professor, Dorsey & Whitney LLP Spring Anti-corruption conference, March 23, 2014, available at www.SECHistorical.org. at 3 (“Transcript”).
What, if any information did the outside auditors have was another key question, according to the Director. Stanley Sporkin, “The Worldwide Banning of Schmiergeld: A Look at the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act on its Twentieth Birthday,” 18 Nw. J. Int. L. & Bus. 269, 271 (1998) (“Sporkin”). Not only was he fascinated by the testimony but “something bothered him [Director Sporkin]. It was the thought of all that money moving around in businessmen’s briefcases. That money belonged to corporations. Corporations belong to investors. The SEC protects investors. So Sporkin investigated.” Mike Feensilber, He Terrorizes Wall Street, The Atlanta Constitution, Section C at 19, col. 1 (March 21, 1976); see also Wallace Timmeny, An Overview of the FCPA, 9 Syr. J. Int’l L. & Com. 235 (1982).
An informal inquiry was initiated. As Judge Sporkin recounts: “To satisfy my curiosity [about how the payments were recorded in the books and records] I asked one of my staff members to commence an informal inquiry to determine how the transactions were booked.” Sporkin at 571. This “was not one of these elaborate investigations where you have 5 people. I called in a guy named Bob Ryan and I said, Bob, go to Gulf Oil.” Transcript at 3. A day later the answer came back: “[W]hat happened was that Gulf Oil had set up two corporations; one called the ANEX, one called the ANEY, capitalized . . . with the $5 million each; took the money back to New York, put it into [Gulf Chairman] Dorsey’s safe at the head of Gulf Oil and there he [Dorsey] had a slush fund, a corporate fund of $10 million.” Id. at 4. The payments were not reflected in the books and records of the company – the shareholders were not told how their money was being used.
It was apparent that corporate officials “knew they were doing something that was wrong because the reason they set [it] up this was . . . is because they didn’t want to expense the money so they capitalized it. And why did they want to expense the money . . . [Director Sporkin explained is] Because they were afraid, not of the SEC, but of the IRS. So it . . . right from the beginning . . . it showed me that there was something afoul here,” Director Sporkin later recounted. Id. at 4. Indeed, it was clear that senior corporate officials had painstakingly designed a methodology to secrete what they knew were wrongful transactions. Sporkin at 271.
Next: The Illicit or foreign payments cases