One wonders what the heck was going on at Daimler, maker of the high quality, classy Mercedes Benz automobile. In case you missed it, media reports depict Daimler as admitting to having engaged in a massive and pervasive bribery scheme, and agreeing to pay $185 million to settle charges. And this wasn’t information the company volunteered, but rather the result of a lengthy government investigation.
And it wasn’t just a one-time event – not by a long shot. Rather, hundreds of bribes totaling tens of millions of dollars were paid in no less than 22 countries over a ten year period. In a number of instances so called “cash desks” were used to pay currency directly to government officials. In other cases the company used foreign bank accounts of shell companies to hide payments. Daimler reportedly also jacked up invoices for cars to generate still other payments.
What’s perhaps most disturbing is that the reports say this wasn’t a lower and middle management activity, but involved “important executives” including heads of overseas sales divisions, and more unsettling, even the company’s internal audit office. The Department of Justice complaint speaks to Daimler’s “longstanding violations” of bribery rules and a “corporate culture that tolerated and/or encouraged bribery.” The reports also says the complaint points to “a lack of central oversight over foreign operations.”
It’s well known the Justice Department in the U.S. is pushing hard on possible Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations, and European regulators are increasing rule making and enforcement as well. And internal controls to help deal with the risk of improper payments are well known. Of course, if senior managers are turning a blind eye, or worse yet encouraging such payments, then all bets are off. For readers with responsibility for dealing with these kinds of issues, a company’s corporate culture, including the tone at the top of the organization, is the first place you’ll want to focus attention. And then you’ll want to look at the kind of risk management and compliance processes in place, and how they’re working, to hopefully gain comfort in your organization that anti-bribery indeed is under control.
© Steinberg Governance Advisors, Inc. 2010. The information presented here does not constitute legal or any other type of professional advice. Companies are encouraged to consult legal counsel concerning their responsibilities for legal and regulatory compliance.