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Pre-trial agreements are powerful corporate governance tools

One of the oft-made criticisms regarding the Department of Justice (DOJ) around its enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is its the use of Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) and Non-Prosecution Agreements (NPAs) somehow pervert the course of justice. Speaking from the perspective of a former in-house type, I have argued that corporations desire DPAs and NPAs because they bring certainty. Not only in ending an enforcement action but also in knowing your obligations going forward; they bring certainty in setting the fines and penalties to be paid for a FCPA violation. And, of course, if you enter into a DPA or NPA you bring your corporate client the certainty that you will not ‘Arthur Anderson’ your organization out of existence.

However there are other reasons why the use of DPAs and NPAs has been positive and that is the effect on companies. In a recent paper, entitled The Effect of Deferred and Non-Prosecution Agreements on Corporate Governance: Evidence from 1993-2013, authors Wulf A. Kaal and Timothy Lacine looked precisely at that issue. In an exhaustive study they reviewed all publicly available DPAs and NPAs from 1993 to 2013. The authors found that in a wide variety of categories 97.41% of the publicly available DPAs and NPAs “mandated substantive governance improvements” in the corporations that entered into them. Any time you have 97% improvement in anything, I would say someone must have been doing something right, somewhere, somehow. From the thesis of their article, it would appear that what the DOJ is doing right is using DPAs and NPAs to positively impact corporate governance.

What were some of the changes brought about through the use of DPAs and NPAs? In the area of Board governance there were provisions including mandating changes requiring additional reporting obligations for the Board; required changes to existing Board committee structure of the entity, often creating new board committees. Other changes included increased Board monitoring obligations, the addition of independent director(s) and changes pertaining to management of the entity, coupled with obligations on senior management to provide additional oversight and involvement with the compliance function. Similarly monitoring obligations have generally increased with many DPAs and NPAs containing specific provisions that related to ongoing monitoring requirements.

Both the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) position and the compliance function were significantly impacted by many of the DPAs and NPAs. Additionally, many DPAs and NPAs contained provisions pertaining to improved compliance communications and training requirements in the compliance function. Internal controls and required improvements pertaining to books and records were also noted. The authors have also identified additional and continuing oversight factors. They note that DOJ “involvement suggest that prosecutors can promote an ethical corporate culture through enhanced compliance measures in N/DPAs.

Finally, the authors provide a very interesting insight as to the power of DPAs and NPAs, which is not often discussed in the FCPA context. They contend that use of DPAs and NPAs, as corporate governance tools, “may be preferable to changes to federal law.” They explain, “Compared with more meaningful congressional governance reform, N/DPA-related governance reform is relatively “cheap” for corporations because comparatively few board and management positions are adversely affected. Furthermore, N/DPA-related governance reform is a measure supported by most corporate insiders as it is seen as beneficial for investors. Until regulators belatedly realize the threat posed by particular industry practices, as identified in N/DPAs, and consider acting upon it, N/DPA-related governance reform is entity specific and increases the availability of relevant, decentralized, and institution specific information for regulatory action. Preemptive remedial measures preceding the execution of N/DPAs and associated N/DPA feedback effects can create the framework for anticipatory dynamic regulation as a regulatory supplement.”

This last concept speaks to the transactional cost of changing not only laws surrounding corporate governance but the reform of a corporation for itself. The key stakeholder unit of investors certainly profits by having more and better corporate governance, as does the corporation itself. I found the authors’ work to be a welcome addition to the ongoing debate on DPAs and NPAs.


Thomas Fox is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog. He’s the founder of the Houston-based boutique law firm A popular speaker on compliance and risk-management topics, Fox is also the creator and writer of the widely followed FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog. His book Lessons Learned on Compliance and Ethics topped Amazon’s bestseller list for international law. He can be contacted here.

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