As we move into 2015 and the good economic times that seem to be carrying the United States along, it’s time for a refresher course in Why Ethics & Compliance Matter. We have two new examples that can go straight into your training materials.
We start with Brazil, formerly the economic dynamo of Latin America. Petrobras, the gigantic state-owned oil company there, now teeters on the brink of implosion thanks to a bribery scandal, and might take a considerable chunk of the already-sluggish Brazilian economy down with it. You want a good answer when employees in emerging markets ask why they should care about anti-corruption programs? This is it.
The allegations against Petrobras are well known: executives at the company conspired with construction firms and other business partners to inflate the value of Petrobras contracts by 3 percent, and then funneled that cash to the ruling Workers Party in Brasilia. Prosecutors moved in November, arresting 30 in connection with the scheme.
The more disturbing news came 10 days ago: One of the companies accused of paying bribes, construction business OAS SA, missed a bond payment. Hedge funds have started circling Petrobras, saying it is in technical default because it hasn’t published financial statements since last fall. (Petrobras claims it will publish unaudited statements by the end of January.) Then the capstone: Fitch warned that Petrobras’ misconduct may raise the default risk in banks’ loan portfolios.
In other words, one bribery scandal at Petrobras has put the whole Brazilian financial system at risk. Petrobras carries $139 billion in debt, and must now shake off its bribery scandal and meet those debt obligations—just as oil prices are plummeting around the world. It might not be able to do it. Then the Brazilian taxpayer will need to bail out this state-owned business, and the country’s sovereign debt ratings could be endangered—just as the Brazilian economy is already wheezing like someone with emphysema.
That is how the first domino falls. This is how one shrug at corporate bribery can lead to enormous scandals that cost innocent people money, jobs, and livelihoods.
The next example is happening in New York City. Federation Employment and Guidance Service, a social services organization that works with more than 100,000 poor and disabled every year, disclosed in December that it suddenly “lost” $19.4 million—nearly 8 percent of its annual budget of $252 million. FEGS has been one of the largest social service organizations in New York since the 1930s, funded largely through government money.
Unlike the Petrobras scandal rooted in corruption, FEGS seems to have stumbled into its loss through sheer incompetence and poor internal controls. So far FEGS attributes the loss to an investment in a for-profit healthcare business that went south; to government contracts that cost more money than FEGS received in support; and to lease payments on buildings FEGS no longer used. In 2013 auditors discovered a funding gap of several hundred thousand dollars. Somehow since then, that immaterial amount ballooned to a potentially lethal amount of debt. Last week FEGS warned employees it may need to file for bankruptcy.
I don’t know which of these stories is more heartbreaking. Both will result—in all likelihood, already have resulted—in suffering imposed on innocent persons. People in Brazil will lose their jobs because of the shoddy ethics at Petrobras. People in New York will lose services they need because of shoddy internal control at FEGS. Both scandals are tales of money, time, and effort squandered, with real consequences for people who had nothing to do with the original misconduct.
Petrobras took its first concrete step to redemption last week when it hired its first-ever chief compliance officer: João Adalberto Elek, a telecommunications industry veteran with deep experience in corporate finance and risk management. He will work with a special committee of Petrobras’ board trying to clean up the mess.
FEGS looks like it has a ways to go before it recovers, assuming it even survives its flirtation with bankruptcy. Employees have been laid off; programs have been discontinued. Given its dependence on state and city funds, and voters’ dependence on FEGS, I imagine formal investigations from New York and Albany are not far behind. The charity is on its third CEO in three months, so even the leadership of FEGS itself is still trying to piece together a strategy for survival.
What ethics and compliance officers do matters. The goals and principles you run around telling employees, the training you make them take, the discussions about corporate culture, the policies nobody likes, the controls nobody want to bother documenting—all of it matters. If anyone at your company rolls his eyes at that, tell him to trade places with an unemployed laborer in Brazil or an elderly invalid in New York who just lost a visiting nurse. I’d rather suffer through another anti-bribery webinar over walking in those people’s shoes any day.