In prior posts (most recently here), I have commented on the growing threat of follow-on shareholder litigation ensuing in the wake of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement actions. A lawsuit recently filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania represents an entirely different kind of threat arising from allegations of foreign corrupt activities, in the form of a civil action brought directly against the alleged wrongdoer(s) by the alleged victims of the corrupt activity, without any preceding FCPA enforcement action.
On February 27, 2008, Aluminum Bahrain B.S.C. ("Alba") filed a lawsuit against Alcoa, an Alcoa affiliate, and two individuals, one of whom was an officer of an Alcoa affiliate. Alba (owned by an entity in which the Bahrain government has a 70% ownership interest), alleges that the defendants engaged in a 15-year conspiracy involving overcharging, fraud, and bribery of Bahraini officials. A copy of the complaint can be found here. Alba is in the aluminum smelting business, and it has depended since 1990 on Alcoa affiliates for its supply of alumina, a key ingredient in the production of aluminum.
The complaint alleges that beginning in 1993, over $2 billion in payments were funneled through companies (located in Singapore, Guernsey, Switzerland and elsewhere) owned or controlled by a Canadian businessman of Jordanian descent named Victor Dahdaleh, who is named as a defendant in the complaint. A portion of these payments were secretly directed to one or more (unnamed) Bahraini government officials as part of an alleged conspiracy to cause Alba to cede a substantial portion of its equity to Alcoa, to pay inflated prices for alumina, and to corrupt the integrity of senior Bahraini government officials.
A front-page February 28, 2008 Wall Street Journal article describing the complaint (here) states that the lawsuit emerged from Bahrain’s own effort "to root out misbehavior." The Journal also reports that last year Bahrain retained Kroll Associates, which "had uncovered cases of corruption in its state-owned enterprises, and numerous individuals had been arrested."
The FCPA prohibits corrupt payments to foreign officials, but, as pointed out in a post on The FCPA Blog (here) commenting on the Alba case, "there is no private right of action under the FCPA." So enforcement of the FCPA is exclusively the province of the Department of Justice and the SEC. But as the Department of Justice notes in its Lay Person’s Guide to the FCPA, "conduct that violates the antibribery provisions of the FCPA may also give rise to a private cause of action for treble damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) or to actions under other federal or state laws." Alba’s complaint, in fact, seeks to recover damages from the defendants based on their alleged violations of RICO, conspiracy to violate RICO, and for fraud.
The Alba complaint underscores the civil liability exposure that may potentially arise from foreign corrupt practices. While I have previously emphasized the potential threat of lawsuit filed by shareholders against company management as a follow-on to government FCPA enforcement actions, the Alba lawsuit illustrates the threat of direct civil litigation based on foreign corrupt activity without any prior enforcement activity.
This kind of litigation may represent a significant corporate threat for companies engaged in business in countries whose cultures encourage or even seemingly compel this type of corrupt activity. This threat may also extend beyond the corporation and its corporate affiliates to individuals, as well. Only one of the individual defendants named in the Alba lawsuit appears to be an officer of an Alcoa affiliate, but the complaint does also specifically allege that Alcoa’s Chairman and CEO traveled to Bahrain in connection with Alcoa’s efforts to obtain an equity ownership position in Alba. The complaint alleges that this effort was corrupted by the bribery-induced intervention of a Bahraini government official.
Individual directors and offices who find themselves the target of corruption-based civil litigation may face challenges in securing insurance protection in connection with these allegations. Certainly, a determination of liability for the kinds of corrupt conduct alleged in the Alba complaint could run afoul of the typical D & O liability policy’s conduct exclusions. In addition, some D & O policies still retain a commissions and payments exclusions specifically calculated to preclude liability for improper payments. However, individual director or officer defendants could have a strong basis on which to argue that their defense expenses incurred in connection with this kind of litigation should be covered. They could even have a basis on which to try to argue that settlement amounts, in the absence of an actual finding of liability, ought to be covered.
With respect to the corporate entity defendants in these kinds of lawsuits, the picture is slightly different. The typical public company D & O policy provides entity coverage only for claims based on alleged violations of the securities laws. None of the allegations in the Alba complaint arise under the securities laws, so there would not appear to be coverage under the typical public company D & O policy, even for defense expense. Even were entity coverage to extend beyond securities claims (as is the case for many private company D & O policies), the conduct exclusions and any applicable commissions and payments exclusion would preclude coverage for damages imposed on the basis of an adjudication of liability
But in any event, given the increasing globalization of trade and the increasing significance being given to anticorruption efforts in many jurisdictions, the possibility exists for further civil litigation based on alleged corrupt activity, even in the absence of prior enforcement actions. This litigation threat represents another way in which corrupt activity exposure may possibly represent, as I recently wrote, the "next corporate scandal."