SEC TAKES AIM AT SWISS COMPANY AND DETROIT MONEY MARKET FUND
c.2013 New York Times News Service
The Securities and Exchange Commission announced a pair of enforcement actions on Tuesday, accusing a Swiss company of bribery and a Detroit money market fund of fraud.
In the bribery case, the SEC filed civil charges against Weatherford International, an oil field services company in Switzerland with a significant presence in Houston. To resolve the case, Weatherford struck a $250 million settlement with the SEC as well as with the Justice Department’s fraud section and other government agencies.
The authorities accused the company of wide-ranging business violations overseas, including bribing officials in Africa and the Middle East to win lucrative business contracts there. Weatherford made more than $59.3 million in profits from business obtained through the improper payments, according to the SEC.
The misconduct came in many forms and occurred from “at least” between 2002 and 2011, according to the agency.
Weatherford, for example, offered “kickbacks in Iraq” to obtain U.N. Oil-for-Food contracts, a humanitarian program that was rife with corruption.
The company also covered travel and entertainment expenses for potential clients, including a soccer World Cup trip for two Algerian officials and a religious trip taken by a Saudi Arabian official and his family. In one instance, Weatherford picked up the tab for the honeymoon of an Algerian official’s daughter.
“Whether the money went to tax auditors in Albania or officials at the state-owned oil company in Angola, bribes and improper payments were an accustomed way for Weatherford to conduct business,” Kara N. Brockmeyer, an SEC official who helped oversee the case, said in a statement. “While the profits may have seemed bountiful at the time, the costs far outweigh the benefits in the end as coordinated law enforcement efforts have unraveled the widespread schemes and heavily sanctioned the misconduct.”
To cover up various payments, the SEC said, Weatherford falsified its internal records and used code names like ‘Dubai across the water,’ imitating tactics from Hollywood dramas. The SEC also accused Weatherford of hiding transactions with Cuba, Iran and Syria — dealings that violated U.S. sanctions laws but earned the company more than $30 million.
In a statement, Weatherford’s chairman, president and chief executive, Bernard J. Duroc-Danner, said the company was moving forward “fully committed to a sustainable culture of compliance.”
The case relies on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a 1977 law that prohibits U.S. companies from improperly greasing the wheels to gain overseas business. The SEC has increasingly enforced the law in recent years, and created a unit dedicated to FCPA cases. Ever since, there has been an influx of investigations, including an inquiry into JPMorgan Chase’s decision to hire the sons and daughters of China’s ruling elite.
The SEC also announced civil fraud charges against Ambassador Capital Management, a money-market fund based in Detroit, and Derek Oglesby, a portfolio manager, for failing to fully disclose and limit portfolio risk.
The agency argued that Ambassador misled the trustees of its main money market fund about the credit worthiness of its securities. Those securities, the SEC said, frequently exceeded Ambassador’s own guidelines for credit risk.
In addition, the SEC says that Ambassador misled the trustees about exposure to institutions in the countries using the euro. Many money market funds in the U.S. experienced redemptions of 20 percent or more during the sovereign debt crisis in the summer of 2011, according to the agency.
Money market funds are considered fairly stable because they only invest in highly safe securities that typically yield low interest rates. The performance of Ambassador’s main fund consistently exceeded the market average, alerting regulators that there could be too much risk in the company’s portfolio.
“Money market fund managers must not hide the ball from a fund’s board,” George S. Canellos, co-director of the SEC’s enforcement division, said in a statement.
Marshall S. Sprung, co-chief of the SEC unit that oversaw the case, added that “deviations can have serious consequences for pricing of fund shares and how the fund markets itself to investors.”
Ambassador and Oglesby did not respond to requests for comment.