Whatever you might think of where his career went, Elton John had some great early stuff. I still rank Tumbleweed Connection right up there as one of my favorite albums of all-time. And while it was packed with some great tracks, one of my most favorite was Where to Now St. Peter? It was the opening track on Side 2 and dealt with whether a dying soldier would end up in heaven or hell. While perhaps having quite the spiritual overtones, I did think about this song when I read about the convictions on Saturday of Peter William Humphrey, a 58-year-old British national, and his wife, Yu Yingzeng, a 61-year-old naturalized American, on charges of illegally purchasing personal information about Chinese nationals.
In a one day trial the couple was convicted of illegally purchasing information on Chinese citizens. In an article in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “China court hands GSK investigator jail term and orders deportation”, Gabriel Wildau and Andrew Ward reported that husband Humphreys received a two and a half year jail term which was “just short of the three-year maximum”. In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “China Convicts Two Corporate Investigators”, James T. Areddy and Laurie Burkitt reported that he was also ordered to pay a fine of approximately $32,500 and will be deported from the country when his jail term is completed. Wife Yingzeng received a two year jail term and was ordered to pay a fine of approximately $23,000 but will be allowed to remain in the country after her sentence is completed.
In a New York Times (NYT) article, entitled “In China, British Investigator Hired by Glaxo, and Wife, Sentenced to Prison”, David Barboza reported that the couple “acknowledged that from 2009 to 2013, they obtained about 250 pieces of private information about individuals, including government-issued identity documents, entry and exit travel records and mobile phone records, all apparently in violation of China’s privacy laws.” According to the NYT article, wife Yu claimed that she did not know her actions where illegal and was quoted as saying, “We did not know obtaining these pieces of information was illegal in China. If I had known I would have destroyed the evidence.” According to the WSJ, the privacy law which was the basis of the conviction, was enacted in 2009 “to make it illegal to handle certain personal medical records and telephone records” but that the law itself “remains vague” on what precisely might constitute violation.
From the court statements, however, it did appear that the couple had trafficked in personal information. As reported by the WSJ, “In separate responses over more than 10 hours, My Humphreys and Ms. Yu denied that their firm trafficked in personal information, saying they had hired others to obtain personal data when clients requested it.” From the documents presented by the prosecution, it would seem clear that the couple had obtained my items which were more personal in nature. They were alleged by prosecutors to have “used hidden cameras to gather information as well as government records on identification numbers, family members, real-estate holdings, vehicle owner, telephone logs and travel records.”
Recognizing the verdicts under Chinese laws are usually predetermined and the entire trials are scripted affairs, there is, nonetheless, important information communicated to the outside world by this trial. First and foremost is, as reported in the NYT article is a “chilling effect on companies that engage in due diligence work for global companies, many of whom believe the couple may have been unfairly targeted.” The WSJ article went further quoting Geoffrey Sant for the following, “It impacts all attempts to do business between the U.S. and China because it will be very challenging to verify the accuracy of company or personal financial information.” In other words, things just got a lot tougher to perform, what most companies would expect to be a minimum level of due diligence.
Second is the time frame noted in the court statements as to the time of the violations, from 2009 to 2013. Many had assumed that Humphreys and Yingzeng’s arrests related to their investigation work on behalf of the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) which was trying to determine who had filmed a sex tape of the company’s head of Chinese operations, which was then provided to the company via an anonymous whistleblower. This would seem to beg the question of whether the couple would have been prosecuted if they not engaged in or accepted the GSK assignment.
But as Elton John asked, “Where to now St. Peter?” You should always remember that performing due diligence is but one of five steps in the management of the third party life cycle. If you cannot perform due diligence at a level that you do in other countries or that you could even have done in China before the Humphreys and Yu trial, you can beef up the other steps to help proactively manage your third parties. I often say that your real work with third parties begins when the contract is executed because then you have to manage the relationship going forward. So, if you cannot perform the level of due diligence you might like, you can put more resources into monitoring the relationship, particularly in the area of invoice review and payments going forward.
In a timely article found in this month’s issue of the SCCE magazine, Compliance and Ethics Professional, Dennis Haist and Caroline Lee published an article, entitled “China clamps down on bribery and corruption: Why third-party due diligence is a necessity” where they discussed a more robust response to the issue as well. They note that the retention of third party’s to do business in China is an established mechanism through which to conduct business. They advise “For multinationals with a Chinese presence, or plans to enter the market in the near future, now is the time to pay close attention to the changing nature of the business landscape as it relates to bribery and corruption.” Further, they suggest that “In order to ensure compliance with ABAC [anti-bribery/anti-corruption] regulatory scrutiny, multinationals must demonstrate a consistent, intentional and systematic approach to third-party compliance.” But in addition to the traditional background due diligence, they believe that companies should consider an approach that moves to proactively managing and monitoring third parties for compliance. Lastly, at the end of the day if a regulator comes knocking from the Department of Justice (DOJ) or Serious Fraud Office (SFO), you will need to demonstrate the steps you have put in place and your active management of the process.
In the FT, WSJ and NYT articles it was clearly pointed out that the invisible elephant in the room was GSK. Also it is not clear what the personal tragedy that Humphreys and Yu have endured will mean for GSK or the individuals caught up in that bribery scandal going forward. Humphreys had previously said that he would not have taken on the GSK sex tape assignment if it had been disclosed to him that the company had sustained allegations of corruption by an internal whistleblower. Perhaps one lesson may be that in the future companies will have to disclosure more to those they approach to perform such investigative services.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014