Shakespeare Week – Part V: Lear’s Fool and Power Points

I conclude my week honoring the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare by using my favorite character in all his work to introduce today’s post. He is The Fool from King Lear. Of Shakespeare’s many theatrical innovations, his transformation of The Fool from the Renaissance Court Jester of songs, music, storytelling, medieval satire and physical comedy to commentator is right up there for me. The Fool became closer to the Greek Chorus. Shakespeare brought the Chorus commentary function back. As noted in Wikipedia, “Where the jester often regaled his audience with various skills aimed to amuse, Shakespeare’s fool, consistent with Shakespeare’s revolutionary ideas about theater, became a complex character who could highlight more important issues. Like Shakespeare’s other characters, the fool began to speak outside of the narrow confines of exemplary morality. Shakespeare’s fools address themes of love, psychic turmoil, personal identity, and many other innumerable themes that arise in Shakespeare”.

While Lear’s Fool was actually a font of wisdom and commentary, the same cannot always be said for the corporate fools who put evidence of bribery and corruption in emails, excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slide deck presentations. In Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) training I always remind attendees that if you put your bribery scheme in emails, it will be uncovered. Further, if you put together an excel spreadsheet tying your nefarious acts, such as hiring the family member of a foreign official or state owned enterprise employee to the award of a contract, it will be uncovered. Now I find I must supplement my training to add the following admonition: do not put your fraudulent scheme in a PowerPoint slide deck for presentation to senior management.

The issue previously arose with our friends at GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) who put together such a presentation in 2013 for targeted bribery campaign code named “Vasily” borrowing its name from Vasily Zaytsev, a noted Russian sniper during World War II. According to Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporter Laurie Burkitt the campaign “targeted 48 doctors and planned to reward them with either a percentage of the cash value of the prescription or educational credits, based on the number of prescriptions the doctors made.” While Burkitt did note “A Glaxo spokesman has said the company probed the ‘Vasily’ program and [the] investigation has found that while the proposal didn’t contain anything untoward, the program was never implemented.” But, from my experience, if you have a bribery scheme that has its own code name enshrined in a PowerPoint slide deck presentation, even if you never implemented that scheme, it probably means that the propensity for such is pervasive throughout the system.

Yet now we have more and greater evidence of corporate tomfoolery from the Volkswagen (VW) emissions-testing scandal. In an article in the New York Times (NYT), entitled “VW Presentation in ’06 Showed How to Foil Emissions Tests”, Jack Ewing reported that a top technology executive at VW prepared a PowerPoint presentation for management in 2006, laying out in detail how the automaker could cheat on emissions tests in the United States. Ewing wrote, “It provides the most direct link yet to the genesis of the deception at Volkswagen, which admitted late last year that 11 million vehicles worldwide were equipped with software to cheat on tests that measured pollution in emissions.”

The article noted, “It is not known how widely the presentation was distributed at Volkswagen. But its existence, and the proposal it made to install the software, highlight a series of flawed decisions at the embattled carmaker surrounding the emissions problem.” Moreover, “As the PowerPoint underscored, people inside Volkswagen were aware that its diesel engines were polluting significantly more than allowed. Yet company executives repeatedly rejected proposals to improve the emissions equipment, according to two Volkswagen employees present at meetings where the proposals were discussed.”

As more and more of the internal investigation dribbles out, VW’s claim that its emission-testing defeat device was the creation of a small group of ‘rogue engineers’ is rightly dying a death of 1000 cuts. The company began to understand that “The pattern of those [regulatory] tests, the presentation said, was entirely predictable. And a piece of code embedded in the software that controlled the engine could recognize that pattern, activating equipment to reduce emissions just for testing purposes.” This language demonstrates not only the reason behind the defeat device but the requisite mens rea to prove intent to deceive.

But VW did not stop at this aha moment of realization. The company made the defeat device better over the years. The article reported that the defeat device had been enhanced over the years. The software that allowed VW cars to appreciate when the car was being tested, differentiated from when the car was in use on the road. It measured such criteria as determining whether the steering wheel was in use and “During regulators’ tests, the engine software would turn up the pollution controls. When it was on the road, equipment designed to neutralize harmful nitrogen oxides would turned down, resulting in emissions that were up to 40 times the legal limit.” In tech terms, the software was upgraded from defeat device 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond to “detect other telltale signs of a regulatory test.”

The rogue employee defense was never going to work. To have software in place for over 10 years designed to defraud a regulatory scheme, requires a wide swath of knowledge in any organization. But not only within the organization, those vendors in the supply chain, which supplied component parts or products had to be in on the entire scheme as well. Moreover, the very top of the company has been shown to have been aware of these issues. Ewing said, “The management board led by Martin Winterkorn, the chief executive who resigned in September after the admission of cheating, repeatedly rebuffed lower-ranking employees who submitted technical proposals for upgrading the emissions controls, according to the two people who attended meetings where the proposals were discussed. The management board rejected the proposals because of cost”.

You might think only idiots would put into emails, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations not only intent to violate laws but also their plans. As bad as all of this is, it points to an even greater insight relevant to FCPA enforcement, that being the Myth of the Rogue Employee. Davide Torsello and Alison Taylor, in a post in the FCPA Blog, detailed some of the major reasons why the myth is just that, a myth. The VW PowerPoint adds yet another spike in its coffin. If your corporate culture is such that you not only communicate internally about illegal conduct but also record those communications, it speaks to a culture that supports and embraces skirting the rules. Commentators who claim that companies should not be punished by the actions of a small group of employees miss this greater truth; these employees would not engage in illegal conduct if their company, either through compensation, succession or other remuneration, did not reward them for engaging in such conduct.

That is the greater truth that Lear’s Fool would impart to corporate management.

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