Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Department of Justice Throws (at Least a Small Paperback) Book at Bio-Rad Laboratories - $55 Million Settlement, Admission of Wrongdoing, Employees Fired

Hard on the heels of our recent roundup of legal cases involving medical device companies comes a notable settlement by Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc, a company that makes equipment and supplies for clinical diagnostic testing. 

The Basics

As reported by Reuters,

Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc will pay $55 million to end U.S. investigations into whether it failed to prevent bribery of government officials in Russia and other countries, and falsified records to conceal payments, U.S. authorities said on Monday.

The company, which makes medical diagnostics products, entered a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to resolve charges that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by recording fake payments in connection with sales in Russia.

It also entered a civil settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which said units of the Hercules, California-based company made $7.5 million in improper payments to officials in Russia, Vietnam and Thailand to win business.

Some Sordid Details
Some details of the unseemly conduct were reported by the San Jose, California, Mercury News,

The Department of Justice and the SEC said Bio-Rad subsidiaries in Europe and Asia bribed government officials from 2005-10 with payments to phony middleman companies. Bio-Rad executives ignored the payments, which were so obvious that they should have spotted them, the federal investigators said. One Russian middleman company even used a phony address that was actually the address of a Russian government building, according to the SEC.

Large commissions to companies that didn't have the resources to perform any of the contracted services should have raised an alarm, the complaints said. Also, the payments were made through banks in Latvia and Lithuania, another alleged red flag. Yet several 'high level' Bio-Rad managers approved the payments, the Justice Department said.

In Vietnam, a sales representative of Bio-Rad authorized payment of bribes to government officials, including the hiring of a middleman to pay the bribes, according to the SEC. Bio-Rad's sales manager agreed to the practice fearing that the company would lose 80 percent of its sales if it stopped paying bribes, the SEC's complaint said.

In Thailand, Bio-Rad invested in a local company in 2007 that had an ongoing bribery scheme. An agent of the company received inflated commissions which were split with Thai government officials, the complaint said.  

 Admissions of Wrongdoing, Firing of Employees

Note that the $55 million was not just a civil fine, according to Reuters,

Bio-Rad's payout includes a $14.35 million criminal fine to the Justice Department, and $40.7 million representing illegal profit and interest to the SEC....

Moreover, the penalties could have been worse,

The Justice Department said the criminal sanctions were not more severe because Bio-Rad disclosed the misconduct and fully cooperated in its probe, including by making employees available for interviews and producing documents from overseas.

Bio-Rad also bolstered its internal compliance processes, and said it fired employees responsible for the misconduct.

If the company disclosed the misconduct, that meant they acknowledged there was misconduct.  Furthermore, in this case, the company at least indirectly admitted the wrongdoing,

'The actions that we discovered were completely contrary to Bio-Rad's culture and values and ethical standards for conducting business,' Bio-Rad Chief Executive Norman Schwartz said in a statement.


In summary, employees of Bio-Rad Laboratories bribed officials in various countries to induce more sales.  Upper level managers seemed to disregard fairly obvious signs that this was happening, but eventually someone in upper level management discovered what was going on and reported it to authorities.  The activities were unethical, but the crimes were financial and did not appear to directly risk patients.  The company paid a moderate sized fine, but part of the fine was criminal.  Top management acknowledged wrongdoing, and apparently some employees involved suffered negative consequences: they were fired.

So this case appears a bit different from the majority of the settlements we have discussed.  Bad behavior was acknowledged by managers, and some individuals involved in the bad behavior suffered modest negative consequences.  However, after reviewing the last set of cases we discussed, it does confirm the pattern.  The bigger the company, the proportionately SMALLER the penalties to the company, and the LOWER the likelihood and severity of any negative consequences to an individual.  (This was a moderate sized company, so the penalties were moderate.)  Also, financial misadventures lead to harsher penalties than actions that primarily harm patients.

At least this case shows that the US Department of Justice is capable of making a settlement of a case involving unethical behavior by a health care organization that does not allow the organization to deny misbehavior, and leads to at least some negative consequences for individuals who authorized, directed or implemented the bad behavior.

The question remains, though: why are cases involving really big organizations, and hence often lots of money, and/or cases that involve clinical rather than financial risks treated so leniently?  

The usual pattern, at least for large companies, is: settlements that involve fines that appear large, but are not proportionate to the size and revenue of the company; fines that are imposed on the company as a whole, but no penalties for the people who authorized, directed, or implemented the bad behavior, and likely personally profited from it; and no findings of guilt or acknowledgement of wrong doing.  This lenient approach allows large health care organizations to treat such settlements as costs of doing business.  Hence, it is unlikely to deter future bad behavior, especially given that the people most likely to make the most money from it can expect impunity.  

Note that the pattern of law enforcement and regulation for health care in the US is similar to the pattern of law enforcement and regulation of the finance sector.  And that helped bring us the global financial collapse.  Meanwhile, our health care system has become the most expensive, but clearly not the best in the world.

To repeat, the Kabuki play that is regulation of and law enforcement for large health care organizations goes on.  As our society is being increasingly divided into a huge majority in increasingly difficult economic circumstances and a small and  increasingly rich minority, it also seems to be increasingly divided into little people who may be ruined by lawsuits, and imprisoned for even minor infractions, and big people who have impunity. 

True health care reform would hold leaders of health care organizations accountable for their organizations' behavior, and its effects on patients and health care professionals. 

1 comment:

Afraid said...

Always its just the little guys who admit to wrongdoing. Big pharma does no wrong, its just a misunderstanding and all in the past.