Joe Howell, EVP of Workiva, Inc. as noted that it is reasonable to expect that internal controls over gifts, travel and entertainment (GTE) be designed to ensure that all satisfy the criteria as defined in company policies. Generally speaking, these are fairly narrow, including a definition of the dollar limit, which must not be exceeded in order for gifts to be permissible, coupled with some subjective criteria such as the legality of the gifts for the recipient and whether the practice is customary within the country where the gift is delivered. The question I focus on is how to enforce the policies so that employees are not free to disregard them at will?
The Department of Justice (DOJ), in several enforcement actions and the FCPA Guidance has emphasized the importance of risk assessment and effective controls and building a program tailored to those risks. Many companies effectively minimize the risk of inappropriate gifts through stringent pre-approval requirements because a sufficiently robust and enforced pre-approval policy can reduce the number of gifts simply because of the headache of getting the pre-approval. This has the added benefit of ensuring enforcement of internal controls, largely because of the reduced volume of gifts being included in expense reports. In considering the effectiveness of controls, you must always keep in mind the most frequently used method for defeating an internal control, which is driven by a dollar amount criteria, is splitting the item into multiple parts in order to appear to stay under the limit and to avoid the defined approval authority based on the amount of the gift.
The key analysis is whether there are controls in place to enforce the policies and whether those controls are documented. There are four issues to evaluate.
While many compliance practitioners believe that employee expense reports are a sufficient internal control regarding gifts, because there are other ways in which a gift can be presented, there need to be other controls. Once your company policy on gifts has been finalized, the internal controls over expense reports fall into three basic areas: (1) The expense report format, including what information it requires; (2) Controls over the submitting employee and the preparation of the expense report; and (3) Controls to ensure the approvers do their review process properly.
Consider the format itself of an expense report, which can be a prevent control. First it is important to have preprinted representations and certifications within the form because these can lead to “stop and think” type of controls, meaning the person submitting the expense report has to at least consider the information being submitted. The form can be signed without reading the preprinted representations, but if the employee and reviewers have been trained on how to review the expense report, it can be difficult to say later that the submitting employee did not understand what they were signing.
Next consider the Preparer’s representations and the Approver’s representations. The Preparer’s representations include ensuring that all items representing a proper business purpose comply with the company’s code of conduct, comply with local law and custom, and comply with all applicable company policies. The Approver’s representations ensure that all supporting documentation has been examined and that all documentation complies with applicable company policies, including the submission of original receipts. Further, the approver should certify that they have complied with all company policies regarding the review and approval of the expense report.
Some companies have two basic forms of expense reports. One pertains to US locations and does not involve any expenses incurred outside the US. The second is for items involving locations or persons outside the US. The international reporting form might have more stringent requirements and should provide for more detailed disclosures. It could require reporting, in a separate section of the expense report, all items that involve government officials, so that these items are not “buried” elsewhere in the expense report. Just as an added measure, the expense report includes a column where other expenses are reported which requires the submitter to check “Government Official YN?” this type of format should require sufficient disclosure of information regarding each item involving government officials. The next step in such an enhanced protocol would require a senior officer from the business unit to approve any reimbursements that meet certain criteria, for example, certain geographical areas or countries. Finally, such an enhanced representation could also include separate sections for each item requiring a description of the business purpose of meals, entertainment, names and business affiliation of all attendees, description of gifts and their business purpose, etc. A typical expense report requires this information to be on the receipt. Howell believes that moving beyond simply requiring receipts and requiring such detail to be incorporated directly onto the expense reimbursement forms highlights the presence or absence of proper documentation much more readily. Howell ended by noting it was incumbent to ensure reviewers sign off that each such item has documentation that required pre-approvals were obtained, if necessary.
Internal controls around gifts can be used in a variety of ways in your best practices compliance program. They can certainly be used to detect an issue and perhaps even prevent an issue from becoming a full-blown FCPA violation, however, by using some of the techniques that Howell has suggested you can move your compliance program to a proscriptive phase where you not only stop an issue from becoming a violation but through identification, you can move towards remediation as a part of your ongoing compliance efforts. The bottom line is good internal controls make for good business processes; if you can move your compliance program’s internal controls forward, you can help make them a part of your financial controls and thereby have a better run company.
Three Key Takeaways
For more information on how to improve your internal controls management process, visit this month’s sponsor Workiva at workiva.com.