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In The News: 2019 Ethics & Compliance Year in Review

In The News: 2019 Ethics & Compliance Year in Review

Research from the Ethics & Compliance Initiative finds that misconduct increases when the economy is good. While the Trump Administration may have stopped some regulatory enforcement in the US, corporate misconduct still runs high. 

This past year, bribery, money laundering, fraud, and trade sanctions dominated the news. With continued attention to the #MeToo movement, coworker behavior also made the news. 

Overall Corruption 

This past year was notable for the Department of Justice’s revisions to its evaluation criteria for compliance programs of companies that focus on criminal conduct.  These new criteria provide much more specificity about what DOJ prosecutors will look at when investigating, charging, and recommending criminal sentencing for businesses. 


Fraud continues its dominance, a catch-all for many topics, including bribery, money laundering, misappropriation, and inevitable conflicts of interest. Outside of the corruption and money laundering arena, this year’s most significant fraud case was GE’s settlement of over $1.5 billion from the toxic securities scandal of the Great Recession (cases continue to linger on). Huawei also made headlines as the US sought to extradite its CFO, who was arrested in Canada on fraud charges. 


It’s been over forty years since the US FCPA was made law and some ten years since the US Department of Justice significantly stepped up enforcement. Still, bribery (especially in international markets) continues to dominate the headlines. Over 20% of the Wall Street Journal’s Risk & Compliance articles addressed bribery, the most for any topic. 

Recently, many headlines have addressed bribery scandals, including where the US can invoke its extraterritorial reach (for example, Unaoil, Alstom). Of course, other countries have also recently gotten on the anti-bribery bandwagon for FCPA and their laws’ violations. In the year’s major case, the Swedish company Ericsson was issued the most significant bribery penalty of over $1 billion. 

Other significant companies charged with or settling bribery violations included: Uber, Walmart, Microsoft, Juniper Networks, Barclays, and Samsung. 

Money Laundering 

This topic came in third place for the most headlines in 2019, with about 10% of the headlines (in the Wall Street Journal’s Risk & Compliance section). US regulators continue to step up both enforcement and compliance guidance to provide specific clarity about what financial institutions in and outside the US should do – pressuring non-US banks to take compliance steps if they seek to do business with the US. Because money laundering touches so many issues, from trade controls, bribery, narcotics, weapons, human trafficking, cryptocurrencies, online shopping, and other issues, it remains a chief enforcement initiative. 

Money laundering also appeared as a problem with European banks, including Swedbank and Deutsche Bank. A February headline indicated that UK anti-money laundering rules are often ignored or sidestepped. 

International Trade 

Trade headlines occupied the second spot of the most news stories in the Wall Street Journal. Due to political events, much of this dealt with business trade issues with China, Iran, Russia, North Korea, Mali, Cuba, and Venezuela. Trade compliance again took a leading role in news headlines as the US shifts its foreign policy strategies, affecting which countries, companies, and individuals US businesses can work with and how these relationships can progress. 


Antitrust issues remain a continuing news focus. News articles included price-fixing, bid-rigging, espionage, and premerger notification violations. Key stories involved European banks’ involvement in a foreign exchange rate-rigging cartel and the aftermath of an aluminum price-fixing conspiracy allegedly involving Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Glencore., 

This year was notable for the new US Department of Justice evaluation criteria for compliance management, including a version for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division. According to one story, this slightly moderates the Division’s “first come” program whereby a company to first report its involvement in an antitrust scheme, such as price-fixing or bid-rigging, escapes prosecution. Now, because every company can benefit from solid compliance efforts, any company involved in such an antitrust scheme may help, even if not the first to come forward. 

Supply Chains 

Much is being made of working with third parties, the risk they present, and the challenge of working responsibly with them. Stories on supply chain ethics continue to grow in attention with the media. Some of the headlines involved: 

  • Shabby treatment of vendors and their employees. 
  • The lack of visibility through the supply chain of vendors’ business practices. 
  • Pressure on supply chains in lower-margin industries, like retail, may compromise ethical standards. 
  • The lack of transparency businesses provides regarding their supply chains makes it harder for consumers and regulators to know whether compliance exists. 

Conflicts of Interest 

The business sector relies on the integrity of auditors to build trust in businesses. Companies financial statements can be doubted when auditor objectivity and independence are questioned. This past year, auditor independence was questioned in articles on PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, and RSM. 

Fair Dealing 

Fair dealing issues tend to get addressed at the state or municipal level and through self-regulatory programs, such as the Better Business Bureau’s complaint resolution process. This past year, some top headlines included the following: 

  • Hotel online booking sites using misleading sales practices 
  • Supermarkets’ misleading claims regarding healthy foods 
  • Google’s fine of €49 billion in Europe for misleading ad content 
  • Vaping products are under fire for marketing to kids or as a safer alternative to tobacco products 
  • The lawsuit against Nestle for dubious claims of spring-fed bottled water sourcing 

Data Privacy & Cybersecurity 

Data privacy continues to gain greater attention in the press. As technologies increase in speed and ability, businesses find new ways to exploit these technologies. Action groups and regulators seek to protect the public from misuse of and failing to protect personal information. The EU General Data Privacy Regulations (GDPR) came into force this year. And the market awaits the inauguration of the California Consumer Privacy Act, which started on January 1, 2020. Several other states are considering consumer privacy protection laws. Perhaps because of this, the US Congress also has proposals. 

In September, it was announced that British Airways faces a $228 million fine due to GDPR violations, the Regulation’s first hefty enforcement action. The case deals with the compromise of 500,000 consumers’ information due to a data breach on the company’s website. In July, Facebook received a $5 billion fine, the most significant type ever, due to violating consumers’ privacy rights. Google also faces a fine due to its YouTube division’s misuse of personal information related to children. That same month, Capital One suffered a data breach affecting the financial data of 100 million credit card applications and accounts, said to be one of the largest hacks ever. Also, in July, US regulators settled the 2017 Equifax breach for $700 million in monetary relief and penalties, including $425 million for consumers. The Equifax breach affected 147 million consumers. Finally, the US Department of Commerce continued issuing sanctions to companies for violating its Privacy Shield certification. 

The past two years have investigated self-driving cars and pedestrian and passenger safety. Ethical concerns with artificial intelligence continue to rise as these technologies are explored. At the same time, AI is being studied for how it can help to spot counterfeit products and other abuses. 

Intellectual Property 

The Chinese company Huawei loomed large in this year’s headlines as the US Administration used it as a bargaining chip in the US-China trade war. The US accused the company of a Chinese government surveillance program. This was followed by Canada arresting the company’s CFO on fraud charges. Also, in technology, Apple sued former employees for stealing its trade secrets regarding autonomous driving, purportedly with plans to sell to a Chinese company. 

On the counterfeit merchandise front, several cases came underway: Cases of fake automobile airbags, prescription drugs (on the Dark Web), sports event tickets and related merchandise, clothing to the military, cell phone parts (from China), and car parts. Specifically, Nike and 3M pushed for more protection against counterfeit goods abroad. 

Environmental, Health & Safety 

Perhaps the most notable international case involved Boeing’s woes regarding defects in its 737 Max aircraft that suffered two crashes apparently due to electronics failures, killing 338 in the October 2018 and March 2019 accidents. 

In the US, the ongoing opioid scandal led to a $260 million settlement with three major drug companies in October. This settlement is an early predictor for a larger payment among multiple states, drug manufacturers, and distributors currently being discussed at $48 billion. 

California wildfires also further hobbled the state’s largest utility, PG&E, putting it into bankruptcy, also affected by a $1 billion fine. This is on top of a settlement announced in September of $11 billion in insurance settlement for the 2017 and 2018 wildfires. 

Other environmental headlines involved sustainability in product packaging, fast food restaurant emissions, and plastic and paper cup recycling. More and more companies announced sustainability targets, such as P&G committing to a 30% plastics reduction by 2025, Sainsbury committing to cutting the use of plastics by 50%, and Nestle trumpeting a 75% deforestation-free supply chain. Google set new sustainability goals, and Nike announced a new warehouse running on 100% renewable energy. These stories are frequently increasing, with reputational, employee engagement, and bottom-line advantages. 

Human Rights 

As migrant worker abuse, human trafficking, and enslaved labor gain more attention by the press and public and abuses in the supply chain are uncovered, business stories become more pronounced. It was reported that Nutella’s hazelnut farming operations involve child labor, and slave labor was identified as significant in the timber supply chain, construction/building sector, and even nail parlors. 

Along with these stories and new laws in the UK and US on slavery and trafficking, more initiatives are underway for labor transparency. This includes a push for corporate slavery reports, a database on supply chain slavery statements, and investor-launched anti-slavery efforts. 

Workplace Issues 

We saw notable departures of senior officers in companies due to the failure to report consensual workplace romantic relationships. This is the latest string of events that in the past has led to the departures of executives at Lockheed Martin, Best Buy, Hewlett-Packard, and Restoration Hardware, among others. 

Executive’s pay and benefits vs. those for rank-and-file employees also received lots of attention. UK newspapers maintained a stream of headlines on mushrooming pay packages for senior officials. At the same time, the average employee, especially unskilled workers, got along with less than a living wage and, in some cases, low wages in violation of the law. A November “60 Minutes” interview with JPMorgan CEO Jamie Diamond voiced his concern about his outsized pay package. The continuing march of stories underscores this issue’s continued emergence among the business and general press. A similar case that received growing focus involved the gender pay gap at such prominent companies as Disney, Microsoft, and KPMG. 

Diversity from the boardroom and C-Suite and leadership ranks continues to garner attention. Companies often establish diversity goals, tie compensation to diversity objectives, and link diversity with overall business success. 


The rise of the whistleblower continues, despite a reported “cooling effect” in Washington, DC, brought on by President Trump’s tweets against Congressional impeachment testimony witnesses. Nonetheless, several stories in the business were said about whistleblowers. 

A group of employee whistleblowers at Infosys allege the CEO and CFO took accounting shortcuts to boost financial performance. A December whistleblower story alleged that the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) had not made charitable donations on par with IRS rules for non-profits, which generally are free of tax liabilities. Given the workplace troubles in Silicon Valley, an employee advocacy group is seeking tech company employees’ reports of unethical practices. Even Italy sided with whistleblowers by issuing the first penalty for retaliation against a whistleblower related to a corruption scheme. 

This Ethics & Compliance Year summary in Review is collected from data from the Wall Street Journal’s Risk & Compliance articles and the Institute of Business Ethics (UK) headline service. Although we saw significant news stories in 2019, 2020 is gearing up to be just as impactful in the world of Ethics and Compliance. 

Jason has worked in ethics and compliance for over twenty-five years, consulting with Fortune 500™ companies across the business ethics and compliance spectrum, including assessing and strengthening corporate values initiatives, instituting leadership engagement efforts, developing and revising codes of conduct and policies, designing and implementing related procedures, developing monitoring systems, conducting risk, culture and program assessments.

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