NEWS27 September 2021

WPP to pay $19m SEC fine

Legal Media News North America Public Sector

US – Advertising group WPP has agreed to pay the US government’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) $19m over claims it breached the foreign corrupt practices act (FCPA).

Headquarters of the US Securities and Exchange Commission

The SEC said that WPP failed to ensure that subsidiary firms acquired in high-risk markets implemented its internal accounting controls and compliance policies, and instead allowed the founders and chief executives of the acquired businesses “to exercise wide autonomy and outsized influence”.

WPP was also accused by the SEC of failing to promptly or adequately respond to warning signs of corruption or control failures at certain subsidiaries.

The SEC highlighted the example of an Indian subsidiary of WPP that allegedly continued to bribe Indian government officials in return for advertising contracts after joining WPP, despite WPP having received several complaints referencing the behaviour.

Subsidiaries in Brazil, Peru and China were also highlighted by the SEC. 

WPP has agreed to cease and desist from committing violations of the anti-bribery, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the FCPA, without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings.

The company has therefore paid $10.1m in disgorgement, $1.1m in prejudgement interest and an $8m penalty.

The FCPA, which passed into law in 1977, prohibits US firms and individuals from paying bribes to foreign officials to further business deals.

Charles Cain, FCPA unit chief at the SEC, said: “A company cannot allow a focus on profitability or market share to come at the expense of appropriate controls.

“Further, it is essential for companies to identify the root cause of problems when red flags emerge to prevent a pattern of corrupt behaviour from taking hold.”

A spokesperson for WPP said: “The commission’s findings relate to control issues as well as the acquisition and integration of companies in high-risk markets until 2018.

"As the commission’s order recognises, WPP’s new leadership has put in place robust new compliance measures and controls, fundamentally changed its approach to acquisitions, cooperated fully with the commission and terminated those involved in misconduct.”