The Caterpillar criminal investigation: culture, risk and “informal” duties of trust

As described in an article in today’s Wall Street Journal  (which may require a subscription for access): “Ten thousand railcars a month roll into [the] sprawling [Terminal Island] port complex in Los Angeles County. While here, most are inspected by a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc. [Progress Rail Services]. … When problems are found, the company repairs the railcars and charges the owner. Inspection workers, to hear some tell it, face pressure to produce billable repair work. Some workers have resorted to smashing brake parts with hammers, gouging wheels with chisels or using chains to yank handles loose, according to current and former employees. In a practice called ‘green repairs,’ they added, workers at times have replaced parts that weren’t broken and hid the old parts in their cars out of sight of auditors. One employee said he and others sometimes threw parts into the ocean.”

Caterpillar is being investigated by the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, and it should be emphasized that no charges have yet been brought.  Still, the article provides some nourishing food for thought about two key topics in the C&E field, as well as one narrower but, likely for some companies, dangerously under-appreciated risk.

First, there is the issue of culture.  As noted in the article, current and/or former employees told the Journal that while ‘[t]hey weren’t instructed to do [these things], …some managers made clear the workers would be replaced if they didn’t produce enough repair revenue…Current and former employees interviewed said those who found large numbers of parts to replace didn’t receive extra pay, but they tended to be favored by the supervisors and sometimes honored with employee-of-the-month recognition. Employees said newer workers sometimes learned bad habits from veterans. ‘I was trained to do everything the wrong way,’ one current worker said. ‘I basically fell into a bandit’s nest.’”

And then there’s this piece of information: “Three years ago, two workers who were fired from a Progress Rail repair shop in Florida filed lawsuits making allegations similar to what the U.S. attorney is looking into at Terminal Island…. A lawyer who represented the two said the suits were settled on terms that barred them from discussing the case.”

Again it should be emphasized that this is only an article – no charges have yet been brought.  But, if these allegations turn out to be founded, then clearly the culture in Caterpillar’s Progress Rail business will – under current enforcement policy – weigh in favor of bringing criminal charges against the company, meaning, in the first instance, the Progress Rail subsidiary.

But what about Caterpillar itself?  Here, the key issue may turn on whether Caterpillar conducted a meaningful risk assessment after it bought Progress Rail in 2006. I recall, from various conferences at that time, that Caterpillar had a C&E officer and program  – and so if it did not look closely at Progress’s risks (then or since) a prosecutor might well wonder why.

Finally, besides broad lessons about culture and risk assessment, the Caterpillar matter – depending, of course, on how it turns out – may reinforce a narrow but important learning about risk for some companies.  That is, when a company expands its business from just manufacturing goods to providing services it often enters a new realm of risk – because its employees are effectively in a relationship of trust with customers that involves opportunities and motives to cheat beyond those in the context in which it is used to operating.  As described in an earlier post in Corporate Compliance Insights,   risk assessments typically should include “[e]xamining whether a company has any relationships (with customers or others) where the need for good faith and candor might not be sufficiently understood by employees or third parties acting on its behalf. Relationships such as these – which tend to involve a high degree of trust but not necessarily a formal fiduciary duty – may be rife with ethics risk potential.”

Businesses facing this risk typically should consider enhanced C&E mitigation measures, and as the Caterpillar matter progresses (pun not intended) it will be interesting to see what – if anything – the company did on this front. (For further reading on informal fiduciary duties  see this post. )

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