Panasonic pays up $280M to settle bribery charges

Panasonic pays up $280M to settle bribery charges

US Justice Department agrees to hold off on prosecuting the company

A unit of Panasonic has agreed to pay about US$280 million in a deal with the U.S. government to resolve criminal and civil charges that the company falsified its financial records to conceal payments to sales agents in China and other parts of Asia.

The criminal charges were filed against Panasonic Avionics Corp, a subsidiary that designs in-flight entertainment systems, by the U.S. Justice Department in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The Justice Department agreed to hold off on prosecuting the company, according to court records.

In exchange, the company will pay a criminal penalty of more than US$137 million, plus another US$143 million in disgorgement and interest to settle parallel civil charges with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission which investigates civil violations of the anti-bribery law, court documents said.

The SEC's civil charges against the company also include accounting fraud.

Panasonic agreed to improve its compliance program, hire an independent monitor and continue to cooperate in "any ongoing investigation," the court filings said.

“We have taken extensive steps over the past few years to strengthen Panasonic Avionics’ compliance programs and internal controls, and we welcome an independent compliance monitor to assess our progress,” said Hideo Nakano, CEO of Panasonic Avionics, in a statement.

In its court filing, the Justice Department said the scheme occurred from 2007 through 2013, and involved senior company executives who retained consultants for "improper purposes" in an effort to win business with airlines.

In one case in July 2007, for instance, Panasonic executives paid a foreign official $875,000 over six years even though the person did "little work" for the company.

Those payments were recorded on the company's books as legitimate consulting services.

The company was also accused of hiring consultants in an effort to "obtain confidential non-public business information" about competitors.

In addition, the government alleged that the company hired sales agents throughout Asia who did not pass due diligence checks. Even though the company formally terminated relationships with those agents, employees at Panasonic "secretly continued to use those agents."

The alleged payments came out the coffers of the company president's budget.

Without naming individuals, the court filing said that "Executive 1" improperly certified that the company had internal controls over its financial reporting from 2005 until he was "separated from the company" in 2017.

Panasonic's former CEO Paul Margis was replaced by Hideo Nakano in February 2017, as part of a broader leadership shakeup.

In recent years, the Justice Department has offered companies leniency if they voluntarily disclose possible illegal payments to foreign officials.

However, in this case, the Justice Department said the company only came forward after the SEC started investigating.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Joel Schectman, Editing by Franklin Paul, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman)

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