Still Tough to Get Over Debar
Written by Milos Barutciski and Matthew Kronby
On July 3, the Government of Canada announced a new Integrity Regime to replace the previous rules for debarment (disqualification) from public procurement. The new Regime, which is effective immediately, responds to more than a year of steady criticism of the previous Integrity Framework first established in 2010 by Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), the principal procuring arm of the Canadian federal government. That criticism, from business, legal and anti-corruption organizations, argued that the Integrity Framework had become so inflexible, punitive and far-reaching that it would be counterproductive to its objectives, namely to deter criminal misconduct and protect the integrity of the public procurement process. Commentators argued that the actual effect of the old Integrity Framework was to make it difficult for the government to find “clean” suppliers and to discourage companies from acknowledging and remediating wrongdoing.
The Government signalled its intention to address these concerns in its April 2015 budget. The new Integrity Regime goes a considerable distance to correct many of the problems with the Integrity Framework, but falls short in some critical respects.
The Concerns Giving Rise to the New Integrity Regime
Under the former Integrity Framework, suppliers faced disqualification from PWGSC procurements for fraud or corruption offences they or their affiliates have committed. The definition of "affiliates", which appears to have been drawn from the U.S. debarment rules, is very broad; it covers all relationships where one entity has the power to control the other or a third party has the power to control both. In 2012, the list of offences that could give rise to debarment was expanded to include the bribery of foreign public officials under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act and other federal offences.
None of this provoked particular concern until March 2014, when PWGSC adopted the latest in a series of “get tough” amendments to the Integrity Framework. One of these amendments imposed a mandatory 10-year ineligibility period for suppliers, with no scope for reduction due either to the gravity of the offending conduct or the remediation efforts of the business involved. In contrast with the U.S. and similar regimes elsewhere, which give credit for mitigating circumstances and remediation efforts in determining or subsequently reducing debarment penalties, companies doing significant business with the Canadian government have had little incentive to admit to and redress corrupt conduct and potentially a strong disincentive to do so.
The 2014 amendments also expanded the ineligibility conditions to include foreign offences “similar” to the listed domestic offences. Since the Integrity Framework already extended to the conduct of far-flung affiliates, this meant that Canadian businesses could face automatic 10-year debarments from most federal procurement not only for their own corrupt conduct but for the foreign conduct of remotely related entities over which they exercised no oversight or control. Increasing international enforcement of regulatory laws, such as anti-corruption, economic sanctions, antitrust and competition offences, meant that Canadian companies could face automatic debarment in ever expanding circumstances with no connection to Canada.
Key Elements of the New Integrity Regime
The new Integrity Regime remains under the primary authority of PWGSC and its Minister. The elements of the Regime are set out in a new PWGSC Ineligibility and Suspension Policy. The new Regime introduces key changes in relation to (i) the potential to reduce the length of debarment through remediation in certain circumstances; (ii) interim debarment prior to conviction; (iii) the consequences of "affiliate" conduct, (iv) the impact of conviction for foreign offences, and (v) new administrative and review process within PWGSC.
Potential Reduction of 10-year Debarment
The Regime maintains the 10-year ineligibility period for participation in procurements, which will apply for any convictions for covered offences within the previous three years. However, suppliers, other than those convicted of fraudulent conduct in a government procurement, will have the opportunity to reduce their ineligibility by up to five years by co-operating with law enforcement authorities or implementing appropriate remediation to address the causes of the misconduct. To restore their eligibility, suppliers also will need to obtain independent third-party certification that they have successfully addressed the causes of the misconduct. Suppliers convicted of fraud in connection with Canadian government procurement will remain ineligible indefinitely until they have received a pardon.
Ineligibility extends to sub-contractors as well. Suppliers who without prior Ministerial approval perform government contracts using sub-contractors deemed ineligible under the Integrity Regime will themselves face five-year debarments.
In addition to the 10-year ineligibility period, suppliers that have been charged with or admitted to any of the covered offences may be suspended from participating in procurement processes pending completion of the criminal proceedings.
PWGSC will maintain a list of ineligible and suspended companies and individuals.
The actions of an affiliate no longer render the supplier automatically ineligible. Instead, a supplier will be ineligible for the conduct of an affiliate only where the supplier can be shown to have “directed, influenced, authorized, assented to, acquiesced in or participated in” the conduct that would give rise to ineligibility. The Integrity Regime also establishes a review process under which suppliers will have 30 days to contest determinations of ineligibility based on the conduct of affiliates.
“Similar” foreign offences remain a basis for ineligibility or suspension under the Integrity Regime. The regime now explicitly contemplates an assessment of that similarity as well as the fairness and legitimacy of the proceedings that produced the foreign conviction. However, it is unclear who will be charged with making those assessments; the Ineligibility and Suspension Policy contemplates suppliers hiring independent third parties to provide information about foreign conviction but states rather vaguely that the “opinion of Canada” will be determinative.
As under the Integrity Framework, the Government will be able to enter into a contract with an otherwise ineligible supplier where doing so is deemed necessary to the public interest, such as where no other suppliers can perform the contract or where failure to enter into the contract would pose risks to national security or public health.
The Regime contemplates the use of administrative agreements imposing conditions and compliance measures that an ineligible supplier must take to have its 10-year ineligibility period reduced or suspension following charges lifted, or when the Government invokes the public interest exemption or maintains an existing contract with a supplier who has become non-compliant. Supplier compliance with these agreements will be subject to independent third-party monitoring.
The new Integrity Regime addresses the overreach and potential unfairness that were inherent in the Integrity Framework's application to foreign convictions of supplier affiliates. More generally, it adds transparency to the process by which ineligibility decisions will be made.
The elimination of automatic 10-year ineligibility is also a welcome development as it, to some degree, recognizes and encourages cooperation and remediation efforts by suppliers who have committed listed offences.
However, the revised policy fails to make a clear distinction between punishment and deterrence of misconduct (the domain of criminal law) and protecting the integrity of federal procurement and taxpayer dollars (the domain of procurement rules). The growing severity of corporate fines and the risk of individual imprisonment in corporate criminal cases, together with the reputational harm suffered by companies found guilty of white collar crimes, are a very strong deterrent for repeat offences and a general deterrent for other companies. It is unlikely that an automatic five-year debarment from Canadian public procurement will contribute significantly further to deterrence. It will, however, have a detrimental impact on Canadian companies (and their employees) even when they have substantially overhauled their management and practices. The automatic debarment will also harm Canadian taxpayers by eliminating potential suppliers and reducing the number of competitors bidding on public contracts (with the consequential pricing impact of reduced competition).
PWGSC's claim that the new Regime will encourage suppliers to proactively disclose misconduct seems similarly misguided. Unlike the U.S., which can offer deferred or non-prosecution agreements to enable companies that voluntarily confess their sins to avoid debarment, the only benefit the Regime will offer such companies is that their ineligibility period can begin sooner. Those companies will still face a minimum ineligibility period of five years, more than long enough to have serious or even existential consequences if they are heavily dependent on federal procurement contracts. Companies facing legal exposure in Canada or abroad that include potential ineligibility under the Integrity Regime therefore will want to consider their options carefully, with the assistance of expert legal counsel.