I had the honour to speak at the Procurement Lawyer’s Association (PLA) annual dinner last week in London. 140 lawyers in a room together – actually a surprisingly lively and friendly audience, I’m pleased to say.

I was looking at their website before the event and noticed a paper the PLA produced a couple of years ago, all about conflicts of interest. It has a particular focus on public sector procurement, although many of the comments and recommendations apply just as well to the private sector. It runs to 56 pages, but the “Practical Guidance” summary (page 26) gives you most of the “meat” of the report, and is sensible and thoughtful advice. 

On reflection, I should have said more on that topic in my Bad Buying book. Although it is mentioned in the section on fraud and corruption, there is more I should have said. Talking to one of the lawyers at my dinner table last week, we agreed it is a major topic that is not discussed enough. We also each had some examples that indicate different aspects around the issue.

I remember as an interim CPO having a conversation with a relatively new Chief Executive in a large government organisation. He had joined from a large consulting and services firm, who were about to bid for a very large contract with our organisation.  I needed him to make a conflict of interest declaration, but initially he didn’t see the point as “I don’t work for them any more”.

Do you still have equity in the firm, I asked? Yes, was the reply. Do you still have friends, relatives, or lovers who work there? Yes, he said (to the “friends” at least)!  To be fair, I did get through to him why this mattered, and he agreed that his involvement with the procurement would have to be pretty arm’s length.

Sometimes the conflict can be more subtle and can even veer into real corruption. I knew of one independent consultant who had a good reputation for leading procurement projects in local government for a particular service – let’s say it was catering (it wasn’t, but it was that sort of thing). Oddly, it seemed that all the procurement exercises he ran ended up with the same catering firm winning. I then discovered that between his assignments for different councils, he always went back to consulting work with the same firm!  (Who knows whether he did real work with them or just got paid for his loyalty).

My lawyer friend highlighted a somewhat similar case – an independent consultant leading a procurement exercise who suggested that an unsuccessful bidder should perhaps engage him to provide them with training in how to write better bids. That could have been genuinely well meaning of course – but the price for his training was a lot more than you might expect. The implication seemed to be that employing him might well mean the bidder would do better next time the consultant was in a key project role.

So one point from all that is to look at conflicts of interest for anyone involved with the procurement process – internal staff, consultants or yes, even lawyers! We’ve also talked about the very difficult issue of “future” potential conflicts of interest. Mathew Syed in the Times called this “retroactive inducements” and it covers those cases where someone on the buy side favours a company because they believe, hope or expect that the favoured firm will help them personally in the future, with a great job or other benefits.

We’ve seen that in the procurement world but also more widely with other senior managers and even with politicians and special advisers. George Osborne, ex-UK chancellor, got a ridiculously lucrative job with Blackrock, an investment firm he had been responsible for regulating. That struck me as an unacceptable example of exactly this problem. We’ve regularly seen civil servants and advisers involved in awarding lucrative UK government and health service contracts to consulting or IT firms, then jumping ship for senior roles in the same firm.

Anyway, take a look at the PLA paper fi you are interested in this topic. And if you are running procurement processes, before you get going, don’t be afraid to explain to your colleagues (whoever they are) why this matters and why you need to know if they are conflicted in any way.

In part 1, we started discussing the presentation from Zac Trotter of the US Department of Justice at the recent NPI conference in Atlanta. He’s an attorney who specializes in searching out, investigating and prosecuting cases of supplier collusion (what a fascinating job!)

We talked about the types of collusion in part 1, but here are Trotter’s thoughts on what makes a market, product or sector susceptible to collusion. These factors will increase the likelihood of such supplier behaviour.

  • Few sellers – that makes it easier for suppliers to get together and fix the market.
  • Limited number of qualified bidders – there may be markets with many suppliers but if only a few are qualified perhaps to bid for particular government work, that will make it easy for them to collude.
  • Difficult for new competitors to enter the market – new suppliers are less likely to be part of existing collusion and can break the stranglehold of the conspiracy.
  • Few substitute products – if buyers can’t easily switch, they may have to accept higher pricing or limited competition.
  • Standardized products – if the buyer is content with products from all the firms involved, it is easier for suppliers to rig bids or allocate business between them.
  • Repetitive or regularly scheduled purchases – again, this helps suppliers allocate work and plan an effective conspiracy.
  • Rush or emergency work – this type of work is likely to be awarded via a less rigorous procurement process, and it is also easier for a supplier to “no bid” without raising suspicions, which can help to allocate work around the colluding firms.

After we published part 1, there were some interesting comments on LinkedIn from readers. One suggested that detecting collusion might turn out to be a practical and productive use for AI. We might imagine how AI could analyse a large quantity of data around responses to tenders and look for evidence of suspiciously high bidding, bids with similar wording, or other suspicious patterns of behaviour from suppliers that might indicate potential collusion.

Clearly, you would need a lot of information available to be analysed – so maybe it is something that would apply more perhaps to a government that could interrogate tenders from many different buying organisations rather than it being feasible for an individual business. But an interesting thought.  

Finally, here is a short case study taken from the Bad Buying book, which illustrates the type of market that can be open to collusion and fraud of this nature. Incidentally, six years on from the European commission imposing fines, the truck cartel described here is still facing huge claims from buyers of trucks. Damages in the billions of euros are likely to be awarded when the case finally goes through the courts.

“Which markets are most vulnerable? It’s clear that it is easier to set up, control and sustain a cartel in markets with a relatively small number of players. But geography also comes into play here. The construction market in most countries includes many firms, yet that sector has seen cartels thrive on a limited geographical basis or in a specialist sub- market, where the number of players is smaller.

One cartel in a relatively tight market was formed by six huge European truck manufacturers. Daimler, MAN, Volvo / Renault, DAF, Iveco and Scania are facing billion-dollar damages claims from their customers, mainly logistics and transportation firms, for illegal price- fixing.

By April 2019 more than 7,000 transport companies from twenty-six countries had filed more than 300 claims in the German courts. That follows fines of €2.9 billion on four truck manufacturers imposed by the European Commission in 2016/17.  The Commission found that between 1997 and 2011 the truck manufacturers exchanged information about prices, price increases and when new emission technology would be launched. They also passed on associated costs to their customers”.

So don’t assume that your organisation could not possibly be experiencing supplier collusion – as Trotter said, it happens in a wide range of different industries, from manufacturing to financial services, from airlines to construction. Keep an eye out for suspicious supplier behaviour, in bidding (or not bidding), pricing or sub-contracting.  If you’re in the US, you have the Department of Justice to support you; the European Commission plays a role in the EU, and the Competition and Markets Authority is the body to speak to in the UK.

At the National Procurement Institute conference in Atlanta earlier this month, delegates (public sector, mainly from US cities) heard an interesting presentation from Zac Trotter, a Trial Attorney from the Antitrust Division at the US Department of Justice. He stressed that his comments were not representative of the Department, which I guess he has to say, but he gave a very clear and engaging explanation of his fascinating area of expertise – fighting against supplier collusion. His focus was on the mechanics of collusion, with additional comments on how procurement professionals can look out for it.

Competition is key to getting value for money, he said, something we can all agree with. But collusion does happen, and because of its secretive nature, can go on for years, or even decades, without being discovered. And public procurement is a big target for fraud of this sort because of the amounts of money involved. As a US judge recently said, “Like bears to honey, white collar fraudsters are drawn to billion-dollar federal programmes”!

In US law, the Sherman Act of 1890 (Section 1) defines the attributes of the collusion offence as:

  • Agreement or conspiracy to restrain trade (that is subject to interpretation and clarification as it is a very broad definition)
  • Participants knowingly joined – and intended to agree (as conspirators)
  • Interstate or foreign commerce (a “technical” provision)
  • Statute of limitations is 5 years

Prosecutors need to establish agreement between two or more people for a case. Interestingly, juries are more inclined to convict if there is evidence that conspirators knew what they were doing is wrong. But there doesn’t always need to be “hard” documented agreement to collude. A “course of conduct” can show guilt – for instance, if one firm always bids low, whilst two bid high but become sub-contractors to the winner. If that keeps happening, it might provide strong circumstantial evidence for prosecution. For buyers, consistent high bidding from the same firm should be a “red flag” for procurement – why would the firm bother if they keep losing, unless there was something else in it for them?

The three types of collusive behaviour were described by Trotter as;

  1. Allocation agreements
  2. Bid rigging agreements
  3. Price fixing agreements

Allocation agreements mean suppliers colluding to “divide the pie” in a particular manner. That might be based on splitting business by markets,  geography, customer (big, small), or products. Watch out for when a supplier doesn’t bid when you might expect them to. (e.g. they bid for a men’s uniform contract but not for  women’s uniforms). Or perhaps a competitor pulls out of a market for no obvious reason.

Bid rigging – here, suppliers raise the price of products or services above a true “market” value, effectively setting an artificial price. There may also be pre-determined winners and losers of contracts. Bid rotation is a technique where suppliers agree to a defined pattern of different firms winning work, or divided up in other ways (clearly, this is linked to the ”allocation” technique). Then we see “cover bids”, where suppliers submit deliberately expensive bids to make it look like there is competition, or “bid suppression”, where suppliers refuse to bid in order to reduce competition. So buyers should watch out for firms saying, “we’re too busy to bid”.

Price fixing – means the customer has no genuine way to negotiate, as firms fix or otherwise determine the price at which products are sold. That might mean coordinating price increases, or setting price floors, or a new surcharge that everyone in the industry implements together.  

There are big penalties now in the US for this behaviour. Participants can go to jail and there are potentially very large fines. Penalties of up to $100m have been imposed fairly recently on sectors  from canned tuna to cancer treatments. The courts can also award “restitutions” to those affected, suppliers can be barred from government contracts and there have been civil lawsuits too. Nevertheless, collusion continues in many industries.

(Part 2 to follow)

In many countries, the image we have of German business and management is one of efficiency, formality and organisation. My view was shaken a few years back when I experienced the chaotic programme of work on the railways in and around Berlin, with chaos in stations and no help or communication apparent for confused travellers. Then we had the Brandenburg Airport fiasco, one of the best case studies in my Bad Buying book! It finally opened last year, 10 years behind schedule and billions over budget after a whole spectrum of incompetence, bad planning, fraud, and financial mismanagement had been demonstrated during its construction.  

Another more recent story shows that less than perfect side of German management. Patricia Schlesinger was the €300K a year the director (CEO) of Berlin-based RBB, one of nine regional public broadcasters in the country funded by the taxpayer. But she resigned this week after a series of accusations about money wasted, conflicts of interest and improper procurement – in fact, the word “embezzlement” is even being used.  Berlin’s public prosecutor is looking at accusations she used RBB funds to pay for lavish dinners at her home and private use by her husband of her company car and chauffeur.

Wolf-Dieter Wolf (crazy name, crazy guy…), chairman of the RBB board, also stood down. He is linked to some of the accusations and is seen as being complicit in her behaviour.  Perhaps most extravagant was the €658,112 spent on refurbishing her office, according to The Times – shades of Fred Goodwin, the ex-Royal Bank of Scotland head. When the new RBS HQ opened in 2005 there were reports of over-the-top office furnishings and his own “scallop kitchen” (denied by his lawyers, we should say)!

In Berlin, the parquet flooring for Ms Schlesinger’s office cost a mere €16,783, and (here comes a Bad Buying link) complaints by the internal compliance department that no other quotations for the work had been sought were overridden.

The accusations began in June with a report by the news site Business Insider that Schlesinger’s husband, Gerhard Spörl, a journalist, had been awarded a consultancy contract by the state-owned trade fair company Messe Berlin. That contract was allegedly signed off by the company’s supervisory board chief, the same Wolf-Dieter Wolf. Was this an example of nepotism and favouritism? Then other consulting-type contracts emerged with little evidence of proper procurement, with accusations of Schlesinger and / or Wolf in effect favouring their friends.

Of course, this apparent arrogance and disregard for rules is something we see frequently and is not limited by geography, sector or type of role. (The Bad Buying book has quite a few examples, as you might expect). The boundaries between disregard for the organisation’s money or rules and outright fraud are also sometimes difficult to define exactly. However, there seems to be a character trait that means some people just feel they deserve more, they deserve to be treated differently and the rules don’t or shouldn’t apply to them. Boris Johnson comes to mind, as does Carlos Ghosn, now an international fugitive after running Nissan and being accused of using corporate expenditure for his personal benefit.  

But back to the German broadcaster case, and I’m trying to think of a good way to close this article. I mean, if only there was a word for that feeling of pleasure we get from someone else’s misfortune, particularly when they think they’re better than you…!

Having spent several years researching, writing and now promoting the Bad Buying book, I thought I’d heard pretty much everything in terms of public sector organisations finding ways of wasting taxpayers money through incompetent or corrupt procurement, investment and spending.

But there is always something new, and the case of Conservative-run Thurrock Council in Essex and their investments in bonds linked to solar power is unique and astonishing. You can read the full story here – it is great work by Gareth Davies of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, supported on this story by the Daily Mail.

Thurrock has invested in solar farm businesses owned by an individual called Liam Kavanagh. Now I suspect most procurement professionals are inherently suspicious of people who haven’t been around for long, or whose businesses are only recently established, but who buy multiple fancy cars / fancy homes. In the case of Kavanagh, “his jetset lifestyle included the use of a private jet, a fleet of super-cars and a Hampshire farmhouse with a swimming pool, wine cellar, home cinema and steam and hot tub room”.

As the Mail reported; “Cash-strapped Thurrock Council in Essex borrowed £655million of public money – the equivalent of triple what it spends on services each year – to invest in 53 solar farms across the UK. It agreed a series of deals with globe-trotting businessman Liam Kavanagh, whose integrity was later questioned by a High Court judge over £5million his company banked in ‘commission’.”

And now there appears to be some £130 million of Thurrock’s money that has “disappeared”, with questions over even larger sums owed to the council. Kavanagh has liquidated companies that took money from Thurrock and has re-arranged his financial affairs, leaving the council with concerns over up to £200 million that it is owed. Incredibly, much of the investment was made by borrowing from other local authorities, who could be in trouble if Thurrock then default!

Davies reports this.  “In an interview at the time, Clark (Thurrock’s CFO) described a bizarre arrangement, involving dozens if not hundreds of short-term loans, many as short as a month in length, with the effect that the council was in a perpetual state of borrowing from one local authority to repay another. Piecing together data in obscure spreadsheets revealed Thurrock had borrowed from at least 150 other councils”.  Thurrock also borrowed some £350 million from a Treasury-run lending body.

Local authorities seem to be a hotbed for financial waste, incompetence and fraud. There are many questions still being asked about Croydon’s property “business” – that council went bust and Whitehall had to send in “commissioners” to run it. The same has happened in Slough – dodgy property investment there too.

Nottingham Council decided to get into the energy business and its “Robin Hood Energy” firm stole from the taxpayer to give to … well, tens of millions in losses disappeared anyway. Gloucester tried something similar and failed.  My own local council, Surrey Heath, invested some £120 million in buying commercial property just before the bottom dropped out of that market. The valuation is now more like £50 million.

So the problems cover councils run by Labour (Slough, Liverpool) and the Conservatives (Surrey Heath, Thurrock). It does often seem to be council officials who are the driving force behind reckless investments and spending, while the councillors are not informed or don’t have the intellect or power to intervene. In the case of Thurrock, Davies reported that officials kept elected councillors in the dark for months and have not given full access to the details (as well as blocking FOI requests and questions).

Whilst Davies has to be careful in his reporting – “While there is no suggestion that any rules were breached….” he says, we must wonder whether in some of these examples, corruption was involved, although it is hard to prove. Do external parties (suppliers, property developers etc.) say to their inside-the-council enabler “look, I can’t give you anything now, but in five years’ time when the heat has died down, there’s a million for you”.  

Anyway, if it is not corruption, then we are seeing far too many examples of gross incompetence from our councils. And it is costing taxpayers many, many millions.

Two fraud cases in a row here … but a new (for me) angle today.

Procurement related fraud and corruption has interested me for many years, long before I started collecting case studies specifically to include in my Bad Buying book. So it is unusual to see a new type of fraud, but I came across a US case recently that was somewhat different to any I‘ve seen before.

At the heart of it, the scam is that an organisation ends up paying for goods that are not really needed (or maybe aren’t even delivered).  An internal budget holder creating their own company, setting it up as a supplier, then creating and authorising invoices and payments to themselves is the typical case. But here, it was more complex, as the fraud was against the US publicly-funded Medicare system.

At a federal court in Brooklyn Elemer Raffai, an orthopedic surgeon, was charged last month with health care fraud in connection with a $10 million scheme. He allegedly submitted false and fraudulent claims to Medicare and Medicare Part D plans. Raffai was arrested and was due to make his initial court appearance in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.

“In exchange for kickbacks from telemedicine companies, Dr. Raffai allegedly submitted millions of dollars in false and fraudulent claims to Medicare on behalf of beneficiaries without even examining them or based on conversations on the phone that lasted less than three minutes,” stated United States Attorney (Breon) Peace.

Dr. Raffai purported to practice “telemedicine” (phone or Zoom I assume) with the AffordADoc Network and other telemedicine companies. He was paid approximately $25 or $30 per patient consultation.  Between July 2016 and June 2017, he allegedly signed prescriptions and order forms for medical equipment, including orthotic braces, that were not medically necessary, simply based on a short phone call. Some $10 million in false and fraudulent claims were made to Medicare for that equipment and Medicare paid more than $4 million on those claims.

Presumably the “patients” were in on the alledged scam as well, and were recompensed for making the call to the doctor and playing their role in the process. And (again presumably) it was the manufacturers or sales agents for this equipment who were the masterminds behind it all. They received funding from Medicare for goods that either weren’t needed by the “patients”, or perhaps that equipment was never actually supplied. That isn’t clear from the information made public so far.  We might also hope that those firms have been or will be charged with fraud, as well as the doctor.

This type of fraud where different parties are colluding can be very difficult to detect – think of the famous Sainsburys potato example, which went on for years and was only detected in the end by the supplier’s external auditor. The buyer worked with a potato supplier that charged the firm over the odds, which funded bribes to the buyer. But one positive for those trying to fight fraud is that the more people are involved, the more likely it is that someone involved will “crack” and expose what is going on.  I wonder if that is what happened in this Medicare case, where many people must have known what was happening?

Another positive is that technology will increasingly be called into play to fight fraud. AI (artificial intelligence) can look at huge amounts of data, and perhaps in this case could have worked out that this doctor had a prescribing pattern that was out of line with his contemporaries.  I know organisations are using tools to examine payment records and look for anomalies; for instance, someone who always places orders with a value just below the threshold for further approvals.

Anyway, this is an interesting case and we will keep an eye on it to see what happens to Doctor Raffai.

There was major “Bad Buying” fraud case in the media last week. Perhaps the most surprising element of the story was that the offences were discovered in 2013, and related to some years before that, yet the case only came to court in 2022. Did it take than long to gather evidence? Is the Crown Prosecution Service really working on that sort of timescale? It’s a concerning issue in itself.

But back to the case and I’m afraid it was a “classic” fraud, a pretty basic case of an internal decision maker colluding with suppliers in return for payment. At Southwark Crown Court, Noel Corry, a former electrical and automation manager at Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd (CCE), pleaded guilty to five counts of corruption and was sentenced to 20 months in prison, suspended for 21 months, plus 200 hours of unpaid work.

He accepted cash bribes, free tickets to events as well as sponsorship for his local football club, Droylsden FC near Manchester. A total of £1.5m was paid by Boulting Group Limited (now trading as WABGS Limited), Tritec Systems Limited, and Electron Systems Limited. The firms that paid the bribes were also fined – the first time the Met has prosecuted firms for failing to prevent bribery. That sets an interesting and good precedent. WABGS Limited was fined £500,000 – between 2007-13 the company benefited from contracts with CCE worth over £13m. Tritec Systems and Electron Systems were each fined £70,000 plus costs. Individuals at those firms also received suspended sentences.

Part of Corry’s job  was choosing suppliers to carry out work. Over some years, he favoured certain firms in return for cash payments. He could spend up to £50K without others getting involved, so I assume he made lots of small payments or contract awards to these firms.  “The court previously heard how Corry was given bribes through payments for “bogus” contracts for Coca-Cola, in which work was never carried out, or had Coca-Cola pay more than the actual amount charged for real work and was sent the difference”, as the Shropshire Star reported.

But in 2011, the firm changed the policy and the professional procurement team started getting more involved and a more structured process was implemented (hooray!)  They started getting suspicious as some firms changed their bids late in the process, and suspected that someone on the inside was tipping off firms about competing bids. That led to discovery of evidence which eventually led to prosecution. (Tip – if you’re committing fraud, don’t have a spreadsheet on your laptop called “Slush”)!

It’s all rather sad in some sense – of course it is good that he was caught, but his wife divorced him and their son has mental health issues now, according to the reports. And Corry eventually repaid £1.7 million to CCE.  So if you are ever tempted, just remember that it probably will ruin your life.

What are the lessons here for organisations? Well, I gave 7 key anti-fraud principles in the Bad Buying book, and several are relevant to this case – proper supplier selection processes, for example. But perhaps the most pertinent is this principle (taken from the book).

“Opportunities for collusion between suppliers, and between suppliers and buyers, must be minimized – Many frauds rely on collusion between buyer (or budget holder) and seller, so reducing the opportunity of this reduces the chances of fraud. Organizations should ensure there is always more than one person involved with any major purchase and in signing- off work with suppliers. Moving staff regularly is another option, so there is less time for the relationship, and perhaps the fraudulent plans, to mature. Some organizations have a policy that no one in a decision-making buying role will  stay for more than three years in that same job role, for this very reason.

It is not just professional buyers (procurement staff) to whom this applies. Indeed, it can be stakeholders such as budget holders or service users who by the nature of what is being bought find themselves getting too close to suppliers. I once discovered that my firm’s major IT equipment supplier was sponsoring our internal IT budget holder’s expensive car- racing hobby!

It may be very innocent, but when a marketing or IT manager makes it clear they don’t want professional procurement or finance colleagues involved in ‘their’ relationship with a key supplier, that can be a warning sign that it isn’t totally innocent. Organizations should look at discouraging closeness that goes beyond the need to work well with a supplier to get a job done. This should influence the organization’s policy on hospitality, gifts and entertainment, which should be clear and should err on the side of caution”.

So well done to CCE for eventually discovering this, but a better policy would have perhaps made it less likely in the first place. And if you work for a large organisation that allows budget holders to spend thousands without anyone else being involved, I can pretty much guarantee that one or more of your colleagues is committing exactly this type of fraud at this very moment.

What is the most difficult type of procurement-related fraud to detect? In my book, Bad Buying, there are plenty of examples of different fraud, some related to dodgy invoicing, fake suppliers or invoices, purchasing card fraud and more. But perhaps the hardest to detect are around collusion between a buyer (or someone else with power “on the inside”) and a supplier, with “backhanders” being paid in return for favours or preference shown to the supplier.  

Last month a case that goes back some 10 years finally came to its conclusion. Not only did it have that sort of collusion at its heart, but it was also interesting to us because the victim was a firm well known in the procurement world – services firm Achilles, who run supplier qualification, risk and information services across industries including construction, transport, and energy.

Back in 2011, their interim head of IT, Brian Chant, led the process for choosing an IT supplier to whom Achilles would outsource significant work.  However, the firm that was successful in winning the work, with Chant’s endorsement, also paid him some £475,000, according to the evidence presented in court. As the Register website explained,

“Unknown to Achilles was the fact that Chant, of Andover in Hampshire, had quietly approached the eventual winner beforehand to hand-hold them through the procurement process – and to arrange a hefty secret margin straight into his wallet”.

Chant left Achilles and joined Hampshire Police as its head of IT in October 2014 – a post he held until his arrest in 2016. But only now has the case been resolved. It seems that the criminal activity was discovered by the tax authorities initially, who were looking at VAT claims made by the IT company relating to invoices from Chant’s consulting firm.  That led on to the criminal investigation, and finally to Chhant being sent to jail for 6 years.

What makes this type of fraud so hard to spot? Well, particularly if the contract is in a specialist area, it may be difficult for others in the buying organisation to realise that the fraudster is pushing the supplier selection decision in a particular direction. It may even be that the favoured supplier is not a bad choice (outside the corruption issue), and there may be no obvious losses to the organisation on the buy-side.  

You also don’t have the ongoing potential evidence and chance of discovery that exists if, for instance, fake invoices are being submitted for payment, or someone is spending money outside policy on a purchasing card. Unless the payments from the supplier to the crook are picked up, then it is hard to gather evidence of this sort of behaviour.

What seems odd in this case is that the supplier and the people involved at that firm have not been named or – as far as we can see – prosecuted. I’m curious how they have avoided that. It’s hard to see really how they could have thought these were legitimate payments to Chant’s firm.  It feels like other customers of that firm deserve to know its identity, apart from anything else.

So what can you do to try and avoid this sort of fraud? A strong procurement function (or even a single person for smaller firms) can help ensure that supplier selection processes are structured and as objective as possible. Involving multiple people in the analysis and the decision-making also helps, and of course, you should also ask those involved in procurement if they have any conflicts of interest. However, someone who is capable of fraud probably won’t worry about lying at that point!

Today, our final two Bad Buying awards for 2021!

Creative Fraud:  I-Tek, its Owner and Staff

Multiple Fraud Related to Imported Goods (and more…)

This case may seem relatively small compared  to  some of the mega-waste examples we have seen this year, but what made it a worthy winner was the way it combined three distinct types of procurement fraud in one rather neat package.

Beyung S. Kim, owner of Iris Kim Inc, also known as I-Tek, and his employees, Seung Kim, Dongjin Park, Chang You, Pyongkon Pak, and Li-Ling Tu, pleaded guilty to a procurement fraud scheme involving millions of dollars in government contracts over several years, mainly supplying various US defence agencies. They were sent to prison in August 2021, after providing everything from swimming trunks for West Point cadets to spools of concertina wire. The problem was that the goods were made in China, but were illegally re-labelled to look like US-made products. That violated the terms of the contracts as well as laws that stipulate certain contracts must be fulfilled by US-made products.

The second fraud came when investigators found that an employee who was a disabled military veteran was listed as the firm’s president in some bids – but he wasn’t. That meant the firm was eligible for contracts reserved for companies owned by disabled ex-service people. (We’ve seen a number of frauds of that nature in recent years, so of which are featured in my Bad buying book).  Finally, the conspirators also submitted false documents and lied about the value of the goods imported into the U.S. to avoid higher duties and taxes.

All in all, a pretty wide-ranging procurement fraud, covering several relatively common areas of illegal behaviour, adding up to an impressive winner of the Bad Buying Creative Fraud Award.

…..

Not Really Technology Award: Greensill Capital

Not an SCF FinTech, Just a Risky Lender (and Several Very Naughty Boys)

Greensill Capital, the firm built by Aussie farmer’s son Lex Greensill, collapsed in March, and the losses to investors who backed the firm are still unquantified but may run into billions. The UK taxpayer is also on the hook for state-backed loans and perhaps even pension support for steelworkers (because of Greensill’s close links with Liberty Steel).

Greensill presented itself as offering innovative tech-backed supply chain finance (SCF) products, but (to cut a long story short), their business model turned out to involve borrowing money cheaply by presenting the investment as low risk, then actually lending it out in a VERY risky manner.

Ultimately, it was lending money to the Gupta Liberty steel empire based on the “security” of vague future revenue flows that did for Greensill. Some of those revenues were supposedly going to come from firms that weren’t even current customers of Liberty!

This was not “supply chain finance” in the sense that any off us in the supply chain world had ever heard of before. It looked very much like unsecured lending with funds coming from sources (including Credit Suisse-promoted bonds) who were unaware of just how risky that lending really was.  Greensill also talked about being a “fintech” business, which they clearly weren’t, but dropping that bit of bulls**t into the conversation gave the firm more credibility. Their lending was facilitated through other genuine fintech-type platforms such as Taulia.  

Lex Greensill himself leveraged his role as a UK government “Crown Representative”, working to promote SCF within the Cabinet Office, to wheedle his way into winning some work in the public sector. He was supported for frankly incomprehensible reasons by a number of key people, including the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. The various investigations showed that some senior procurement people and politicians were not taken in, including Minister Francis Maude, but Greensill got onto a Crown Commercial Service framework, and won contracts for offering NHS payments to pharmacies as well as “salary forwarding” to some NHS staff.  

Government’s Chief Commercial Officer at the time, Bill Crothers, initially didn’t seem keen but came round to the Greensill cause, and became a director of the firm, no doubt encouraged like ex-Prime Minister David Cameron by the prospects of making millions. Cameron’s behaviour has stained his reputation – such as it was – forever. Having left office, he harassed everyone he knew in government to promote Greensill’s cause, right through to 2020 when he tried to gain advantage for Greensill under pandemic financing and lending schemes.

We can’t call what happened “fraud” yet, although investigations that might lead to criminal charges are continuing. It is hard to believe that nothing criminal went on, but we will see. However, whatever it was, it fully deserves the Bad Buying Not Really Technology Award based on the scale, innovative nature and continuing implications of Greensill’s actions.  Indeed, if we had nominated an overall winner this year, I suspect Greensill would have won that ultimate accolade…

Happy New Year and let’s hope for less Bad Buying in 2022!

Welcome everyone and yes, it is time for the inaugural Bad Buying Award Ceremony – virtual of course.  Over the next three days we will announce the six winners of these prestigious awards, given to those who have demonstrated truly Bad Buying.

Our definition of Bad Buying incorporates a number of different but linked topics. Obviously, it includes failure in procurement (poor performance on the buying side of the table). It can also relate to a contract that goes badly wrong because of supplier performance, failure or fraud that is not properly managed or mitigated by the buyer, client or customer. Or it can be a more general fraud linked to the procurement process, such as fake invoice scams or corrupt collusion between buyers and sellers.

So today, we will start with our two international awards.  

International (Private Sector): Kraft Heinz

Awarded for Creative Use of Supplier Contracts

Food giant Kraft Heinz (KH) was charged by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with mis-stating its accounts following the merger of Kraft and Heinz in 2015. The firms said the deal would deliver cost savings of $1.5bn a year, and procurement savings-related targets were set for staff. But after 2017, savings proved hard to find,  As the SEC said, management “pushed procurement division employees to come up with ideas to generate additional immediate, same-year savings”.

The dodgy accounting practices were then based around manipulation of supplier-related payments. For instance, buyers negotiated “prebates” (!!) – a sugar supplier gave KH $2 million up front in return for a 3-year contract, with the agreement that the money would be recovered by the supplier through the contract. Or  suppliers might reduce prices in the short term in return for a longer-term increase. These schemes when recorded as current-year “savings” and added immediate profit, rather than being accounted for properly.

Kraft Heinz had to restate its accounts, correcting a total of $208m in wrongly-recognised cost savings. The CPO, Klaus Hoffman and the COO Eduardo Pelleissone were accused of violating anti-fraud provisions, failure to provide accurate information to accountants and violating accounting controls.

Without admitting or denying the allegations, in September Pelleissone agreed to pay a civil penalty of $300,000.  Rather than addressing risks after being made aware of issues, “he pressured the procurement division to deliver unrealistic savings targets”. Hofmann agreed to pay $100,000 and was barred from serving as director or officer of a public company for five years. KH agreed to a penalty of $62m, also without admitting or denying the findings.

This was a very interesting and unusual case, which demonstrated approaches that the judging panel had not previously seen in their many years of procurement service. Given that creative application of supplier negotiation and contractual mechanisms, this was a very worthy winner of the Bad Buying International (Private Sector) Award.

………

International (Public sector): Balfour Beatty Plc

Awarded for Over-invoicing of US Defence Clients

In December 2021, the US housing management subsidiary of UK engineering and services firm Balfour Beatty agreed to pay fines and restitution of $65 million after admitting over-charging US defence clients for some years. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Balfour Beatty Communities agreed to make the payment  after a federal investigation into its scheme to claim performance bonuses by submitting false information to various clients. 

The issues came to light when living conditions at US Air Force bases were found to be unsatisfactory. The company’s homes did not meet fire safety codes and had mould, rodents, pests, radon gas, and other defects. An investigation then found that the firm maintained two sets of maintenance records at some bases. One included the issues of mould, asbestos, and leaks that were not promptly fixed, whilst the other showed fake quick repairs that allowed the company to claim contractual bonuses from the Pentagon.  As always in these cases, the company blamed a few rogue individuals who have presumably now left.  It also appears that the firm is still engaged on the contract which seems a little surprising.

In cases like this, it is arguably not so much “bad buying” as a “bad supplier”. However, where the issue runs for some time, it usually indicates a failure of contract management, as well as bad behaviour by the supplier. At least the client did eventually identify the issue and take action – but it is an interesting case study in supplier behaviour, and on that basis, Balfour Beatty and its affected clients win the Bad Buying International (Public Sector) Award.

Two more prize winners tomorrow!