US prosecutors charge 2 ex-Cognizant executives in $2m bribery of TN officials

New York: Two former high-ranking executives of the technology giant Cognizant have been charged by US prosecutors in the alleged $2 million bribery of Tamil Nadu government officials to get building permits for campus in Chennai.

Separately, the Securities and Exchanges Commission (SEC) that oversees publicly traded companies fined Cognizant $25 million for the alleged bribery said to have been made 2014.

The criminal charges were filed against Cognizant’s former President Gordon Coburn, 55, and former Chief Legal Officer Steven Schwartz, 51, in a federal court in Newark, New Jersey, on Friday relating to construction of its Indian subsidiary’s 250,000 sq metre KITS campus in Chennai’s Sholinganallur.

The prosecutors did not identify the Tamil Nadu officials or the construction company through which the alleged bribes were routed. In addition, they said two Cognizant officials who lived in India were a part of the alleged bribe controversy, but did not charge or identify them by name.

Announcing the criminal charges, Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski said: “The allegations in the indictment filed yesterday describe a sophisticated international bribery scheme authorised and concealed by C-suite executives of a publicly-traded multinational company.”

The Department of Justice said it was not going to prosecute Cognizant because of the company’s “prompt voluntary self-disclosure”, cooperation and the payment to the SEC of the cost savings from the alleged bribery.

Cognizant CEO Francisco D’Souza in a message to the company’s 282,000 staff said the Justice Department’s decision was “a positive outcome for our company”.

“Once allegations surfaced, we immediately took steps to address them and launched a thorough investigation conducted by experienced outside counsel”, and the case did not involve work with clients, he added.

Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), paying bribe is a crime by a citizen or a company to foreigners, even if the payment is made abroad.

Coburn and Schwarts face 12 charges, including conspiracy, violation of the FCPA and falsifying records.

Court documents filed by the prosecution said the three co-conspirators, who lived in India and were not being charged, were mentioned only as “Vice President of Administration at Cognizant”, “Cognizant’s Chief Operating Officer” and “Department Head for Commercial Buildings at the Construction Company”.

The SEC said of the $25 million Cognizant agreed to pay, $19 million was what it had gained by paying the alleged bribe and the interest on the amount, and the remaining $6 million was penalty.

According to court papers, a “Planning Permit” was required before construction started on the Cognizant campus. But the construction company filed the application for it 14 months after the construction had begun in 2011.

“A local development authority” gave conditional approval and forwarded it to another agency for the “Government Order” needed for the permit. When it did not come through even in January 2014, the contractor suggested that senior Cognizant executives meet “certain high-level officials of the Tamil Nadu government”. But Cognizant refused to meet them.

In April 2014, the co-conspirator mentioned as “Vice President of Administration at Cognizant” in India told Coburn, Schwartz and the other official the contractor received a demand for $2 million from “one or more government officials”, according to court documents.

Coburn “authorised the payment of an approximately $2 million bribe”, the complaint said.

That co-conspirator suggested that Cognizant reimburse the contractor for the bribes but hide them as a “change order request” and the other three agreed, according to the complaint.

To increase pressure on the contractor to pay the bribe and get the permit, Coburn directed that payments to it be frozen till all the permits were received, the complaint said.

The contractor “appointed a new liaison consultant to process the approval”, which came through in June 2014, and to hide the payments “a fake version of the claims list” was created to reimburse the contractor, court documents said.

The SEC said allegedly “Cognizant authorised the construction firm to make two additional bribes totalling more than $1.6 million”.