Published on March 15th, 2016 by Alan L. Sklover
“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence,”
one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”
– Czeslaw Milosz
ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: John Slowik, the former Chief Compliance Officer of Olympus America, Inc., the largest distributor of endoscopes in the U.S., discovered that his employer was paying bribes to win new sales. When he reported this to his employer, he learned the meaning of the old saying, “Tell your boss the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Simply put, first he was retaliated against and, soon after, he was fired.
Slowik had discovered that Olympus was obtaining sales by giving away free medical equipment, paying for luxury vacations for physicians and their families, making hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash payments to physicians masqueraded as educational grants, lavishly wining and dining physicians, and paying exorbitant consulting and speaker fees to physicians. And, just as you might imagine, many of these payments were paid by you and me by means of higher prices paid by Medicare and other publicly funded insurers.
Slowik retained legal counsel experienced in employment law, who understood the gravity of what Slowik had reported. Slowik then sued Olympus based on allegations that the company had violated a federal law known as the “False Claims Act,” and a second federal law known as the “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”
Slowik had worked for Olympus for 18 years, starting as a finance manager, and through a series of promotions, in February, 2009 was appointed Olympus’s first-ever Chief Compliance Officer. He had no healthcare compliance background, and had only one employee, who also had no compliance background.
After Slowik sought to eliminate these systematic illegal practices, (i) his complaints fell on deaf ears, (ii) he was told to back off and instead “work around the rules,” (iii) his duties were diminished, (iv) his reporting line was lowered to the Head of the Ethics Department, (v) his compensation was frozen, (vi) he was increasingly isolated from others, and (vii) he was evaluated as a poor performer. Finally, (vii) he was terminated for poor performance.
To resolve Slowik’s lawsuit against Olympus, which even resulted in federal criminal charges against the company, Olympus agreed to pay fines and penalties to the U.S. government of $646 million, out of which Slowik was awarded $51 million.
In addition to the required payments, in order to avoid criminal prosecution, Olympus also agreed to:
- Hire an experienced Chief Compliance Officer, who will be a member of senior management, and report directly to the Board of Directors;
- Make the Chief Compliance Officer position not subordinate in function or authority to the General Counsel;
- Expand the Compliance Department from one full-time position to 19, and fund it appropriately;
- Engage independent third parties to conduct risk assessment targeted to compliance risks;
- Implement an anonymous reporting hotline, and
- Begin compliance training for all employees.
What happened to Slowik was a truly classic example of the treatment afforded so many Compliance Officers who raise sensitive issues of non-compliance with rules, regulations and laws. Often, there is just too much concern in the minds and hearts of management for the financial consequences of “playing by the rules.” How ironic it is that Slowik was fired for poor performance; in the end, he did quite a good job improving Olympus’s compliance organization.
Slowik’s whistleblower complaint did a great service for Olympus. But did it have to be so expensive for Olympus and so damaging to its relations and reputation?
LESSON TO LEARN: What happened to Slowik vividly illustrates an important point for all Compliance Officers, and for all other employees, as well: there are more ways than are commonly thought of to achieve true compliance in the workplace. In addition to “internal efforts,” the many state and federal so-called “whistleblower” laws stand ready to assist.
Can a fired Compliance Officer make use of the many whistleblower laws? Sure. Can a Compliance Officer do so if he or she is still employed? That is a great question, from both legal and ethical perspectives. I believe the answer is surely “Yes,” because in the end, the shareholders’ interests are aligned with the corrective purpose of whistleblower laws, and surely out of alignment with those who act – supposedly on shareholders’ behalf – in violation of applicable laws and regulations. And, too, the larger societal interests are best served by enactment of rules, and the observance of those rules.
Do we need all these rules and regulations? Do we need all these whistleblower laws? Considering Olympus’s and John Slowik’s experiences, apparently we do. Surely, the Olympus story offers a cautionary tale to other endoscope manufacturers, and others, as well, who might be tempted to “throw a party” for physicians at the public expense.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Keep in mind that efforts to gain company compliance with applicable laws and regulations are not limited to working internally. The many whistleblower laws and programs that exist do “have your back.” Here are seven thoughts to bear in mind:
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