A little while back I expressed some concern (perhaps excessive) about the possibility that we might be seeing a revitalized movement to “reform” (that is, weaken) the FCPA; I also worried a bit that a greater focus on prosecutions of individuals might lead to judicial rulings that would force the government to substantially narrow its reading of the statute (for example, with respect to the definition of “foreign official,” or what counts as “anything of value,” or the scope of statutory jurisdiction, or other matters where the statute itself is arguably ambiguous). In response to the latter concern, Duke Law Professor Rachel Brewster raised an intriguing possibility (in addition to several other reasonable responses to my worries): The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, she suggested, might limit the degree to which the U.S. Congress or courts narrow or limit the FCPA. As Professor Brewster succinctly put the point in her comment on one of my earlier posts:
[T]he OECD treaty … is even broader than the FCPA. Moreover, the courts of appeal that have ruled on the meaning of the FCPA (Kay, Esqenazi) have explicitly relied on the more robust OECD treaty provisions to support the government’s position. That gives me some comfort that the US court system is going to continue to support the DOJ/SEC’s current enforcement strategy. Even if the OECD treaty does not explicit answer questions like “who is a foreign official” and “what is anything of value” (although it does help with the narrow interpretation of the facilitating payments), the general tenor of the treaty (and subsequent treaties the US has backed and joined) supports the government’s strong enforcement approach.
This is a valuable point, and to a certain extent I agree. But I am less sanguine than Professor Brewster that the OECD Convention will prove much of a firewall against a potential congressional or judicial backlash against the DOJ and SEC’s aggressive approach to interpreting and enforcing the statute.
- First, with respect to judicial rulings on the FCPA’s meaning, I think it’s worth noting that the two cases that Professor Brewster cites (U.S. v. Esquenazi and U.S. v. Kay) are in fact the only FCPA cases that have referenced the OECD Convention. By itself that’s not very significant, as there are only a handful of total cases on the FCPA. But it does suggest that we need to be cautious about extrapolating too confidently about what other courts might do in other cases. Indeed, part of my argument in my original post is that the government’s track record in the FCPA cases it’s litigated so far might not be a good guide to what would happen if the volume substantially increased, especially if some of the defendants looked more sympathetic.
- Second, both Kay and Esquenazi are cases in which the courts thought that the government’s interpretation of the statute was in fact correct, such that the discussion of the OECD Convention was to confirm an interpretation that the court already was inclined to accept. It is true that U.S. courts are supposed to construe ambiguous domestic statutes to avoid a conflict with U.S. treaty obligations. But at least for non-self-executing treaties, the statute rather than the treaty is the binding domestic law, and the court could well conclude that the statute (here, the FCPA) is “unambiguous” on the relevant point.
- Third, while some of the potential limitations to the FCPA’s scope (such as the meaning of “foreign official”) may be covered by the OECD Convention, others (such as the reach of the jurisdictional provisions) may not be.
- Fourth, Professor Brewster clearly and correctly limits her argument to the question of potential judicial narrowing of the statute; the related but distinct concern about potential congressional narrowing is unlikely to be affected or meaningfully constrained by the OECD Convention—though if Professor Brewster is correct, and other courts follow the lead of the Esquenazi and Kay courts, any congressional deviation from the OECD Convention may be construed narrowly.
So those are some of my reasons for continued concern, notwithstanding Professor Brewster’s valid and helpful observation. But I do want to close on a more optimistic note, and a point of agreement with Professor Brewster: Insofar as Professor Brewster’s analysis is correct, and the OECD Convention actually influenced the decisions in Esquenazi and Kay (as opposed to being just an after-the-fact makeweight), it highlights a way that the OECD Convention can have a meaningful effect on anticorruption law, separate and apart from whatever political pressure is induced by the Convention’s peer review process. Even if the Convention does not have “teeth”, insofar as domestic courts believe they are bound to interpret domestic law so as to avoid conflicts with the Convention, the Convention can lead to more expansive constructions of laws against foreign bribery. Now, I don’t know how many other countries have interpretive doctrines similar to those applied by U.S. courts. And I also have the impression that in most other countries the problems have less to do with how courts construe the laws, and more with the reluctance or inability of prosecutors to vigorously pursue cases. Nonetheless, this is an encouraging and perhaps overlooked positive feature of the Convention—even if, as I noted above, I’m more skeptical than Professor Brewster about how robust it will prove when push comes to shove.