Defining Declinations: A New Enforcement Action

In recent years, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has, with increasing frequency, been resolving alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) with formal declinations (that is, a statement that the DOJ will not prosecute the corporation). Indeed, the possibility of resolution through declination is a centerpiece of the DOJ’s new Corporate Enforcement Policy (CEP). Under the new policy, the DOJ will presumptively grant a declination to a corporation implicated in potential FCPA violations, so long as the corporation voluntarily reports the possible FCPA violations to the government, agrees to implement internal remediation measures, and disgorges any ill-gotten gains. (When that last condition applies, the resolution is a “declination with disgorgement.”)

But what exactly is a “declination”? One would think that the answer would be straightforward, but it turns out to not to be so easy. Typically, declinations have been thought of in the negative, meaning what they are not: prosecutions. Generally, U.S. prosecutors have the discretion to decide whether to bring an enforcement action against a party that may have violated the law. If the DOJ decides that it is not in the interest of justice or otherwise worthwhile to pursue a given case, then the DOJ has “declined” to prosecute. However, in the FCPA context (and possibly other contexts as well), a formal “declination” should be thought of as something more than simply a decision not to prosecute. And that distinction turns out to have practical consequences for the types of penalties a formal “declination” can legally support.

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Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Bill Breaks Dangerous New Ground

Since at least 2016, complaints about “fake news” have become increasingly common all over the world. But “fake news” refers to two separate phenomena. In some cases, “fake news” means stories that are actually untrue (not just distorted, but fabricated, and deliberately disguised to make it appear that they come from a legitimate media outlet rather than a propagandist or troll). Shanil posted about the dangers that this sort of fake news poses to anticorruption efforts last December. But politicians, notably President Trump, have appropriated the “fake news” label and applied it to any coverage that they deem unfavorable or unfair, even when the news comes from a legitimate media outlet and there is no credible argument that the story is a deliberate fabrication.

The conflation of these two kinds of “fake news” is dangerous, not least because concerns about the former may provide politicians with a pretext for suppressing the latter. Case in point: in April, Malaysia enacted a new law—the Anti-Fake News Bill—that purports to criminalize fake news. The purpose of the new law, which gives the government has the power to prosecute those who create or spread “fake news” with jail terms of up to six years and fines up to about $123,000, seems to be giving the government more authority and discretion to stamp out unflattering news. Other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and the Philippines are considering similar measures.

While the anticorruption community should fight against corrupt actors using fake news to spread false stories, it should also resist efforts of governments to misuse the “fake news” label as a pretext for more extensive regulation of legitimate media and free speech. Censorship laws like Malaysia’s reduce transparency and scrutiny, and ultimately hurt anticorruption efforts by entrenching corrupt, illiberal governments.

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Why DOJ’s New FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy May Be a Step Backwards

At the end of last year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new Corporate Enforcement Policy to guide prosecutors charged with overseeing Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations. This new policy codifies, and builds on, the DOJ’s FCPA Pilot Program, which had been in place since mid-2016. Under the Pilot Program, the DOJ announced that it would consider mitigated penalties for companies that voluntarily disclosed FCPA violations, fully cooperated with the government investigation, and agreed to remediation measures. Those mitigated penalties included a reduction in penalties by 50% below the low end of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines range, or in some cases outright declination of prosecution.

The new Corporate Enforcement Policy goes further, stating that when a company voluntarily self-discloses an FCPA violation, fully cooperates, and adopts timely and appropriate remediation measures (including disgorgement of any gains from the violation), there is a presumption that the DOJ will offer the company a declination, absent aggravating circumstances (such as a particularly severe offense). This presumption of a declination is stronger than the Pilot Program, which only said that the DOJ would “consider” a declination. Additionally, while Pilot Program gave prosecutors the discretion to reduce requested fines, the new policy directs prosecutors to ask for lower fines as long as companies meet the requirements noted above. The new policy also gives favorable terms even to companies that do not voluntarily disclose misconduct, so long as they later fully cooperate and implement a remediation program. For these companies, the DOJ will recommend a sentence reduction of up to 25% off of the low end of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. (The DOJ also recently announced that it’s expanding this beyond the FCPA, applying it also to crimes such as securities fraud.)

One way to understand the new FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy is as a response to concerns that the U.S. government’s traditional approach to enforcing the FCPA has over-emphasized corporate settlements at the expense of prosecuting individual wrongdoers. In that sense the new policy, and the Pilot Program before it, can be seen as consistent with the Yates Memo, which declared that the DOJ would focus more on individual liability. A related but distinct justification for the new Corporate Enforcement Policy is the idea that it will improve overall FCPA enforcement by encouraging more voluntary self-disclosures. The rationale is that there are likely a large number of low-level corporate bribery cases that companies learn about but don’t report, for fear of the expected penalties. The DOJ would prefer that companies disclose these transgressions, and the Department appears to have concluded that the benefits of encouraging such disclosures outweighs concerns about reducing punishments for FCPA violations. Indeed, in justifying the new enforcement policy, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein emphasized that under the Pilot Program, the number of voluntary disclosures during the program doubled to 30.

These justifications for the new policy at first seem plausible, but they suffer from an important flaw: They overlook the impact of DOJ’s enforcement posture on corporate culture. The new policy may increase incentives for voluntary self-disclosure and post hoc remediation, but at the same time the new policy weakens incentives for companies to actively work to promote a pro-integrity corporate culture. For that reason, the new policy may end up worsening overall foreign bribery activity, even if both corporate self-disclosures and prosecutions of individuals increase.

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Netanyahu’s Attempts to Undermine Police Recommendations May Be Dangerous for Israel

Israeli police have been investigating multiple corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for over a year. First, Netanyahu allegedly accepted extravagant gifts—such as expensive cigars, Champagne, and jewelry—from wealthy businessman Arnon Milchan in exchange for helping him secure a U.S. visa. Netanyahu is separately accused of striking a deal with the publisher of the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, in which Netanyahu would push legislation that would curb competition from a rival paper, and in return Yediot Ahronoth would provide more favorable coverage of Netanyahu’s administration.

Recently, the Israeli police issued a recommendation that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, and a breach of trust in the two corruption cases. Perhaps anticipating this potential outcome, last December Netanyahu downplayed the significance of police recommendations, asserting that the “vast majority of police recommendations end in nothing.” Also last December, the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) passed, at the urging of Netanyahu’s supporters, a new Police Recommendations Law placing further restrictions on police recommendations for indictments. Though public pressure ultimately led to modifications so that the bill would not apply to the current investigations, it was also seen as prompted in large part by concerns about the possibility, now realized, that the police would recommend charges against the Prime Minister.

What, exactly, is so significant about the police recommendation in Israeli investigations into corruption and other matters? To get a better sense of what’s going on, it’s useful to take a step back and consider what Israel’s police recommendations are and whether they serve a useful function.

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The U.S. Is Making a Mistake by Withdrawing from the EITI

Last month, the Trump Administration announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The decision was not wholly unexpected, especially since the Department of the Interior announced last spring that it would no longer host regular talks among a group of U.S. stakeholders that included representatives from the industry as well as activists and government representatives — one of the requirements of membership in the EITI. Nonetheless, the U.S. decision to withdraw from the EITI is a significant setback to the fight against corruption and misgovernance in the resource sector.

To understand the likely impact of the U.S withdrawal from the EITI, it’s useful first to review what the EITI is—both its mechanics and its objectives. Continue reading

Did the McDonnell Decision Legalize Putting Public Officials on Retainer? Menendez’s Challenge to the “Stream of Benefits” Theory

In my post two weeks ago, I argued that in order to assess whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the McDonnell case would have a major impact on public corruption prosecutions—and in the slightly-hyperbolic words of some commentators, whether the decision “legalized public corruption”—the case to watch is the trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Since most of the case law coming out of the McDonnell decision has focused on the definition of “official acts” in the context of quid pro quo bribery, many of those watching the Menendez trial expected it to center on how the court interpreted “official acts,” and whether Menendez’s actions qualified. But the case took an unexpected twist: the same day I published my post, Judge William Walls zeroed in on McDonnell’s effect on the prosecution’s stream of benefits theory of corruption—a key part of the government’s case.

According to the “stream of benefits” theory of corruption, prosecutors can establish an implicit quid pro quo by showing that a series of bribes were made to keep an official “on retainer,” so the donor can benefit from the official’s service as needed. In other words, on this theory, the government does not need to connect a specific individual gift to a specific individual act. Instead, the government can show that the private party provided a series of payments or gifts to the public servant over time, in exchange for the public servant being “on call” to perform official acts in return as needed. On this theory, the specific official act (the “quo”) doesn’t need to be known or contemplated at the time of the bribe (the “quid”). In Menendez, prosecutors invoked that theory, and attempted to show that the many favors Dr. Salomon Melgen did for Senator Menendez over a period of several years—such as rides on his private plane and trips to luxury resorts in the Caribbean—were offered in exchange for a series of actions Menendez took to lobby the executive branch on Dr. Melgen’s behalf. (The government alleges other charges against Menendez, such as making false statements on financial disclosure forms related to the bribery, but the stream-of-benefits bribery allegations are the heart of the case.)

Senator Menendez’s defense team—drawing on an argument developed in a Cato Institute reportmoved to dismiss the case, arguing that McDonnell narrowed the scope of “official act” so much so that the public official must agree to perform a “specific and focused” act rather than a “broad policy objective,” meaning that the theory that a public official is kept “on retainer” in exchange for a series of favors cannot stand. Judge Walls said he was not sure that the stream of benefits theory was still viable after the McDonnell ruling, and asked the parties to brief the issue over the weekend, even saying to the DOJ lawyers that “if stream of benefits still lives, then you’ve got a chance.” Commentators accordingly rang the alarm bells, worried what extending McDonnell this far would mean for public corruption cases (see here and here).

Judge Walls eventually ruled last Monday that McDonnell did not prevent prosecutors from arguing a stream of benefits theory, concluding instead that the issue of whether there was a quid pro quo was a question of fact for the jury to decide. This was the right decision. Indeed, it’s troubling that the judge took the issue as seriously as he seemed to, as the idea that a fair reading of McDonnell requires outright rejection of the stream of benefits theory seems farfetched. Continue reading

To Gauge McDonnell’s Impact, Menendez—Not Skelos or Silver—Is the Case To Watch

In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell had been convicted for accepting loans, gifts, vacations, and other valuable items from a businessman. In return, Governor McDonnell allegedly promised or performed a number of “official acts,” mostly in connection with trying to help the businessman get state government support for a nutritional supplement his company was developing. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction on the grounds that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on what conduct could count as an “official act” (the “quo” in a quid pro quo) under the federal bribery statute. In particular, the trial court had instructed the jury that “official acts” could include things like helping the businessman by arranging meetings with state government decision-makers, hosting an event to promote his business, or suggesting that subordinates speak to him. The Supreme Court ruled that this definition of “official act” was too broad, since it encompassed almost any act a government official takes.

How much did McDonnell change the landscape for federal corruption prosecutions in the United States? Some worry that it has already had a large and unfortunate impact, and point to recent developments in New York: Last July, a little over a year after the McDonnell decision, a federal appeals court relied on McDonnell as the basis for vacating the conviction of Sheldon Silver, the former New York State Assembly Speaker who was found guilty in 2015 for taking millions in payments in return for supporting legislation and directing grants that helped the payers. And just last month, another panel of that appellate court also relied on McDonnell in vacating the conviction of former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was convicted in 2015 (along with his son Adam) for bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. According to prosecutors, Skelos had promised votes and taken actions benefitting three companies in exchange for providing his son with consulting fees, a job, and direct payments.

Skelos’ and Silver’s convictions were seen as a victory for federal prosecutors, and a much-overdue effort to clean up the notoriously corrupt New York state government. Many commentators pointed to the recent appellate court rulings vacating those convictions as evidence of McDonnell’s broad and malign effects on efforts to clean up corruption (see, for example here , here, and here). But while the vacations of these convictions are a setback for anticorruption advocates, they do not actually reveal much about the reach of McDonnell, nor are they likely to materially change the fates of Skelos and Silver. The much more important case to watch—the one that will be a better indicator of McDonnell’s long-term impact— is the trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Continue reading