Some Thoughts on the Trump-Tillerson FCPA Exchange

Dexter Filkins’ terrific New Yorker piece on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month included an anecdote about an exchange between Tillerson and President Trump concerning the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the basic gist: In February 2017, shortly after Tillerson was sworn in as Secretary, he was meeting with Trump about an unrelated personnel matter when Trump launched into a tirade about the FCPA, and how it put US businesses at an unfair disadvantage. (That Trump holds this view is no surprise: He had expressed similar criticisms of the FCPA in public prior to his election.) But Tillerson pushed back, using an anecdote about how, when Tillerson was CEO of Exxon, senior officials from Yemen had demanded a $5 million bribe to close a deal that Exxon was pursuing in that country. Tillerson told Trump that he refused to pay, and made it clear to the Yemenis that this wasn’t how Exxon does business—and in the end Exxon got the deal anyway. According to Mr. Filkins’ source, “Tillerson told Trump that America didn’t need to pay bribes—that we could bring the world up to our own standards.”

Though it’s only a minor part of Filkins’ piece, the alleged exchange about the FCPA has attracted a fair bit of attention and commentary over the past month (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), much of it expressing or implying concern about this further evidence of President Trump’s hostility to the FCPA. It’s slightly puzzling that this anecdote is attracting more attention now, since the alleged exchange (which took place in February) was actually reported in early March—though Filkins’ piece has a little bit more detail (like the name of the country involved). Perhaps it’s because a news item about the FCPA was drowned out in early March by more pressing and immediate matters. (Trump issued the second version of his travel ban two days before the March report about the Trump-Tillerson FCPA exchange, and the federal district judge in Hawaii issued its injunction temporarily blocking enforcement of the ban a week later.) And perhaps the renewed attention to this item also has something to do with recent reports of an increasingly strained relationship between Trump and Tillerson.

Ultimately, though, it’s not so important to figure out why this anecdote is getting more attention now than it did back in March. The more interesting question is what, if anything, it reveals about the state of thinking—in government and the private sector—about the FCPA. There’s only so much that one can or should draw from a single vignette, but I do think it invites a few observations: Continue reading

How Much Should FCPA Hawks Worry About Trump’s Pick for SEC Chair?

Every time I write about the impact that the Trump Administration will have on FCPA enforcement, I’m reminded of the old joke about the actor hired to play the gravedigger in a production of Hamlet: When his wife asks what the play is about, he replies, “Well, it’s about this gravedigger, who meets a prince….” Even if we limit our focus to corruption-related issues, FCPA enforcement might not crack the top-5 in terms of high-priority concerns in the Trump Administration. Nonetheless, since the FCPA is one of the things I follow, and one of the things that a big chunk of the US anticorruption community spends a lot of time thinking about, I suppose it’s worth continuing to comment on this issue from time to time.

As regular GAB readers likely know, I’m both something of an “FCPA Hawk” (see here and here), and something of a pessimist when it comes to the likely consequences of a Trump presidency for FCPA enforcement (see here and here). Now that we know President-Elect Trump’s picks to head the two agencies responsible for FCPA enforcement—the Department of Justice and the Securities & Exchange Commission—how much should FCPA Hawks like me worry that these appointees will significantly scale back and/or politicize FCPA enforcement efforts?

The confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, are going on today, and for now I don’t have much to say about how his appointment might impact FCPA enforcement. (With respect to the DOJ, I’m actually much more interested in, and concerned about, who’s appointed to head the DOJ’s Criminal Division and the Fraud Section.) Let me instead say a few words about Trump’s pick for SEC Chair, Jay Clayton, currently a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, a prestigious US law firm.

There’s already been quite a bit of commentary about the Clayton pick, both generally and with respect to the FCPA specifically. I’ll confess right up front that I know very little about Mr. Clayton; I’d never heard of him before Trump picked him for SEC Chair, and I haven’t yet had time to do any detailed research. Based solely on preliminary media reports and some of the discussion that’s already happened, I’d say there’s (1) at least one good reason that FCPA Hawks should be concerned about the choice; (2) at least one not-good reason that some FCPA Hawks (and others) are concerned about the choice; and (3) at least one reason to be maybe cautiously optimistic, or at least relieved. Let me touch on each in turn: Continue reading

NYU Roundtable on the DOJ Fraud Section’s New “Corporate Compliance Counsel”: The Video and Some Thoughts

As many readers are likely aware, the U.S. Department of Justice Fraud Section (now headed by Andrew Weissmann), which has responsibility for enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (among other things), recently created a new position called the “Corporate Compliance Counsel,” and appointed to the post Hui Chen, a former corporate compliance officer for a number of major firms (including Microsoft, Pfizer, and Standard Chartered). The avowed purpose of the new position is to assist the DOJ in assessing the quality of a company’s internal compliance program and remediation measures. In the FCPA context (and others), these assessments are relevant to the DOJ’s decisions regarding whether to prosecute, what penalties to seek, and what additional remedial measures to pursue, even though there is not a formal “compliance defense” under the FCPA (or other statutes that the Section enforces). Thus, the thinking behind the creation of the new DOJ position seems to be that having someone in the Section with a lot of background in corporate compliance will enable the DOJ prosecutors to do a better job in evaluating the quality of a company’s compliance program and remedial efforts.

The creation of the Corporate Compliance Counsel position has garnered praise in some quarters, but also attracted some criticism; the critics tend to argue that the creation of the new position is, at best, a public relations move with little real consequence, and at worst an indirect effort to weaken the enforcement of corporate criminal laws.

Last week, the NYU Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement (PCCE) hosted a public forum where Mr. Weissmann and Ms. Chen discussed the new position and answered some questions posed by NYU Professor (and PCCE co-director) Jennifer Arlen. Because I thought that this might be of interest to some readers, here’s a link to a video of the discussion.

A few additional thoughts about what I thought were the more interesting exchanges: Continue reading

The New Head of the DOJ’s Fraud Unit Advocated Gutting the FCPA: Shouldn’t We Be More Upset About That?

Two months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Andrew Weissmann would take over as chief of Fraud Section in the DOJ’s Criminal Division, a position that involves responsibility for, among other things, the DOJ’s enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Mr. Weissmann has had a distinguished professional career, with previous stints in private practice and in government, including prior positions as Special Counsel to the Director of the FBI, and as the director of the DOJ’s Enron Task Force. But for those of us who care about maintaining the US government’s aggressive enforcement of the FCPA and its leadership in the global fight against corruption, Mr. Weissmann’s appointment should be cause for concern. The reason? Mr. Weissmann was one of the principal authors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2010 report, Restoring Balance: Proposed Amendments to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That report is notable principally for three things: (1) its strident attack on aggressive FCPA enforcement, (2) its proposal of a series of amendments to the statute that would gut the FCPA, and (3) its misleading manipulation (and sometimes outright misrepresentation) of both facts and law in making its case.

Fortunately, Professor Dan Danielsen at Northeastern School of Law and my Harvard colleague Professor David Kennedy provided an exceptionally thorough take-down of the Chamber of Commerce’s arguments in a report for the Open Society Foundations (OSF), called Busting Bribery: Sustaining the Global Momentum of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Aside from a few small (but admittedly important) errors, the OSF report provides a sufficiently thorough rebuttal that I won’t attempt to summarize it all here; rather, I urge readers to follow the links above. But let me just highlight a few aspects of Mr. Weissmann’s report for the Chamber of Commerce to explain why I think it deserves the harsh language I used. Continue reading