What Is “Beneficial Ownership”? Why the Proposed TITLE Act’s Definition Is Sensible and Appropriate

“Vague, overly broad, and unworkable.” Those were the words ABA president Hilarie Bass used in her February letter to Congress to criticize the definition of “beneficial ownership” that appears in the TITLE Act – a proposed bill that would require those seeking to form a corporation or limited liability company to provide information on the company’s real (or “beneficial”) owners to state governments. The TITLE Act defines a beneficial owner as “each natural person who, directly or indirectly, (i) exercises substantial control over a corporation or limited liability company through ownership interests, voting rights, agreement, or otherwise; or (ii) has a substantial interest in or receives substantial economic benefits from the assets of a corporation or the assets of a limited liability company.” Ms. Bass and other critics assert that this definition is unprecedented, unfair, and unduly vague, making it impossible for regulated entities to understand the scope of their legal obligations and rendering them vulnerable to arbitrary, unpredictable prosecutions.

But Ms. Bass is incorrect: The TITLE’s Act definition of “beneficial ownership,” though “vague” in the sense that it is flexible rather than rigid, is perfectly workable, and aligns with other US laws, European laws, and the G20’s 2015 principles on beneficial ownership. Moreover, the alleged “vagueness” is necessary to prevent the deliberate and predictable “gaming” of the system that would inevitably take place to circumvent a more precise numerical ownership threshold. Continue reading

Judge Sullivan Calls Out the DOJ: What Corporate Settlements Reflect About The Broader Criminal Justice System

After the DOJ released the Yates Memo last September, I suggested that the DOJ was probably very serious about focusing attention on prosecuting individuals involved in corporate misconduct (including FCPA violations). This would constitute a significant shift away from the DOJ’s recent practice of resolving most allegations of corporate wrongdoing through deferred or non-prosecution agreements (known as DPAs and NPAs). Some proponents of DPAs and NPAs claim that such settlements—which allow companies to avoid formal legal charges if they cooperate with a DOJ investigation, disclose desired information, improve compliance measures, and perhaps pay a fine—are actually a “a more powerful tool” than convictions in changing corporate behavior. But many critics—such as Judge Rakoff—have argued that settlements usually obscure who is actually responsible for the misconduct, and “ever more expensive” compliance programs may do little to prevent future misconduct. As Judge Rakoff suggested:

“[T]he impact of sending a few guilty executives to prison for orchestrating corporate crimes might have a far greater effect than any compliance program in discouraging misconduct, at far less expense and without the unwanted collateral consequences of punishing innocent employees and shareholders.”

Federal judges, including Judge Rakoff, are responsible for approving the DOJ’s settlements with corporations. The scope of their review is quite limited, and they are required to defer to the prosecution decisions of the DOJ. But even before the Yates Memo, judges had begun reviewing settlements more carefully when individuals were not charged. At least one federal judge is still dissatisfied with the DOJ’s enforcement strategy, and recently took the opportunity—in a corruption case—to urge the DOJ to adhere to the Yates Memo and deal directly with individual wrongdoers. Moreover, he suggested this could have broader significance for how we think about the rest of the criminal justice system.

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France’s Failure to Fight Foreign Bribery: The Problem is Procedure

When it comes to effective implementation of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, France is the black sheep of the herd. In 2012, the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery’s Phase 3 Report praised France’s efforts to enact an adequate legal framework, but expressed concerns on the low number of convictions. Two years later, the Working Group reiterated its concerns that France was insufficiently compliant with the Anti-Bribery Convention, and the EU’s 2014 Anti-Corruption Report expressed similar worries. In 2015, Transparency International placed France in the category of “limited enforcer” and has stated that France had failed to prosecute foreign bribery cases efficiently. Indeed, in the 16+ years since the OECD Convention came into force, no companies have ever been convicted in France for foreign bribery, and only seven individuals have been found guilty. The only French-led conviction against a company–Safran–was overturned on appeal last January. Even in this case, on appeal, the prosecution did not seek the conviction of the corporation, stating that the conditions to corporate criminal liability were not met (the court of appeal did not rule on that specific issue, and overturned the conviction on factual grounds).

The low number of French convictions for foreign bribery offenses is not due to the fact that French corporations do not bribe. In fact, a recent study on purchasing activities in the private sector showed that 25% of the Chief Purchasing Officers in France have been offered bribes by other French companies. And French companies have often been penalized by more aggressive enforcers, particularly the United States, when they have jurisdiction. (Most recently, Alstom agreed to pay a $772 million fine for violating the U.S. FCPA by bribing officials in several countries.) While some in France have grumbled about U.S. overreach, others in France share the views of the President of Transparency International France, who declared (in reference to cases like Alstom), “It’s humiliating for everyone in France that our judiciary is not capable of doing the work themselves”.

Why is France such a laggard with respect to its enforcement obligations under the OECD Convention? The issue is not France’s domestic legislation criminalizing foreign bribery, which is more than adequate. The real issue resides in France’s failure to enforce these laws. And the explanation for this lies not in France’s substantive criminal law on corruption, but rather in a number of important aspects of French criminal procedure and prosecutorial practices. Continue reading