The Independence of U.S. Law Enforcement is Under Attack. Here’s What Congress Can Do About It.

The politicization of the institutions of justice, particularly those associated with criminal law enforcement, is one of the greatest threats to the rule of law and the integrity of government. Corrupt leaders in democracies and autocracies alike seek to undermine any check on their power, thus ensuring impunity for themselves and their allies, and may also try to weaponize criminal investigations to harass and discredit political opponents. For many years, most Americans viewed this sort of threat to the integrity of the institutions of justice as something that only happened abroad, or in the distant past. Not so anymore. Under the Trump Administration, the corruption and politicization of law enforcement institutions is a significant threat to American democracy.

That President Trump lacks respect for the independence and integrity of law enforcement has been evident for some time, at least since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump dismissed Comey in part to the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election, and in part because Comey wouldn’t pledge his personal loyalty to the president.) In the last month, the situation appears to be getting even worse. As has been widely reported in the media, President Trump publicly criticized the Department of Justice (DOJ) for seeking a high sentence in the case of Trump associate Roger Stone; Attorney General Bill Barr claimed that President Trump didn’t issue any specific instructions regarding the case (and complained about the President’s tweeting), but Barr nonetheless recommended a much lower sentence that the DOJ’s own prosecutors had originally requested. Barr recently made the highly unusual decision to install an outside prosecutor to oversee the case against President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In another troubling move that didn’t get as much press attention, in early February Barr issued a memo saying that any FBI investigations into 2020 candidates or their campaigns would require the Attorney General’s approval.

Trump has asserted that he had the legal right, as President, to intervene in criminal cases. This is a contested claim, to say the least. Some argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, the President has ultimate control not only over general DOJ policy, but over decision-making in individual criminal prosecutions. However, others assert that this is not so, and that the Constitution actually imposes certain limits the President’s control over individual prosecutions—most importantly, that the President cannot seek to affect a criminal case out of corrupt or self-interested motivations.

Putting the legal debate to one side for now, and assuming that Congress—if not now, then at some point in the future—would like to establish new safeguards to insulate the DOJ and FBI from the corrupting influence of an unscrupulous president, what might Congress do? I suggest three steps that Congress might take:

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Senator Warren’s Plan to Establish an Independent Task Force to Investigate Trump is a Bad, Bad Idea

Last month, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made a bold anticorruption commitment. She said that, if elected, she would direct the US Department of Justice to establish a special taskforce to investigate the Trump administration for violations of US anticorruption laws—including federal bribery laws, insider trading laws, and public integrity laws. She has has called on every other Democratic presidential candidate to do make the same commitment. Given the egregious corruption of the Trump administration, Senator Warren argues, a special taskforce of this kind is necessary if we are to “move forward to restore public confidence in government and deter future wrongdoing[.]”

Senator Warren—perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate—has put the fight against corruption (both narrowly and broadly defined) at the center of her campaign, and she has generated a range of proposals to combat corruption and strengthen the integrity of US political institutions. She has many good ideas. But this is not one of them. Regardless of whether members of the Trump Administration—including the President, his family members, and members of his cabinet—have engaged in illegal corrupt acts, forming a special DOJ taskforce along the lines proposed by Senator Warren would be a bad idea—bad for the Democratic party, bad for the DOJ, and, most importantly, bad for the United States.

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Even “Tough on Corruption” Proponents Should Worry about “Zero Tolerance” Rules

“Zero tolerance for corruption,” as Professor Stephenson suggested in a 2014 post, is an expression that can be construed in several different ways: from a general attitude that corruption should be considered “a high priority,” to an uncompromising policy mandating that “all feasible measures to minimize corruption must always be used.” In this post I will discuss another common, narrower understanding of “zero tolerance for corruption,” according to which corruption – at least in certain contexts – must always be addressed with a mandatory predetermined harsh sanction. A clear example of such a “zero tolerance” rule is the Colombian and Peruvian law demanding the instant termination of “any public contract tainted by corruption.” Another illustrative example is the EU’s directive mandating debarment from public contracting of any company convicted of offenses of corruption, fraud, or money laundering.

Granted, the potential deterrent value of mandatory harsh sanctions for corruption is substantial. A company aware that any conviction for corruption will inevitably incur severe penalties is more likely to be dissuaded from violating the law. Nevertheless, the costs of this “take no prisoners” approach to anticorruption may be much higher than the actual benefit. Thus, as Rick Messick recently showed, the law mandating termination of corruption-tainted public contracts has proven to have disastrous ramifications for the infrastructure in Peru and Colombia. As it turns out, not only has the nondiscretionary cancellation of corruption-tainted public contracts halted the advancement of existing infrastructure projects, but it has also deterred investors and developers from taking any part in such projects, for fear that they will be cancelled due to “the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.” Similarly, debarment is nothing less than “a death-sentence” for companies whose main business involves public contracts, and its mandatory imposition for even a relatively minor offense may be so draconian as to be counterproductive.

This kind of cost-benefit reasoning, though compelling to some, would not convince many proponents of an unequivocally “tough on corruption” stance. Many anticorruption hardliners believe in maximizing deterrence notwithstanding any associated costs. From this point of view, the end of deterring corruption justifies all necessary means. Yet even for those who take this view, it turns out that “zero tolerance” may not be the ideal approach. Supporters of “zero tolerance” rules assume that adoption of mandatory sanctions for corruption would guarantee that actors in the anticorruption system – judges, prosecutors, and legislators – will adhere to the “zero tolerance” ideal, and that such rules would be sustainable. But these decisionmakers in the anticorruption system may evade the application of “zero tolerance” rules where doing so would lead to sanctions perceived (rightly or wrongly) as patently absurd or unjust. In other words, a “zero tolerance” rule on the books does not guarantee that a “zero tolerance” policy would actually be implemented. Consider the various ways that actors in the anticorruption system may avoid triggering the mandatory sanctions for corruption:

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Guest Post: It’s Time for Plan B on Disbursing the Obiang Settlement Money to the People of Equatorial Guinea

Today’s guest post is from the civil society group EG Justice, a civil society organization that promotes the rule of law, transparency, and the protection of human rights in Equatorial Guinea. (For a longer discussion of the issues raised in this blog post, please visit the EG Justice website: www.egjustice.org.)

Last month, Professor Stephenson asked: “Whatever Happened with that Charity the Obiang Settlement Was Supposed to Fund?”  Not coincidentally, thousands of people in Equatorial Guinea have been asking themselves that same question for the last five years, and they have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. We are not entirely surprised by the impasse. When one drives into a cul-de-sac, with clear road signs warning ahead of time that there is no exit, one should only expect to return to the entry point. Likewise, when negotiating with authoritarian kleptocrats who consider themselves above the law and who are accustomed to acting with absolute impunity, it would be naïve to expect them to negotiate fairly.

The settlement between Equatorial Guinea and the U.S. appears to anticipate this impasse, laying out several options. The settlement first lays out what we might call “Plan A”:  Within 180 days, the U.S. authorities and the defendant (Teodorin Nguema Obiang) are to jointly select a charity to receive the funds realized from the sale of Nguema’s seized assets, with that charity to use the funds for the benefit of the citizens of Equatorial Guinea. But in apparent anticipation of the difficulties in reaching such an agreement, the settlement goes on to lay out a “Plan B,” according to which, if the U.S. and Nguema can’t mutually agree on a charity within 180 days of the sale of the assets, a three-member panel is to be convened to receive and disburse the funds—with one member of the panel chosen by the U.S., one by Nguema, and one, the Chair, by mutual agreement. Again anticipating the possibility that the parties will be unable to agree, the settlement has a “Plan C” (or a “Plan B-2”): If the parties can’t agree on a panel Chair, within 220 days after the sale of the property, the court retains the discretion to order the parties to participate in mediation, or the court may simply select a panel Chair directly. Continue reading

A Plan To Share FCPA Penalties with Brazil has Been Thwarted… by Brazil: The Supreme Court’s Invalidation of the Lava Jato Foundation

A frequent criticism of how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) enforces the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is that the fines recovered typically go to the US Treasury, rather than being used to make reparations for the damages caused by corruption in the countries where the bribery took place. Those who hold that view were likely encouraged by the non-prosecution agreement (NPA) that the DOJ concluded with Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company, in September 2018. The US enforcement action against Petrobras is a development of the so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, in which firms paid off some Petrobras’ senior employees to benefit them in the contracts they had with the oil company. Such senior employees also shared a portion of the briber of politicians and political parties. In Brazil, Petrobras (and its shareholders, including the Brazilian federal government) are considered the victims of this scheme, but the US DOJ considered Petrobras a perpetrator (as well as a victim), because Petrobras officials had facilitated the bribe payments, in violation of the FCPA. Thus, the DOJ brought an enforcement action against Petrobras, and the parties settled via an NPA that required Petrobras to pay over US$852 million in penalties for FCPA violations. But—and here is the interesting part—the NPA also stated that the US government would credit against this judgment 80% of the total (over US$682 million) that Petrobras would pay to Brazilian authorities pursuant to an agreement to be negotiated subsequently between Petrobras and the Brazilian authorities.

This unusual agreement was the result of unusually close cooperation between U.S. and Brazilian authorities, especially the Lava Jato Task Force (group of federal prosecutors handling a series of Petrobras-related cases). After the conclusion of the NPA between the DOJ and Petrobras, the Task Force then entered into negotiations with Petrobras and reached an agreement under which Petrobras would use US$682 million that it would otherwise owe to the US government to create a private charity, known unofficially as the Lava Jato Foundation, with the Foundation using half of the money to sponsor public interest initiatives, and the other half to compensate minority shareholders in Petrobras. According to the agreement, the Foundation would be governed by a committee of five unpaid members from civil society organizations, to be appointed by the Task Force upon judicial confirmation. Once created, the Task Forcewould have the prerogative to have one of its members sitting at the Foundation’s board.

This resolution of the Petrobras case seemed to be a win-win resolution and a promising precedent for future cases: The US imposed a hefty sanction for violation of US law, but most of the money would be used to help the Brazilian people, who are arguably the ones most harmed by Petrobras’s unlawful conduct. Yet this arrangement has proven extremely controversial in Brazil, both politically and legally. Indeed, the issue has divided the country’s own federal prosecutors: The Prosecutor General (the head of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, from which the Lava Jato Task Force enjoys a broad independence) challenged the creation of the Foundation as unconstitutional. She prevailed on that challenge in Brazil’s Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federalor STF), which suspended the operation of the Foundation.

What, exactly, was the legal argument against the creation of the Lava Jato Foundation, and what are the implications of the STF’s ruling for this approach to remediating the impacts of foreign bribery going forward?

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The DOJ China Initiative and the Shifting Policy Goals for the FCPA

Last November, then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a new Department of Justice (DOJ) “China Initiative.” The main focus of this initiative is not corruption, but rather the theft of intellectual property by Chinese corporations, as detailed in a 200-page report published by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in March 2018, as well as a subsequent report from the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. But while most of the DOJ’s China Initiative focuses on this issue, the memorandum describing the initiative listed a number of additional goals, one of which caught the attention of the anticorruption community: “Identify Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases involving Chinese companies that compete with American businesses.”

This reference to enforcing the FCPA against companies from a particular country is quite unusual. According to Eric Carlson at the FCPA Blog, “No one with whom I have spoken can recall another situation where the DOJ has announced that it would target companies headquartered in a specific country for FCPA enforcement.” This aspect of the China Initiative has provoked a strong and generally negative response from members of the anticorruption community. For example, former State Department attorney Kate Hamann worried that the China Initiative exposed the US government to the accusation of “unfairly targeting Chinese individuals and companies.” This concern was echoed by Professor Stephenson, who argued that the project sets a “bad precedent” by explicitly using the FCPA as a tool to protect U.S. companies from foreign competition.

One largely overlooked aspect of the FCPA component of the China Initiative is the degree to which it contradicts one of the main policy goals of the Congress that enacted the FCPA back in 1977. That Congress viewed the FCPA as a way to improve relations with foreign countries, a policy goal that has largely disappeared in subsequent decades. In its place, enforcement agencies (and Congress, in amendments to the FCPA) have developed a theory in which the primary purposes of the FCPA are to protect businesses that “play fair,” and to promote good business practices more generally. (This shift in policy goals was largely made possible by a revision in the text of the FCPA which allowed US enforcement agencies to bring enforcement actions against a wider range of foreign entities.)

In this post, I trace the changing policy objectives of the FCPA to demonstrate the degree to which the Act has historically served a wide range of sometimes contradictory policy goals. I then draw upon that history to suggest two reasons that the China Initiative’s combative posture may be cause for concern.

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Coordination of Corporate Resolution Penalties Is Unlikely to Address the “Piling On” Problem in FCPA Prosecutions

Multinational companies that pay bribes may find themselves subject to prosecution by multiple jurisdictions. Some countries, including many in Europe, apply a double jeopardy bar (known there as ne bis in idem) that prevents one country from prosecuting an entity that has already been prosecuted elsewhere. Other countries, however—including the United States—have no such bar. US prosecutors may pursue those suspected of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) even if the targets already have been, or are being, prosecuted in another country for the same bribe payments. Is this a problem? Some say no: the possibility of multiple prosecutions by different sovereigns might create a healthy “race to the top” and stronger deterrence. On the other hand, however, we might worry that multiple prosecutions risk over-punishing, thereby over-deterring risky but socially valuable conduct (like expanding into high-risk foreign markets). Companies also will not be sure when a matter is finally settled. In addition, there seems something arrogant about the US giving itself the power to evaluate whether a criminal prosecution in another country was adequate.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ), long a defender of its right to judge for itself whether to bring a parallel or follow-on prosecution in FCPA cases, recently signaled greater sympathy with those who take the latter side in this debate. Earlier this year, the DOJ unveiled a new policy meant to eliminate “unfair duplicative penalties” on corporate wrongdoers, including those participating in foreign bribery, and set out a number of factors that the DOJ can use to evaluate whether imposing multiple penalties serves “the interests of justice.” Describing the impetus for the policy update, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein echoed common complaints from the corporate community about how the “piling on” of multiple penalties for the same misconduct, from different regulatory and enforcement agencies, deprives the company and its stakeholders of the “the benefits of certainty and finality ordinarily available through a full and final settlement.”

It’s not clear, though, whether—at least with respect to FCPA cases—the new policy differs much from the approach that the DOJ’s FCPA Unit has been taking to joint and parallel investigations for many years. While formalizing the approach may seem to provide some relief to corporations, the new policy actually does little to address the “piling on” problem in the foreign bribery context: Continue reading