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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The Trade-Off Between Inducing Corporate Self-Disclosure and Full Cooperation

In discussions of appropriate sanctions for corporations that engage in bribery, much of the conversation focuses on the appropriate penalty reduction for firms that self-disclose violations, cooperate with authorities, or both. Self-disclosure and cooperation are often lumped together, but they’re not the same: Plenty of targets of bribery investigations, for example, did not voluntarily disclose the potential violation, but cooperated with the authorities once the investigation was underway.

This gives rise to a problem that is both serious and seemingly obvious, but that somewhat surprisingly is hardly ever discussed.

The problem goes like this: Enforcement authorities want to encourage self-disclosure, and they want to encourage full cooperation with the investigation; they would like to do so (1) by reducing the sanction for firms that voluntarily disclose relative to those that don’t, and (2) by reducing the sanction for firms that fully cooperate relative to those that don’t. But if the minimum and maximum penalties are fixed (say, by statute or department policy or other considerations), and the penalty reductions necessary to induce self-disclosure and full cooperation, respectively, are large enough (cumulatively greater than the difference between the maximum and minimum feasible sanction), then adjusting sanctions to encourage self-disclosure may discourage full cooperation, and vice versa.

It’s easiest to see this with a very simple numerical example: Continue reading