The Irrelevance of an FCPA Compliance Defense

The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) exposes corporations to criminal (as well as civil) liability for acts committed by the corporation’s employees, pursuant to the standard principle of U.S. law the corporations are liable for the acts of their employees, if those acts were committed in the course of employment and for the benefit of the employer. This principle, in the FCPA context and elsewhere, has familiar advantages and disadvantages. The most straightforward advantage is that this “vicarious liability” gives corporations an incentive to establish robust compliance programs and to monitor their employees. The main disadvantage is that, because no compliance system is perfect, corporations might find themselves faced with substantial liability for acts committed by “rogue employees”. Moreover, precisely because of this concern, corporations might over-invest in anticorruption compliance, or might forgo certain transactions or investments, because of worries about FCPA exposure. This may be bad for society, not just the firm.

In the FCPA context, a range of critics have argued that the FCPA should be amended to add a “compliance defense,” so that a corporate defendant would not face criminal liability for the acts of its employees, so long as the corporation maintained an adequate system for promoting compliance with the FCPA’s restrictions. (The United Kingdom’s 2011 Bribery Act has such a defense.) Advocates of an FCPA compliance defense have suggested a range of possible forms the defense might take; critics have pushed back, arguing that the existence of the defense would undermine the fight against corporate corruption. My take on the debate over the compliance defense is somewhat different: I think the addition of an FCPA compliance defense, under current conditions, would have no significant effect on FCPA enforcement actions. A compliance defense would probably be neither good nor bad, but rather (mostly) irrelevant. Here’s why:

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Can Foreign Anti-Bribery Enforcement Statistics Help Us Measure Corruption Levels Objectively?

We’ve spent a fair amount of time, in the early days of this blog, talking about the challenges of measuring corruption cross-nationally. The well-known perception measures are useful to a point, but suffer from well-known drawbacks, chief among them concerns about how accurately perceptions capture reality. A recent working paper by Laarni Escresa and Lucio Picci, “A New Cross-National Measure of Corruption,” tries to get around these difficulties. Using data on enforcement of foreign anti-bribery laws like the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), Escresa and Picci they derive a new index, which they call the Public Administration Corruption Index (PACI), to make more objective cross-country comparisons in corruption levels. The paper is really clever and creative—but in the end I think it doesn’t work. Let me first say what I think is so cool about the idea, and then explain what I think are the biggest flaws. Continue reading

Do Companies Benefit from Self-Disclosing FCPA Violations?

At last Month’s Chatham House conference on Combating Global Corruption, much of the discussion focused on how to create incentives for corporations to uncover and voluntarily disclose violations of foreign anti-bribery laws like the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). This is important, because as I noted in last week’s post, most FCPA violations are revealed because of self-disclosures, rather than government or media investigation. During the conversation, a distinguished lawyer (whom I cannot identify by name, because of the Chatham House Rule) made the following argument: Although the U.S. Department of Justice claims to give corporations credit for self-disclosure of FCPA violations, “a careful examination of the evidence reveals” that self-disclosure does not result (on average) in any reduction in penalties.

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Expansion of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention: A Skeptical View

The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention (the unwieldy official name of which is the “OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions”) has proven to be a surprisingly successful international agreement—far more effective than the various regional anticorruption instruments or the U.N. Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), and indeed far more effective than even the OECD Convention’s proponents had predicted. Of course, it’s hard to know how much one can credit the OECD Convention for changes in anticorruption laws and enforcement patterns, but lots of well-informed people believe it has had a big effect, primarily because of its rigorous peer review system. In contrast to other, weaker review systems associated with UNCAC and some of the regional conventions, members of the OECD Convention must submit to a quite extensive and intrusive form of peer review, in successive phases, and cannot veto or prevent disclosure of the resulting reports. The reports are often quite harsh, even scathing, and the political embarrassment associated with a bad review can shame governments and mobilize public opinion.

Given that the OECD Convention has been so successful, should it be expanded to include more countries? After all, membership in the Convention is not limited to the OECD , and indeed several non-OECD countries (Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Columbia, Russia, and South Africa) are already parties. The OECD’s leadership seems to think the answer is a clear yes. At a recent Chatham House conference on “Combating Global Corruption” (which I was fortunate enough to attend), Ángel Gurría, the OECD Secretary-General, declared that it was “imperative that all G20 countries become Parties to the OECD Anti-Bribery convention,” and specifically noted the importance of bringing China, India, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia on board.

I’m sympathetic to the general idea, and would certainly like to live in a world where all countries accepted—and respected—the commitments embodied in the OECD Convention. But rapid expansion of the Convention has important drawbacks that deserve more attention than they seem to be getting. So at the risk of being the skunk at the garden party, let me lay out the case for skepticism about rapid expansion of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

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