My post two weeks ago discussed reports that Walmart is on the verge of reaching a settlement with the U.S. government regarding allegations that several of Walmart’s foreign subsidiaries violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and that the total penalties that Walmart would pay would be around $300 million. That may sound like a big number, but it’s much smaller than the $1 billion penalty some commentators predicted when the investigation got under way, and only half of the $600 million the U.S. government was reportedly demanding as recently as last October.
As I write this, a settlement still hasn’t been formally announced, though it’s possible it will have been by the time this post is published. (I’m traveling this week, so I wrote this post a several days in advance and wasn’t able to update it to reflect any developments that may have occurred in the last 72 hours or so.) But let’s assume for the moment that the media reports are accurate, and that sometime this year – approximately six years after Walmart first disclosed to the SEC and DOJ that it might have an FCPA problem – the case settles for around $300 million. What would we learn from that?
Or perhaps I should frame the question more starkly, at the risk of oversimplification:
- There are a bunch of folks out there (the “FCPA Reform” crowd) who argue that the U.S. government’s approach to FCPA enforcement is out of control, with the government imposing enormous and unjustified costs on companies for relatively minor and/or unproven infractions. The government can do this, the argument goes, because the government has corporations over a barrel: most corporations can’t risk being indicted for FCPA violations, and so (the FCPA Reform crowd asserts) the government can and does extract exorbitant settlements with little regard to whether the government’s legal theories have an adequate basis in law and fact.
- Then there are a bunch of folks (lat’s call them the “FCPA, A-OK” crowd) who think that the aforementioned concerns are grossly exaggerated, and that in fact the U.S. government’s FCPA enforcement posture is reasonable, grounded in a plausible view of the law, and that allegations of overreaching don’t withstand critical scrutiny. (And then of course there are those who think that the government isn’t nearly aggressive enough in enforcing the FCPA, and that in fact both the resources devoted to investigation and enforcement, as well as the penalties, should be increased dramatically.)
If the Walmart settlement resembles what the most recent media reports predict, I think that both the “FCPA Reform” crowd and the “FCPA, A-OK” crowd can and will find material to support their positions. Continue reading