Why International Double Jeopardy Is a Bad Idea

In a recent post, I argued that U.S. authorities investigating British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) should consider criminally prosecuting GSK but partially offsetting any attendant penalty in light of the $490 million fine already imposed by China. This option is only available to the DOJ, though, because it stands on one side of a crucial divide in the global anticorruption regime: the U.S. — unlike Canada, the U.K., and the European Union — does not recognize an international variant of ne bis in idem (“not twice for the same thing”) (also known as “international double jeopardy”).

Recognizing an international double jeopardy bar can have a dramatic impact on a country’s capacity to combat international corruption. For countries like the U.K., being second-in-line to target an instance of transnational bribery often means not being able to prosecute the conduct at all. (For example, in 2011, the U.K. had to forego criminal sanctions against DePuy International because the U.S. had already prosecuted the British subsidiary.) In recent years, though, a spike in the number of parallel and successive international prosecutions has inspired a small but growing chorus of commentators calling for countries like the U.S. to formally embrace international double jeopardy.

To these commentators’ credit, many of their arguments sound in basic notions of fairness: you shouldn’t punish someone twice for the same crime. But before we jump on the double jeopardy bandwagon, I want to spend a few minutes explaining why, when it comes to the global fight against transnational bribery, double jeopardy probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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Prosecuting GSK: How to Deal with Being Second in Line

As followers of the anticorruption blogosphere know, China recently fined British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) $490 million for bribing Chinese doctors and hospital administrators. There is no need rehash here what many others have already said: this case is likely a watershed moment marking China’s emergence as a force in the global fight against corruption.

But there is another aspect of the story that has gone unnoticed: With rare exceptions, the U.S. Government’s corporate FCPA settlements have either preceded any foreign enforcement action (e.g., Total) or been announced as part of a coordinated global settlement (e.g., Siemens). But China’s prosecution of GSK has put U.S. regulators in a relatively unfamiliar position: that of the second mover. And in doing so, China has forced the Department of Justice to confront a difficult question: Should it care that China has already fined GSK for the same conduct that DOJ is investigating.

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Is China’s Anticorruption Enforcement Implicitly Protectionist?

When a Chinese court fined GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) US$490 million last year for bribing Chinese physicians and hospital administrators, Western firms doing business in China snapped to attention. Indeed, the GSK action is likely only the tip of the iceberg, particularly given a December 2012 official legal interpretation of the Chinese Criminal Law by the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate that departed from the prior emphasis on bribe recipients and redirected attention to bribe payers. Thus far, multinational corporations – including GSK, Danoneand Volkswagen – have figured prominently in President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, leading many commentators to argue that protectionism is at play (see here and here). To put the point bluntly, the worry is that Chinese enforcers will go after foreign firms for conduct that is equally if not more common among domestic Chinese firms, and will do so largely to protect those domestic firms from foreign competition.

I have to admit, when I sat down to investigate the claims of protectionist bias, I more or less assumed the ulterior motives in Chinese enforcement. The typical refrain among my American friends who have lived and worked in China is: “Of course enforcers intentionally favor domestic companies. Everything is politically motivated.” That may be true. But what I found – or didn’t find – actually caused me to lean in the opposite direction: We don’t have enough evidence to substantiate claims of biased anticorruption enforcement in China. Continue reading