The FCPA Is Not an All-Purpose Anti-Foreign-Illegality Law

A few months back, Adam Davidson did a terrific New Yorker piece on the Trump Organization’s shady business dealings in Azerbaijan, focusing on evidence of corruption, money laundering, and sanctions evasion in connection with the Trump Organization’s licensing deal for a Trump Tower in Baku, the country’s capital. While I greatly admired the piece, I nonetheless criticized one aspect of it: the argument that the Trump Organization’s licensing deal ran afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), an allegation which, it seemed to me, wasn’t adequately supported by the otherwise impressive body of evidence assembled in the piece. While I recognize that a piece written for a general audience can’t get too lost in the technical legal weeds, I do think that it’s important to convey an accurate sense of what the FCPA does, and what it doesn’t do.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks back when I read an otherwise incisive essay by the political commentator Heather Digby Parton (whose work I very much admire) on Ivanka Trump’s shady business dealings and possible legal violations. Though Ms. Parton’s piece focused mainly on the Trump Ocean Club in Panama (dubbed “Narco-a-Lago” in an excellent Global Witness report), she also brought up Mr. Davidson’s reporting on the Azerbaijan project, and repeated the suggestion that the Trump Organization’s involvement in this project likely violated the FCPA. In making this case, Ms. Parton states:

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act requires that American companies not make profits from illegal activities overseas, and simply saying you didn’t know where the money was coming from isn’t good enough…. Courts have held that a company needn’t be aware of specific criminal behavior but only that corruption was pervasive.

I hate to be nitpicky, especially when it involves criticizing a piece I generally agree with by an author I admire, but this is simply not a correct statement of the law. Continue reading

Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Anti-Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

On the same day as President Trump’s swearing in, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released a memorandum elaborating upon why President Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a Senior White House Advisor did not violate the federal anti-nepotism statute (5 U.S.C. § 3110). That statute prohibits a public official (including the President) from appointing or employing a relative (which the statute defines as including a son-in-law or daughter-in-law). The OLC reasoned that despite the seemingly clear prohibition in 5 U.S.C § 3110, another federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 105(a), exempted positions in the White House Office from the anti-nepotism law. The OLC recognized this conclusion was a departure from its own precedent, but with the aid of some selective reading of legislative history, the OLC argued that lawmakers intended to allow the president “total discretion” in employment matters when it passed 3 U.S.C. § 105(a). (For non-specialists, see this primer for an explanation of these and other federal laws and regulations which could be relevant for addressing corruption in the Trump Administration.)

Somewhat predictably, the OLC memo generated debate among legal commentators (see here, here, here, and here). Yet even if the legal arguments were not entirely convincing, the OLC ended with a practical point that was echoed by many of the commentaries: given that President Trump will seek Mr. Kushner’s advice, regardless of whether he is a formal employee, it would be better for Mr. Kushner to be formally employed as a White House advisor, and thus subject to the applicable conflict-of-interest (COI) and financial disclosure rules. The same argument applies to Ivanka Trump, who also recently became an employee of the White House.

Some anticorruption advocates, myself included, were persuaded at the time by the OLC’s practical point. It would be best if the President did not make major policy decisions on the advice of radically unqualified relatives. But unfortunately, he is going to turn to them for advice. Given that baseline, we should prefer those family members occupy formal appointments, where at least they will be constrained by the COI statute and disclosure rules. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we should never have been persuaded. The COI statute and the disclosure rules turn out to be ineffective devices for preventing corruption in the Trump era. While the disclosure rules did encourage Mr. Kushner to make some divestments, they do not contain enough details to identify potential conflicts. And when there are conflicts, the COI statute is unlikely to be enforced, either because Attorney General Jeff Sessions will choose not to, or because the White House will grant a waiver.

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Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

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