Guest Post: There’s Nothing (Legally) New About “Declinations” Under the DOJ’s Corporate Enforcement Policy

Today’s guest post is from Professor Karen Woody, at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business:

Last year, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a new “Corporate Enforcement Policy” (CEP) that would apply to Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases, among others. A key feature of the CEP was the offer of leniency—in the form of a “declination”—so long as the company met certain conditions, including voluntary disclosure of the violation, full cooperation, and disgorgement of any ill-gotten gains from the unlawful conduct. While the basic contours of the DOJ’s new policy are reasonably clear, the use of the term “declination” has created some confusion and uncertainty. Is a “declination” merely a decision not to prosecute? Is it something more? Does it depend?

This confusion is illustrated by Maddie McMahon’s post last month, in which she argued that declinations granted pursuant to the CEP are indeed a “new” kind of enforcement action, distinct from a simple decision not to prosecute. And the DOJ has to some extent fostered that understanding: As Maggie points out, the CEP itself states (somewhat enigmatically), “if a case would have been declined in the absence of such circumstances [of compliance with the CEP], it is not a declination pursuant to the Policy,” which seems to imply that there still may be DOJ declinations, in addition to distinct declinations “pursuant to the CEP.” But in fact the CEP does not create a new mechanism for resolving FCPA cases (or other corporate enforcement actions). What it does do (confusingly and unhelpfully) is use the same term—“declination”—to describe two distinct, but familiar well-established, types of resolution.

To see this, it is critical to distinguish two types of cases for which the DOJ might issue a “declination” pursuant to the CEP: (1) unilateral declinations, where any required disgorgement is made in a separate settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); and (2) “declinations with disgorgement,” in which the SEC lacks jurisdiction and the disgorgement required to qualify for a “declination” under the CEP is made as part of an agreement between the company and the DOJ. Continue reading

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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Declinations-with-Disgorgement in FCPA Cases Don’t Worry Me: Here’s Why

Among those who follow Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement practices, there’s been a spate of commentary on a few recent cases in which the Department of Justice (DOJ) has resolved FCPA cases with a formal decision not to prosecute (a “declination”) that includes, as one of the reasons for (and conditions of) the declination, the target company’s agreement to disgorge to the U.S. Treasury the profits associated with the (allegedly) unlawful conduct. Disgorgement is a civil remedy rather than a criminal penalty (as the U.S. Supreme Court recently emphasized); it is often employed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which has civil FCPA enforcement authority over issuers on U.S. exchanges. Until recently, however, the DOJ – which has civil FCPA enforcement authority with respect to non-issuers, and criminal enforcement authority in all FCPA matters – had not sought disgorgement very often, and the recent “declination-with-disgorgement” resolutions appear to be something new, at least in the FCPA context.

Not everyone is happy with this development. Last week, for example, Professor Karen Woody posted an interesting commentary over at the FCPA Blog (based on a longer academic paper) on why the emergence of declinations-with-disgorgement in FCPA cases is an “alarming” development that makes her “queasy.” Professor Woody is an astute and knowledgeable FCPA commentator, and I’m hesitant to disagree with her—especially since I’m not really an FCPA specialist in the way that she is—but I’m having trouble working up a comparable level of alarm. Indeed, my knee-jerk reaction is to view the declination-with-disgorgement as a useful mechanism, one that would often be the most appropriate one to employ to resolve FCPA violations by a company that is not subject to SEC jurisdiction, and eliminating this mechanism might force the DOJ to employ a worse alternative.

Let me start by laying out the affirmative case for declinations-with-disgorgement, and then I’ll turn to Professor Woody’s concerns. Continue reading