Did the Trump Organization’s Azerbaijan Deal Violate the FCPA?

Adam Davidson’s New Yorker piece from earlier this month, “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. The article, which focuses on the Trump Organization’s involvement in a hotel deal in Baku, Azerbaijan, does a very nice job highlighting the troubling background of the Trump Organization’s Azeri business partners and the Trump Organization’s casual approach (to put it charitably) to due diligence. However, the piece also suggests that the Trump Organization’s involvement with the Baku hotel deal may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and many of the follow-up discussions of Mr. Davidson’s piece have repeated this claim (see, for example, here and here). On this point, not everyone agrees. Professor Mike Koehler, for example, wrote a lengthy critique of Mr. Davidson’s discussion of the FCPA issues, concluding that nothing in the facts as reported in the article suggests that the Trump Organization violated the FCPA – and that many of the article’s assertions to the contrary are based on incomplete and misleading representations of the statute and prior case law.

After having finally had a chance to read Mr. Davidson’s article carefully, it seems to me that Professor Koehler has the better of the argument—mostly. Much of the discussion of potential FCPA violations in Mr. Davidson’s article is confused and potentially misleading. That said, I do think there’s at least one plausible basis for the claim that the Trump Organization may have violated the FCPA in this case.

Here’s my take: Continue reading

Fact-Checking the FCPA Scaremongers

In my last post, I made a disparaging in-passing reference to assertions, by some critics of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), that companies could get in FCPA trouble if they do things like buy a foreign government official a cup of coffee, take her to a reasonably-priced business meal, cover her taxi fare, etc. In my view, that’s just wrong, both because the US government would not bring such a case, and because the FCPA wouldn’t cover such isolated, modest benefits. The reason, as the DOJ/SEC FCPA Resource Guide explains, is that such benefits, without more, would not be offered “corruptly”–that is, with the wrongful intent of inducing the official to misuse her official position). I described those who suggest that the FCPA would criminalize such minor benefits as “FCPA scaremongers.”

My use of that the term “scaremonger” seems to have touched a nerve with Professor Mike Koehler–the self-described “FCPA Professor”–who had this to say in his comment my earlier post:

Scaremongering? Recent FCPA enforcement action have included allegations about flowers, cigarettes, karaoke bars, and golf in the morning and beer drinking in the evening.

I responded by asking Professor Koehler to identify the most ridiculous example of an actual FCPA settlement in which a trivial benefit was the sole basis of the enforcement action, as opposed to a small part of a larger scheme to corrupt government officials into misusing their authority. Professor Koehler answered:

The following is a factual statement: recent FCPA enforcement action have included allegations about flowers, cigarettes, karaoke bars, and golf in the morning and beer drinking in the evening.

I take the position that the DOJ/SEC include such allegations in FCPA enforcement actions for a reason and not just to practice their typing skills.

I again asked for an example. Professor Koehler’s response was to send, not the name of any individual case, but rather the links to the DOJ and SEC sites with all enforcement documents, suggesting that I could go through them myself to find “numerous examples of inconsequential things of value” included in the government allegations. He also referred to “several speeches” by SEC enforcement chief Andrew Ceresney (I actually think it’s one speech, given by Mr. Ceresney in November 2015) that supposedly acknowledged the government’s sweeping view of FCPA-prohibited conduct.

Having tried unsuccessfully to get Professor Koehler to point me to a specific example, I did a bit of digging on my own to see if I could find out if it’s really true that the DOJ and/or SEC have brought FCPA enforcement actions in cases that involve nothing more than “flowers, cigarettes, karaoke bars, and golf in the morning and beer drinking in the evening.” What I found makes me even more confident that I was fully justified in my use of the term “FCPA Scaremongers,” with Professor Koehler as perhaps the FCPA Scaremonger-in-Chief. Here are the cases to which I’m fairly sure Professor Koehler was referring: Continue reading

Conference Room Advocacy: The Negotiating Power of Corporate FCPA Defendants

For years, commentators have decried the plight of the corporate FCPA defendant in a world without trials: As Arthur Andersen made clear, most companies accused of crimes by the Department of Justice (DOJ) can’t afford to go to trial. As a result, the story goes, prosecutors are able to pressure companies into accepting negotiated resolutions of FCPA charges that rest upon conclusory allegations and dubious, untested legal theories. This story, often retold, is at the core of what Professor Mike Koehler calls “The Façade of FCPA Enforcement.” It also happens to be a gross oversimplification. Corporate FCPA defendants may not go to trial, but they aren’t helpless victims of prosecutorial bullying. Even as their advocacy shifts from the courtroom to the conference room, these defendants often retain powerful forms of leverage over federal prosecutors.

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Revolving Doors and Corruption

I recently came across a couple of interesting blog posts about corruption and the “revolving door” in the U.S. government (the cycling of individuals from the private sector to government and back again—often as representatives of the same industries they used to regulate while in government).

First, last month Chandu Krishnan (who served as Executive Director of Transparency International UK from 2004-2012) published an insightful post on the Safra Center’s blog, noting how the revolving door—and in particular the promise of lucrative post-government employment—may lead government officials to make laws that reflect the preferences of “industry lobbies” rather than the “will of the people.” Mr. Krishnan adds his voice to the chorus of calls for reform; in particular, he recommends lengthening the legally-required “cooling off” period (during which former government officials are prohibited from lobbying) from one to three years (or longer for positions involving especially high risk, such as procurement).

Around the same time, Mike Koehler, who runs the FCPA Professor Blog, posted a comment on Charles Duross’s recent departure from his position as head of the DOJ’s FCPA enforcement division to take up a position at the law firm Morrison & Foerster. In this post, Professor Koehler reiterated his earlier calls for extending and expanding the “cooling off” period, so that former government FCPA lawyers could not provide any FCPA defense or compliance services for five years after leaving government service.

What struck me about reading these two posts in rapid succession was the fact that although Mr. Krishnan and Prof. Koehler seem in agreement on the problem and the solution, in fact their hypotheses about the effect of the revolving door on government officials’ incentives are not only different, but polar opposites. Mr. Krishnan worries that the prospect of future employment at private sector firms will cause government officials to go too easy on those firms—leading to overly passive or timid enforcement of U.S. law. (He views this as a kind of “institutional corruption.”) Prof. Koehler worries that the prospect of future private sector employment causes government officials to be too aggressive in their enforcement of the law—creating or augmenting the demand for the defense & compliance services these ex-government officials then provide.

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