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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It’s Official: Hiring a Foreign Official’s Relative in Exchange for Business Violates the FCPA

The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prohibits the entities it covers from corruptly offering “anything of value” to a foreign official for the purposes of obtaining or retaining business. In most cases, the “thing of value” offered is a traditional bribe—money, expensive gifts, lavish vacations, etc. But in some cases, firms do “favors” for foreign officials that are less direct, and do not conform quite so obviously to traditional notion of bribery. Making a generous donations to the official’s favorite charity is one example; another, which has become increasingly prominent in recent FCPA investigations—primarily in cases involving China—is preferential hiring of the relatives of the foreign officials in exchange for business opportunities. This issue got a lot of press particularly in connection with the SEC’s investigation of hiring practices at JP Morgan and other investment banks in China, but the issue is more pervasive.

These investigations raised an interesting legal question: Can providing a job or internship to the adult relative of a foreign official ever count as providing “anything of value” to the official him- or herself? To my mind, the answer is a clear yes, but not everyone agrees. Last year, Professor Andy Spalding and I engaged in a spirited and constructive debate on this question (see here, here, here, and here)—and though I think in the end our positions (mostly) converged, there was perhaps still some lingering doubt (though not in my mind) as to whether the U.S. government would or should adopt the view that offering a bribe to an official’s relative can count as offering something of value to the official.

That doubt has been laid to rest. In the BNY Mellon settlement from last August, the settlement document explicitly endorsed the view that the firm’s decision to provide internships to foreign officials’ relatives counted as providing “anything of value,” because “[t]he internships were valuable work experience, and the requesting family members derived significant personal value in being able to confer this benefit on their family members.” And last week, the SEC announced a settlement with Qualcomm regarding investigations into Qualcomm’s alleged FCPA violations in China; although the violations included more traditional bribes (such as lavish gifts, travel, and entertainment), the settlement focuses substantially on Qualcomm’s practice of hiring the relatives of Chinese officials (and executives at state-owned enterprises, who count as foreign officials for FCPA purposes) in exchange for favorable treatment—even when these candidates would not meet Qualcomm’s normal hiring standards.

As GAB readers know, I think that this view is legally correct, good policy, and entirely consistent with the DOJ and SEC’s past statements on this issue, including the FCPA Resource Guide (which admittedly doesn’t discuss this specific scenario explicitly). The recent settlements in BNY Mellon and Qualcomm do not, of course, have any bearing on whether I’m correct in those views. But insofar as there might have been any uncertainty about the U.S. government’s position, it has been eliminated. This is likely bad news for J.P. Morgan, but good news for the world. Why do I think it’s good news for the world? Three main reasons: Continue reading