Perishing Under Corruption: A Cautionary Tale from the Dutch East India Company

A transnational megacorporation that exerts near total monopoly, mints its own currency, fields its own armies, negotiates treaties, and executes convicts. This is not the stuff of dystopic cyberpunk novels, but history books. Founded in 1602, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (often referred to in English as the Dutch East India Company, but self-styled as the VOC) was the first publicly-traded company, established the first stock exchange, became the first multinational corporation, and boasted the first globally recognizable logo. At the height of its valuation in 1637, the VOC was worth roughly $8.28 trillion in 2021 dollars—more than Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and fifteen more of the world’s most important modern companies combined (or, if you prefer, roughly the GDP of modern Germany, the UK, and France added together). Yet, by the mid-1790s, the VOC was bankrupt. On December 31st, 1799, the Company dissolved entirely. The principal reason for this collapse was no secret: a popular joke at the time said that VOC actually stood forvergaan onder corruptie” (“perished under corruption”).

How did the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporation “perish under corruption” in just a handful of decades? And what lessons can be learned from such a failure?

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Guest Post: Corporate or Individual Liability? Converging Approaches to Fighting Corruption

GAB is delighted to welcome back Gönenç Gürkaynak (Managing Partner at ELIG Attorneys-at-Law in Istanbul and 2015 Co-Chair of the B20 Anti-Corruption Task Force), who, along with his colleagues Ç. Olgu Kama (ELIG partner and B20 Anti-Corruption Task Force Deputy Co-Chair) and Burcu Ergün (ELIG associate), contributes the following guest post:

Combating international corruption has come a long way in the last decade. More and more jurisdictions are adapting and updating their legal systems in an effort to eradicate impunity for corruption crimes. Yet an important question persists: Who should be held primarily liable for corruption crimes, the individual or the company? The US and European countries have traditionally provided diverging answers to this question, but there now seems to be some evidence of an emerging convergence, though a consensus is yet to be reached.

In the United States—the pioneering legal system in terms of fighting international corruption—although individuals can be charged with violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), it is the companies that are primarily held liable for FCPA violations. The US embraces a broad notion of corporate criminal liability, based on the principle of respondeat superior (the employer is responsible for the acts or omissions of its employees) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have employed this theory as the basis for FCPA settlements with scores of corporations, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. However, there have been relatively few FCPA cases brought against individuals. This may be due in part to the fact that it is often difficult to attribute a corrupt act to any one specific individual, though it may also be due to the DOJ’s and the SEC’s traditional focus on going after the “deep pockets” of the corporations that come under their scrutiny.

In contrast to the US, the focus of criminal law in continental European systems has typically been on the culpability of individuals; thus, the introduction of the concept of “corporate criminal liability” is a relatively new development. Traditionally, the continental European systems have taken the view that criminal punishment can only be imposed on grounds of personal culpability, and that organizations cannot be held liable under criminal law (societas delinquere non potest). To that end, some European jurisdictions have preferred imposing administrative liability on corporations for actions that are considered to be administrative (rather than criminal) offenses.

In terms of deterring corrupt acts, a broad notion of corporate criminal liability goes a long way. The willingness of US authorities to impose significant fines on corporations provides powerful incentives for corporations to self-police. Furthermore, the threat of criminal FCPA sanctions—and the associated “moral sanctioning” of criminal liability—may have a more powerful effect on corporations than would similar fines imposed as administrative sanctions. On the other hand, the threat of corporate criminal liability is likely not sufficient, on its own, to foster a compliance culture within an organization. In a legal environment in which individuals face a credible threat of prosecution for their personal roles in organizational corruption, corporations could maintain a stronger culture of compliance as the employees themselves would be legally responsible for their misconduct and therefore less likely to engage in (or turn a blind eye to) corrupt practices.

Even though significant differences remain among jurisdictions, it is an encouraging development that there now seems to be gradually converging views regarding corporate criminal liability among these different legal systems. Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 2

This post is the second half of my attempt to summarize the commitments (or lack thereof) in the country statements of the 41 countries that attended last week’s London Anticorruption Summit, in four areas highlighted by the Summit’s final Communique:

  1. Increasing access to information on the true beneficial owners of companies, and possibly other legal entities, perhaps through central registers;
  2. Increasing transparency in public procurement;
  3. Strengthening the independence and capacity of national audit institutions, and publicizing audit results (and, more generally, increasing fiscal transparency in other ways); and
  4. Encouraging whistleblowers, strengthening their protection from various forms or retaliation, and developing systems to ensure that law enforcement takes prompt action in response to whistleblower complaints.

These are not the only subjects covered by the Communique and discussed in the country statements. (Other topics include improving asset recovery mechanisms, facilitating more international cooperation and information sharing, joining new initiatives to fight corruption in sports, improving transparency in the extractive sector through initiatives like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, additional measures to fight tax evasion, and several others.) I chose these four partly because they seemed to me of particular importance, and partly because the Communique’s discussion of these four areas seemed particularly focused on prompting substantive legal changes, rather than general improvements in existing mechanisms.

Plenty of others have already provided useful comprehensive assessments of what the country commitments did and did not achieve. My hope is that presenting the results of the rather tedious exercise of going through each country statement one by one for the language on these four issues, and presenting the results in summary form, will be helpful to others out there who want to try to get a sense of how the individual country commitments do or don’t match up against the recommendations in the Communique. My last post covered Afghanistan–Malta; today’s post covers the remaining country statements, Mexico–United States: Continue reading