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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The Role of Judicial Oversight in DPA Regimes: Rejecting a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

IIn late March 2018, the Canadian government released a backgrounder entitled Remediation Agreements and Orders to Address Corporate Crime that outlines the contours of a proposed Canadian deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) regime. DPAs—also appearing in slightly different forms such as non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) or leniency agreements—are pre-indictment diversionary settlements in which offenders (almost exclusively corporations) agree to make certain factual admissions, pay fines or other penalties, and in some cases assume other obligations (such as reforming internal compliance systems or retaining an external corporate monitor), and in return the government assures the corporation that it will drop the case after a period of time (ordinarily a few years) if the conditions specified in the agreement are met. Such agreements inhabit a middle ground between declinations (where the government declines to file any charges, but where companies still might forfeit money) and plea agreements (which require guilty pleas to criminal charges filed in court).

While Canada has been flirting with the idea of introducing DPAs for over ten years, several other countries have recently adopted, or are actively considering, deferred prosecution programs. France formally added DPAs (known in France as “public interest judicial agreements”) in December 2016, and entered into its first agreement, with HSBC Private Bank Suisse SA, in November 2017. In March 2018, Singapore’s Parliament installed a DPA framework by amending its Criminal Procedure Code. And debate is underway in the Australian parliament on a bill that would introduce a DPA regime for offenses committed by corporations.

The effect of DPAs in the fight against corruption, pro and con, has been previously debated on this blog. One critical design component of any DPA regime is the degree of judicial involvement. On one end of the spectrum is the United States, where courts merely serve as repositories for agreements at the end of negotiations and have no role in weighing the terms of any deal. On the other end of the spectrum is the United Kingdom, where a judge must agree that negotiations are “in the interests of justice” while they are underway, and a judge must declare that the final terms of any DPA are “fair, reasonable, and proportionate.” British courts also play an ongoing supervisory role post-approval, with the ability to approve amendments to settlement terms, terminate agreements upon a determined breach, and close the prosecution once the term of the DPA expires.

Under Canada’s proposed system of Remediation Agreements, each agreement would require final approval from a judge, who would certify that 1) the agreement is “in the public interest” and 2) the “terms of the agreement are fair, reasonable and proportionate.” While the test used by Canadian judges appears to parallel the U.K. model—including using some identical language—the up-or-down judicial approval would occur only once negotiations have been concluded. This stands in contrast to the U.K. model mandating direct judicial involvement over the course of the negotiation process.

The decision by the Canadian government to chart a middle course on judicial oversight is all the more notable given that an initial report released by the Canadian government following a several-month public consultation regarding the introduction of DPAs appeared to endorse the U.K. approach, noting that the majority of commenters who submitted views “favoured the U.K. model, which provides for strong judicial oversight throughout the DPA process.” Moreover, commentators have generally praised the U.K. model’s greater role for judicial oversight of settlements, especially judicial scrutiny of the parties charged (or not) in any given case, the evidence (or lack thereof), and the “fairness” (or not) of any proposed deal.

Despite these positions, one should not reflexively view the judicial oversight regime outlined in Canada’s latest report as a half-measure. Perhaps the U.K. model would be better for Canada, or for many of the other countries considering the adoption or reform of the DPA mechanism. But the superiority of the U.K. approach can’t be assumed, as more judicial involvement is not categorically better. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach favoring heightened judicial oversight, there are several factors that countries might consider when deciding on the appropriate form and degree of judicial involvement in DPA regimes: Continue reading

The Curious Absence of FCPA Trials

As is well known, enforcement actions brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) have expanded dramatically over the past decade and a half. With all this enforcement activity, someone unfamiliar with this field might suppose that the most important questions regarding the FCPA’s meaning and scope are now settled. But as FCPA experts well know, that is not the case; the realm of FCPA enforcement is a legal desert, with guidance often drawn not from binding case law but from a whirl of enforcement patterns, settlements, and dicta. As a result, many of the ambiguities inherent in the statutory language remain unresolved—even core concepts, such as what constitutes a transfer of “anything of value to a foreign official,” lack concrete legal decisions that offer guidance. While some claim that this ambiguity fades when the FCPA is applied to the facts at hand, past analysis shows that this may not always be the case.

The dearth of binding legal precedent in FCPA enforcement stems directly from the lack of FCPA cases that are actually brought to trial. Of course, most white collar and corporate criminal cases—like most cases of all types—result in settlements rather than trials. But a look at the major cases white collar cases going to trial in 2017, and the pattern of FCPA settlements, shows that FCPA trials are uniquely rare. In fact, FCPA cases are resolved through settlements more often than any other type of enforcement actions brought by the DOJ or SEC.

Why is this? Why are FCPA enforcement cases so rarely brought to trial, even compared to other white collar cases? The answer can help explain why FCPA case law is so sparse, and reveal whether this trend may change in the future.

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Leniency Agreements Under Brazil’s Clean Company Act: Are They a Good Idea?

Brazil’s 2013 Clean Company Act, the country’s first anti-bribery statute applicable to companies, has grabbed Brazilians’ attention due to its recurrent use in the context of the so-called Car Wash operation. The Clean Company Act has provided the main legal basis for Brazilian public authorities (especially federal prosecutors) to sign leniency agreements with construction corporations whose top executives stand accused of bribing officials in exchange for contracts from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil giant. Under the Act, Brazilian authorities may enter into a leniency agreement as long as the company admits its participation in the illicit act, ceases any further participation, provides full restitution for damage caused, and cooperates fully and permanently with the ongoing investigation. In exchange, the fines can be reduced by up to two-thirds and, more importantly, the cooperating company may be exempted from judicial and administrative sanctions, including suspension or debarment from public contracts. Over the course of the Car Wash investigation, Brazilian authorities have already signed five leniency agreements with some of Brazil’s largest engineering firms, and at least twelve more companies are currently negotiating leniency deals with Brazilian authorities.

But do these sorts of leniency agreements provide for sufficient deterrence of corrupt behavior? And are they consistent with the interest in punishing those companies that have committed a serious crime? Those who defend Brazil’s increasing use of leniency agreements emphasize that a similar approach has proven to be effective in countries like the United States, one of the most successful countries in the world in the fight against corruption. Indeed, the leniency agreements authorized by the Clean Company Act were modeled on the Non-Prosecution Agreements (NPAs) and Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) used by US authorities in white-collar criminal law enforcement. However, Brazil is following the US model precisely at a time when the widespread use of NPAs and DPAs is becoming more controversial, in part because of concerns that these sorts of agreements fail to deter economic crimes and allow high-ranking executives to escape accountability for their crimes (for a summary of the criticisms of those agreements, see here and here). Perhaps more importantly, even if one views the US experience with NPAs and DPAs as successful overall, there are several reasons why this model might be more problematic in the Brazilian context. Continue reading

Watching the Watchmen: Should the Public Have Access to Monitorship Reports in FCPA Settlements?

When the Department of Justice (DOJ) settles Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases with corporate defendants, the settlement sometimes stipulates that the firm must retain a “corporate monitor” for some period of time as a condition of the DOJ’s decision not to pursue further action against the firm. The monitor, paid for by the firm, reports to the government on whether the firm is effectively cleaning up its act and improving its compliance system. While lacking direct decision-making power, the corporate monitor has broad access to internal firm information and engages directly with top-level management on issues related to the firm’s compliance. The monitor’s reports to the DOJ are (or at least are supposed to be) critically important to the government’s determination whether the firm has complied with the terms of the settlement agreement.

Recent initiatives by transparency advocates and other civil society groups have raised a question that had not previously attracted much attention: Should the public have access to these monitor reports? Consider the efforts of 100Reporters, a news organization focused on corruption issues, to obtain monitorship documents related to the 2008 FCPA settlement between Siemens and the DOJ. Back in 2008, Siemens pleaded guilty to bribery charges and agreed to pay large fines to the DOJ and SEC. As a condition of the settlement, Siemens agreed to install a corporate monitor, Dr. Theo Waigel, for four years. That monitorship ended in 2012, and the DOJ determined Siemens satisfied its obligations under the plea agreement. Shortly afterwards, 100Reporters filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the DOJ, seeking access to the compliance monitoring documents, including four of Dr. Waigel’s annual reports. After the DOJ denied the FOIA request, on the grounds that the documents were exempt from FOIA because they comprised part of law enforcement deliberations, 100Reporters sued.

The legal questions at issue in this and similar cases are somewhat complicated; they can involve, for example, the question whether monitoring reports are “judicial records”—a question that has caused some disagreement among U.S. courts. For this post, I will put the more technical legal issues to one side and focus on the broader policy issue: Should monitor reports be available to interested members of the public, or should the government be able to keep them confidential? The case for disclosure is straightforward: as 100Reporters argues, there is a public interest in ensuring that settlements appropriately ensure future compliance, as well as a public interest in monitoring how effectively the DOJ and SEC oversee these settlement agreements. But in resisting 100Reporters’ FOIA request, the DOJ (and Siemens and Dr. Waigel) have argued that ordering public disclosure of these documents will hurt, not help, FCPA enforcement, for two reasons:  Continue reading

Guest Post: What’s the Problem with Out-of-Court Settlements for Foreign Bribery? A Reply to Stephenson

GAB is delighted to welcome back Susan Hawley, policy director of Corruption Watch, for further discussion and debate regarding the proposal to create global standards for out-of-court settlements in foreign bribery cases:

Matthew Stephenson has devoted three successive blog posts (see here, here, and here) to critiquing the position that we outlined in our report, Out of Court, Out of Mind, calling for global standards for corporate settlements on corruption cases. NGOs, including we at Corruption Watch, along with Transparency International, Global Witness, and the UNCAC Coalition, outlined this position in a letter to the OECD. I am delighted that our report and the joint letter has triggered such interest and discussion. This is a hugely important debate: it cuts to the heart of how countries enforce their anticorruption laws and what constitutes effective enforcement.

We wrote our letter to the OECD and released our report precisely to stimulate this kind of debate at a time when:

  • a number of countries are looking at whether to introduce Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) and/or Non-Prosecution Agreements (NPAs) specifically to improve their track record of dealing with overseas corruption and
  • many countries in Europe appear to be choosing to resolve the few enforcement actions that they are taking through out-of-court settlements.

This post offers a riposte to Professor Stephenson’s criticisms of our case for global standard for corporate settlements in these cases. The fact that Professor Stephenson devoted three blog posts to the subject shows how meaty it is, and it won’t be possible in a single reply post to go into all of his criticisms, but this post replies to some of the most essential points. Continue reading