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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Why Does the SEC Enforce the FCPA?

Donald Trump’s nomination of Jay Clayton to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has attracted some attention and concern from the anticorruption community. That concern is due mainly to a report issued by a New York Bar Foundation committee, chaired by Mr. Clayton, which criticized the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for its alleged adverse and asymmetric impact on U.S. corporations. Though it remains to be seen how strongly committed Mr. Clayton is to the views expressed in the report, the concern is understandable given that the SEC is one of the two agencies—along with the Department of Justice (DOJ)—that is responsible for enforcing the FCPA. This controversy also highlights another, broader question that some FCPA critics have raised: Why is the SEC even involved in FCPA enforcement in the first place?

Congress created the SEC in 1934 through the aptly named Securities Exchange Act to enforce federal regulations regarding the trade of securities after they have been issued. The main impetus for the SEC’s creation was the belief that an under-regulated securities market helped drive the 1929 stock market crash. However, over the past 80 years, the SEC has expanded into other areas of enforcement—such as FCPA enforcement—that seem tentatively tied to the SEC’s original mandate. Some have argued that due to resource limitations, it does not make sense for the SEC to pursue vigorous FCPA enforcement at the expense of diverting resources from protecting investors. In pushing this point, some critics also point out that the SEC’s major regulatory fumbles of the past decade coincide with the escalation of FCPA enforcement activity—which perhaps suggests that expanding the SEC’s responsibilities beyond its original mandate has indeed weakened the agency.

The reasons for the SEC’s involvement in FCPA enforcement are partly historical, as explained further below. But beyond that, despite the critics’ complaints, in fact FCPA enforcement remains a valuable use of the SEC’s resources in the 21st century.

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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

Whistle While You Work: Protections for Internal Whistleblowers under Dodd-Frank

One of the many objectives of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was to encourage whistleblowers to report securities violations—including violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)—to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Among other things, Dodd-Frank created new remedies for whistleblowers who suffer retaliation by their employers, including allowing whistleblowers to sue their (former) employers on more favorable terms than existing anti-retaliation laws. But what if an employee doesn’t report a possible violation to the SEC, but only told her boss? If that “internal whistleblower” is subsequently terminated, can she avail herself of Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation provisions?  Because of the way the law was drafted, this turns out to be a difficult legal question, one on which courts across the U.S. have divided.

Nevertheless, there are strong practical reasons—above and beyond the basic reasons that could be advanced in any context—why Dodd-Frank should cover internal whistleblowers. Unless the courts resolve their division in favor of internal whistleblowers soon (most likely through a Supreme Court decision), Congress should step in and rewrite the law to remove any doubt that internal whistleblowers are protected.

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Anticorruption Truth Commissions? Lessons to be Learned from Human Rights and Transitional Justice

A few months back, Anusha made the case for why “freedom from corruption” should not be regarded as a human right. She pointed out a number of legitimate distinctions between corruption and other human rights violations, as well as practical problems with framing corruption in this way. But there are other ways in which corruption does resemble a human rights violation: namely, in the harm it causes. Like widespread human rights abuses, the harm stemming from corruption is often diffuse and difficult to quantify, often with many victims (not always identifiable) and numerous perpetrators. For practical and functional purposes, in the case of systemic corruption–as in the case of regimes with pervasive human rights abuses–it may not be possible to make reparations to all of the victims or to hold all of the offenders to account.

Thus, even if it is impossible – or undesirable – to fully integrate the anticorruption and human rights agendas, it is still worth considering what lessons we can draw from the human rights regime and incorporate into the anticorruption field. Consider, in particular, one mechanism designed to deal with instances of mass atrocities and systematic human rights violations: the truth commission. In the human rights and transitional justice context, truth commissions are temporary bodies responsible for investigating and publicizing past rights abuses committed by public and private actors. As a general matter, truth commissions prioritize gathering information and establishing an accurate record over punitive sanctions. Truth commissions also often involve a quasi-judicial element – which frequently entails granting amnesty to certain actors or referring cases to prosecutorial entities – and emphasize “bottom-up” victim participation. Certain elements of the truth commission model may be instructive in designing justice measures for corruption crimes.

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Demand-Side Prosecutions: Be Careful What You Wish For

Many anticorruption activists and commentators–including many contributors to this blog (see here, here, here, and here)–dream of a world in which acts of transnational bribery would trigger not only an enforcement by the “supply-side” state (that is, the home or listing jurisdiction of the bribe-paying firm) but also parallel enforcement against the bribe-taking public officials by the “demand-side” government. In such a dream world, if a large US multinational were to bribe a public official in a developing country to obtain contracts, two things would happen: the US would prosecute the firm under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and the government official who took the bribes would be prosecuted by their domestic authorities. This would create a strong deterrent effect, both for the companies for the government officials.

I, too, support the vision of a truly global fight against corruption. But perhaps some caution is warranted. This is one of those areas where the old adage to “be careful what you wish for” may apply. Continue reading