Why DOJ’s New FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy May Be a Step Backwards

At the end of last year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a new Corporate Enforcement Policy to guide prosecutors charged with overseeing Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations. This new policy codifies, and builds on, the DOJ’s FCPA Pilot Program, which had been in place since mid-2016. Under the Pilot Program, the DOJ announced that it would consider mitigated penalties for companies that voluntarily disclosed FCPA violations, fully cooperated with the government investigation, and agreed to remediation measures. Those mitigated penalties included a reduction in penalties by 50% below the low end of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines range, or in some cases outright declination of prosecution.

The new Corporate Enforcement Policy goes further, stating that when a company voluntarily self-discloses an FCPA violation, fully cooperates, and adopts timely and appropriate remediation measures (including disgorgement of any gains from the violation), there is a presumption that the DOJ will offer the company a declination, absent aggravating circumstances (such as a particularly severe offense). This presumption of a declination is stronger than the Pilot Program, which only said that the DOJ would “consider” a declination. Additionally, while Pilot Program gave prosecutors the discretion to reduce requested fines, the new policy directs prosecutors to ask for lower fines as long as companies meet the requirements noted above. The new policy also gives favorable terms even to companies that do not voluntarily disclose misconduct, so long as they later fully cooperate and implement a remediation program. For these companies, the DOJ will recommend a sentence reduction of up to 25% off of the low end of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. (The DOJ also recently announced that it’s expanding this beyond the FCPA, applying it also to crimes such as securities fraud.)

One way to understand the new FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy is as a response to concerns that the U.S. government’s traditional approach to enforcing the FCPA has over-emphasized corporate settlements at the expense of prosecuting individual wrongdoers. In that sense the new policy, and the Pilot Program before it, can be seen as consistent with the Yates Memo, which declared that the DOJ would focus more on individual liability. A related but distinct justification for the new Corporate Enforcement Policy is the idea that it will improve overall FCPA enforcement by encouraging more voluntary self-disclosures. The rationale is that there are likely a large number of low-level corporate bribery cases that companies learn about but don’t report, for fear of the expected penalties. The DOJ would prefer that companies disclose these transgressions, and the Department appears to have concluded that the benefits of encouraging such disclosures outweighs concerns about reducing punishments for FCPA violations. Indeed, in justifying the new enforcement policy, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein emphasized that under the Pilot Program, the number of voluntary disclosures during the program doubled to 30.

These justifications for the new policy at first seem plausible, but they suffer from an important flaw: They overlook the impact of DOJ’s enforcement posture on corporate culture. The new policy may increase incentives for voluntary self-disclosure and post hoc remediation, but at the same time the new policy weakens incentives for companies to actively work to promote a pro-integrity corporate culture. For that reason, the new policy may end up worsening overall foreign bribery activity, even if both corporate self-disclosures and prosecutions of individuals increase.

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The Trade-Off Between Inducing Corporate Self-Disclosure and Full Cooperation

In discussions of appropriate sanctions for corporations that engage in bribery, much of the conversation focuses on the appropriate penalty reduction for firms that self-disclose violations, cooperate with authorities, or both. Self-disclosure and cooperation are often lumped together, but they’re not the same: Plenty of targets of bribery investigations, for example, did not voluntarily disclose the potential violation, but cooperated with the authorities once the investigation was underway.

This gives rise to a problem that is both serious and seemingly obvious, but that somewhat surprisingly is hardly ever discussed.

The problem goes like this: Enforcement authorities want to encourage self-disclosure, and they want to encourage full cooperation with the investigation; they would like to do so (1) by reducing the sanction for firms that voluntarily disclose relative to those that don’t, and (2) by reducing the sanction for firms that fully cooperate relative to those that don’t. But if the minimum and maximum penalties are fixed (say, by statute or department policy or other considerations), and the penalty reductions necessary to induce self-disclosure and full cooperation, respectively, are large enough (cumulatively greater than the difference between the maximum and minimum feasible sanction), then adjusting sanctions to encourage self-disclosure may discourage full cooperation, and vice versa.

It’s easiest to see this with a very simple numerical example: Continue reading