Guest Post: It’s Time for Plan B on Disbursing the Obiang Settlement Money to the People of Equatorial Guinea

Today’s guest post is from the civil society group EG Justice, a civil society organization that promotes the rule of law, transparency, and the protection of human rights in Equatorial Guinea. (For a longer discussion of the issues raised in this blog post, please visit the EG Justice website: www.egjustice.org.)

Last month, Professor Stephenson asked: “Whatever Happened with that Charity the Obiang Settlement Was Supposed to Fund?”  Not coincidentally, thousands of people in Equatorial Guinea have been asking themselves that same question for the last five years, and they have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. We are not entirely surprised by the impasse. When one drives into a cul-de-sac, with clear road signs warning ahead of time that there is no exit, one should only expect to return to the entry point. Likewise, when negotiating with authoritarian kleptocrats who consider themselves above the law and who are accustomed to acting with absolute impunity, it would be naïve to expect them to negotiate fairly.

The settlement between Equatorial Guinea and the U.S. appears to anticipate this impasse, laying out several options. The settlement first lays out what we might call “Plan A”:  Within 180 days, the U.S. authorities and the defendant (Teodorin Nguema Obiang) are to jointly select a charity to receive the funds realized from the sale of Nguema’s seized assets, with that charity to use the funds for the benefit of the citizens of Equatorial Guinea. But in apparent anticipation of the difficulties in reaching such an agreement, the settlement goes on to lay out a “Plan B,” according to which, if the U.S. and Nguema can’t mutually agree on a charity within 180 days of the sale of the assets, a three-member panel is to be convened to receive and disburse the funds—with one member of the panel chosen by the U.S., one by Nguema, and one, the Chair, by mutual agreement. Again anticipating the possibility that the parties will be unable to agree, the settlement has a “Plan C” (or a “Plan B-2”): If the parties can’t agree on a panel Chair, within 220 days after the sale of the property, the court retains the discretion to order the parties to participate in mediation, or the court may simply select a panel Chair directly. Continue reading

Guest Post: New OECD Report Highlights the Importance of Non-Trial Resolutions in Foreign Bribery Cases

Today’s guest post is from Senior Legal Analyst Sandrine Hannedouche-Leric, together with Legal Analysts Elisabeth Danon and Brooks Hickman, of the OECD Anti-Corruption Division.

 In December 2016, Brazilian, Swiss, and US authorities announced that the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht would pay a combined fine of USD 3.5 billion as part of a coordinated resolution of foreign bribery allegations—the largest foreign bribery resolution in history. Like many foreign bribery cases concluded in the last decade, the Odebrecht case was resolved outside a courtroom. In fact, non-trial resolutions, also referred to as settlements, have been the predominant means of enforcing foreign bribery and other related offences since the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention entered into force 20 years ago.

The OECD Working Group on Bribery recently published a report on Resolving Foreign Cases with Non-Trial Resolutions. The report develops a typology of the various non-trial resolution systems used by Parties to the Convention, and sheds light on the operation and effectiveness of these systems. It also looks at the challenges they raise for law enforcement authorities, companies and other stakeholders in the resolution process. The data collected for the Study confirms and quantifies the widely-recognized fact that settlement, rather than trial is the dominant mechanism for resolving foreign bribery cases. The report finds that close to 80% of the almost 900 foreign bribery cases concluded since the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention came into force have been concluded through non-trial resolutions, and among the three most active enforcers of foreign anti-bribery laws—the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom—this percentage rises to 96%. Non-trial resolutions have been responsible for approximately 95% of the USD 14.9 billion (adjusted to 2018 constant US dollars) collected from legal persons sanctioned to date. Additionally, the report finds that coordinated multi-jurisdictional non-trial resolutions have been on the rise over the past decade. Such coordination, which would not be possible through trial proceedings, has permitted the imposition of the highest global amount of combined financial penalties in foreign bribery cases. Eight of the ten largest foreign bribery enforcement actions involved coordinated or sequential non-trial resolutions involving at least two Parties to the Convention.

The study was launched last month during the OECD Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum, in a panel discussion moderated by the Head of the World Bank’s Integrity Compliance Unit. Building on the Study’s key findings, law enforcement officials from Brazil, France, the United Kingdom and the United States discussed the challenges associated with non-trial resolutions based on their first-hand experience, and explained why the use of these instruments will likely continue to grow in the future. In particular, they discussed how non-trial instruments can help overcome procedural hurdles and fundamental differences between legal systems and cultures, and thus facilitate cross-country coordination in the resolution of foreign bribery cases. (The video of the session is accessible online. See the section “Watch Live” for Room 1 starting at 8:13:00).

Whatever Happened with that Charity That the Obiang Settlement Was Supposed to Fund?

When a country seizes assets that a foreign public official stole from his or her own government, the usual next step is to return those assets to the foreign government from which they were stolen–in much the same way that if I were to steal a computer belonging to Harvard University, and the police caught me and recovered the computer, they should give it back to Harvard (assuming it wasn’t needed as evidence in my trial). But of course in the context of countries beset by systemic corruption–or outright kleptocracies–things are not so simple. Returning the money that the corrupt foreign official stole from the national treasury back to that national treasury may be tantamount to giving the money back to the person who stole it in the first place. So what to do?

One possibility, increasingly popular in some quarters, is to use the money to fund charitable activities in the country where the public funds were stolen, on the logic that doing so does return the money to the “victim country,” but does not return it to that country’s government (which is most certainly not a “victim,” whatever its formal legal claim on the assets in question). This mechanism was employed in the 2014 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s (extremely corrupt and dictatorial) President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. According to the settlement agreement, the proceeds from the sale of the illicit assets the US had seized would go to a charity that would use the funds to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea. The charity was to be jointly selected by the US and Obiang, or, if they could not agree on a charity within 180 days of the sale of the assets, the proceeds would be controlled and disbursed by a three-person panel, rather than an existing charity. That panel would consist of one member selected by the US government, one member selected by the government of Equatorial Guinea, and a chair jointly selected by the US and Obiang. As a backstop, the settlement stated that if, 220 days after the sale of the assets, the US and Obiang could not agree on a chair, the court that approved the settlement could force the parties to enter mediation or simply appoint a panel chair itself.

My post today is not a commentary on this arrangement, but a question about it: What ever ended up happening with this? I spent a fair amount of time searching online, and I couldn’t find any information about whether a charity had been selected, or whether a panel was formed, and if so how it was formed and who was/is on it. I also can’t find any information about how the charity or panel disbursed the money from the proceeds of the sale of Obiang’s assets. It’s been over five years since the settlement, so I assume whatever was going to happen has happened already. But strangely, though there are lots of references in various recent publications and articles to the provision of the 2014 settlement that calls for the money to be used for charitable purposes in Equatorial Guinea rather than returned to the government, I can’t find any sources that discuss what actually ended up happening. This is not a trivial question, since several people (including on this blog) expressed skepticism that it was possible for a model like this to work in a country like Equatorial Guinea, where there isn’t much/any space for a genuinely independent civil society to operate.

I’m sure there’s a simple answer to my factual question, and I’m probably just not looking in the right place. So I’m hoping someone out there in reader-land can help me. What ended up happening to the proceeds recovered from the sale of Obiang’s assets? Did the parties agree on a charity? If so, which one, and what did it do with the money? Or was the three-person panel formed to handle the money? If so, how was it formed, who was on it, and what did it do with the money? Anyone have any idea?

Declinations-with-Disgorgement in FCPA Cases Don’t Worry Me: Here’s Why

Among those who follow Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement practices, there’s been a spate of commentary on a few recent cases in which the Department of Justice (DOJ) has resolved FCPA cases with a formal decision not to prosecute (a “declination”) that includes, as one of the reasons for (and conditions of) the declination, the target company’s agreement to disgorge to the U.S. Treasury the profits associated with the (allegedly) unlawful conduct. Disgorgement is a civil remedy rather than a criminal penalty (as the U.S. Supreme Court recently emphasized); it is often employed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which has civil FCPA enforcement authority over issuers on U.S. exchanges. Until recently, however, the DOJ – which has civil FCPA enforcement authority with respect to non-issuers, and criminal enforcement authority in all FCPA matters – had not sought disgorgement very often, and the recent “declination-with-disgorgement” resolutions appear to be something new, at least in the FCPA context.

Not everyone is happy with this development. Last week, for example, Professor Karen Woody posted an interesting commentary over at the FCPA Blog (based on a longer academic paper) on why the emergence of declinations-with-disgorgement in FCPA cases is an “alarming” development that makes her “queasy.” Professor Woody is an astute and knowledgeable FCPA commentator, and I’m hesitant to disagree with her—especially since I’m not really an FCPA specialist in the way that she is—but I’m having trouble working up a comparable level of alarm. Indeed, my knee-jerk reaction is to view the declination-with-disgorgement as a useful mechanism, one that would often be the most appropriate one to employ to resolve FCPA violations by a company that is not subject to SEC jurisdiction, and eliminating this mechanism might force the DOJ to employ a worse alternative.

Let me start by laying out the affirmative case for declinations-with-disgorgement, and then I’ll turn to Professor Woody’s concerns. Continue reading

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

Guest Post: Paris Court Rules That a US FCPA Guilty Plea Precludes Subsequent Prosecution in France

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris office of Debevoise & Plimpton, who contributes the following guest post:

Overseas bribery and similar crimes can often be investigated by prosecutors in more than one country. But does (or should) the resolution of a criminal investigation in one country—say, through a negotiated resolution—bar subsequent prosecutions in other countries for the same underlying conduct? In earlier posts, I have explored some recent rulings that address aspects of this debate over so-called “international double jeopardy” (see here, here and here). A recent decision of the Paris Court of Appeals added an interesting new element to this debate. Faced with a classic situation of parallel prosecutions, the Paris Court held that an individual who had pleaded guilty in the United States for violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) could not be prosecuted under French anti-bribery law—not because of the standard international double jeopardy principle, but rather because, according to the Paris Court, the US proceedings deprived the defendant of the right to defend himself protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The facts of the case are simple: an individual entered into a written plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in which the defendant agreed to plead guilty in a US court to FCPA charges, on which he was subsequently sentenced. He was separately bound over for trial in France under French anti-bribery laws, apparently for the same underlying conduct.  In affirming the dismissal of the French prosecution, the Paris Appellate Court’s reasoning proceeded in two steps: Continue reading

What Might We Learn from the (Predicted) Walmart Settlement?

My post two weeks ago discussed reports that Walmart is on the verge of reaching a settlement with the U.S. government regarding allegations that several of Walmart’s foreign subsidiaries violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and that the total penalties that Walmart would pay would be around $300 million. That may sound like a big number, but it’s much smaller than the $1 billion penalty some commentators predicted when the investigation got under way, and only half of the $600 million the U.S. government was reportedly demanding as recently as last October.

As I write this, a settlement still hasn’t been formally announced, though it’s possible it will have been by the time this post is published. (I’m traveling this week, so I wrote this post a several days in advance and wasn’t able to update it to reflect any developments that may have occurred in the last 72 hours or so.) But let’s assume for the moment that the media reports are accurate, and that sometime this year – approximately six years after Walmart first disclosed to the SEC and DOJ that it might have an FCPA problem – the case settles for around $300 million. What would we learn from that?

Or perhaps I should frame the question more starkly, at the risk of oversimplification:

  • There are a bunch of folks out there (the “FCPA Reform” crowd) who argue that the U.S. government’s approach to FCPA enforcement is out of control, with the government imposing enormous and unjustified costs on companies for relatively minor and/or unproven infractions. The government can do this, the argument goes, because the government has corporations over a barrel: most corporations can’t risk being indicted for FCPA violations, and so (the FCPA Reform crowd asserts) the government can and does extract exorbitant settlements with little regard to whether the government’s legal theories have an adequate basis in law and fact.
  • Then there are a bunch of folks (lat’s call them the “FCPA, A-OK” crowd) who think that the aforementioned concerns are grossly exaggerated, and that in fact the U.S. government’s FCPA enforcement posture is reasonable, grounded in a plausible view of the law, and that allegations of overreaching don’t withstand critical scrutiny. (And then of course there are those who think that the government isn’t nearly aggressive enough in enforcing the FCPA, and that in fact both the resources devoted to investigation and enforcement, as well as the penalties, should be increased dramatically.)

If the Walmart settlement resembles what the most recent media reports predict, I think that both the “FCPA Reform” crowd and the “FCPA, A-OK” crowd can and will find material to support their positions. Continue reading