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

Wake Me Up When the Walmart Case Actually Settles

Big news in the world of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Enforcement! According to a report earlier this month in Bloomberg, the U.S. government’s investigation into allegations that Walmart’s subsidiaries abroad (particularly in Mexico, India, Brazil, and China) engaged in extensive bribery of public officials, is about to wrap up! “People familiar with the matter” report that the settlement is nearing finalization, and that Walmart will end up paying penalties that are much smaller than the U.S. government originally sought. All of us FCPA nerds should be on pins and needles awaiting the imminent announcement of the settlement, which should come out any day now…

… or maybe not. Maybe this time the news is for real, and we’re about to see a settlement announcement, in which case there will certainly be something important to write about. But at the moment, what I find more interesting is the succession of stories, spread out over a nearly two-year period, that suggested that a Walmart settlement was just around the corner. To recap:

  • In October 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to unnamed “people familiar with the probe,” the Walmart matter was about to be wrapped up–and the fine was going to be much smaller than originally predicted, because it turned out (according to the WSJ’s sources) that the FCPA violations were not as serious or widespread as had been previously reported.
  • Almost exactly one year later, in October 2016, Bloomberg reported (on the basis of conversations with “three people familiar with the matter”) that, contrary to the previous WSJ report, although the US government encountered difficulties making out the FCPA violations in Mexico (not so much because of lack of evidence of misconduct, but rather because the most egregious conduct was outside of the statute of limitations), the government had evidence of misconduct elsewhere, and was seeking a penalty of around $600 million. According to that report, Walmart was still resisting, but the report nonetheless indicated that the administration was “working to wrap up an agreement before a new administration takes over in January [2017].”
  • Approximately nine months later, Bloomberg’s latest report states that, “according to people familiar with the matter,” Walmart is preparing to settle the case for $300 million – about half of what the government sought.

Now, though my initial reaction, given this history, is to take reports of imminent settlement with a grain of salt, I hasten to add that none of these reports are inconsistent with each other, or with the claim in the most recent report that a settlement announcement is imminent. Indeed, one could reconstruct roughly the following timeline of events, which I think is probably the best way to understand what’s going on: Continue reading

France’s New Anticorruption Law — What Does It Change?

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

The ineffectiveness of French efforts to combat overseas bribery is well-known if not entirely understood. Put most simply, in the 17 years since France adopted comprehensive anti-bribery legislation, essentially similar to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), France has not convicted a single corporation of classic overseas bribery under that legislation. This shortfall has been regularly documented in periodic reports by the OECD, and by NGOs such as Transparency International and others. Its causes are complex. They may include a simple deficit in willpower, but as others as well as I have pointed out, French criminal procedures, and in particular the difficulty of demonstrating corporate responsibility under French criminal law, impede effective prosecution.

Stung by the fact that four very large French companies entered into a variety of guilty pleas or deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) with US authorities, pursuant to which these companies paid well over $2 billion in fines and other payments to the US treasury, in December 2016 the French legislature finally adopted a long-pending law, known as the Loi Sapin II, which progressively goes into effect during 2017. The law is unmistakably a reaction to US success in prosecuting French companies under the FCPA: it only applies to corporations, and only to allegations of overseas corruption or other crimes very similar to those prosecutable under the FCPA.

Several of new law’s provisions are unexceptional: it creates a new Anticorruption Agency, called the AFA, to replace an existing agency, known as the SCPC, which was widely viewed as ineffective; the law requires medium- and large-sized companies to adopt compliance programs pursuant to criteria to be developed by the AFA. (While the AFA can impose administrative sanctions for absent or deficient compliance programs, it will have no criminal investigative authority). The new law also slightly extends the territorial reach of French anti-bribery laws to make them applicable to companies that “carry out all or part of their economic activity on French territory,” and enhances whistleblower protection available under existing laws. But the Loi Sapin II’s most ambitious innovation by far is a series of amendments to the French Code of Criminal Procedure to permit negotiated outcomes generally similar to DPAs as practiced for many years in the United States, and since 2014 in the United Kingdom, that result in the payment of fines and other penalties but not in a criminal judgment. Under the new provisions, a French corporation may enter into an agreement, known as a “Judicial Convention in the Public Interest” (JCPI), under which the firm admits facts sufficient to show the commission of a relevant crime, and agrees to a fine that may be as high as 30% of the company’s annual turnover for the prior three years. The company may also agree to the imposition of a corporate monitor, to be supervised by the AFA. Continue reading

Guest Post: Why Disclosures in Foreign Settlements Don’t Spur Domestic Prosecutions in Argentina

Natalia Volosin, a doctoral candidate at Yale Law School and clerk in the Asset Recovery Unit at Argentina’s Attorney General’s Office, contributes the following guest post (adapted and from an op-ed previously published in Spanish in the Argentine newspaper Infobae):

The so-called “Lavo Jato” investigation into bribery and money laundering at Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras led to the biggest transnational bribery settlement in history: In December 2016, the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht reached a settlement with law enforcement authorities in the United States, Brazil, and Switzerland; in exchange for its guilty plea, Odebrecht and its affiliate Braskem agreed to pay the three countries a total of $3.5 billion, of which the first firm alone will pay $2.6 billion. (Odebrecht agreed that the total criminal penalty amounts to $4.5 billion, but the final number will be determined according to its ability to pay, though it will be no less than $2.6 billion.) According to the agreement, Brazil will get 80 per cent of the penalty, while the United States and Switzerland will get 10 per cent each.

Some hope that the Odebrecht settlement will provide a boost to anticorruption investigations in other countries. After all, in the settlement documents, the firm acknowledged to having made illegal payments worth $788 million between 2001 and 2016, not only in Brazil, but in a dozen countries including Angola, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. In Argentina specifically, Odebrecht admitted that between 2007 and 2014, in three separate infrastructure projects, it paid intermediaries a total of $35 million knowing that they would be partially transferred to government officials. These criminal practices earned the company a $278 million benefit—a return on “investment” of over 694% (the highest among all the recipient countries). Will these revelations have significant consequences for the prosecution of corruption cases in Argentina?

The answer is probably no, at least not in the short term. Continue reading