What Was the Holdup on the Walmart FCPA Settlement? Some Wild Guesses

Most Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases don’t attract much attention outside of a relatively small circle of lawyers, compliance specialists, anticorruption activists, and other FCPA nerds. But every once in a while a case comes along that gets a bit more attention from the mainstream media, or at least from the general business press. The Walmart case is one such example. The greater attention to that case is probably due to some combination of the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporting on bribes allegedly paid by Walmart’s Mexican subsidiaries—allegations that helped get this case rolling—as well as the fact that the retail giant is more of a household name than, say, Alcatel or Och-Ziff.

As most readers of this blog (a group in which I imagine FCPA nerds are overrepresented) are likely aware, the Walmart case finally settled in late June, with the total monetary penalties coming to about $283 million. I already did a bunch of blog posts on the Walmart case while it was in process—including, perhaps most relevant now, a piece two years ago reflecting on what lessons we might learn if the case settled for somewhere in the neighborhood of about $300 million, which several news outlets had declared was about to happen. And since the announcement of the settlement this past June 20, there’s been no shortage of commentary on the case in the FCPA blogosphere (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). So I don’t have too much to add to the discussion.

I did, however, want to address one relatively small but intriguing puzzle. As I just mentioned, back in May 2017, news outlets reported that the Walmart case was on the verge of settling, for somewhere in the vicinity of $300 million. Over two years later, in June 2019, the Walmart case settled… for an amount very close to $300 million. So, what was the holdup? If the parties had basically worked out the amount that Walmart was going to have to pay back in May 2017, why did it take another two years to finalize the settlement? Neither side has an obvious incentive to delay: Walmart would like to put this behind it and stop paying its expensive lawyers, and the DOJ and SEC’s respective FCPA units have limited staff and a ton to do, and would also like to get the case over and done with. It’s possible that the delay was due to haggling over the exact penalty amount, or that Walmart thought maybe it could get a better deal from the Trump Administration and so decided to hold out, or perhaps there was some last-minute development that one side or the other thought might justify substantial shift in the settlement amount, even if in the end it didn’t. But I would guess (and it really is just a guess) that the two-year delay was due to one or both of the following two factors: Continue reading

The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention Should Ensure a Fair Distribution of Settlement Recoveries

In December 2016, the United States, Brazil, and Switzerland announced that they had concluded plea agreements with the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht and its affiliate Braskem, in which the companies admitted their culpability in extensive bribery schemes involving upwards of US$800 million in bribes paid in a dozen countries—mainly though not exclusively in Latin America—and agreed to pay approximately US$3.5 billion in penalties to the US, Brazilian, and Swiss authorities. But with the exception of Brazil, none of the countries where the bribes were actually paid were entitled to receive any compensation under these plea agreements.

In fairness, the plea agreement with Odebrecht did require the company to cooperate with foreign law enforcement and regulatory agencies in any future investigation into related misconduct by Odebrecht or any of its current or former officers, directors, employers, or affiliates. The plea agreement further required Odebrecht to truthfully disclose all non-privileged factual information, and to make available its officers, employees, and affiliates, to foreign law enforcement authorities. Additionally, under the terms of the plea deal Odebrecht consented to US federal authorities sharing with foreign governments all documents and records that the company had provided to the US authorities in the course of the investigation into Odebrecht’s violation of US law. 

These well-intentioned provisions seem to have been included specifically to ensure that enforcement agencies of other countries could pursue their own actions against Odebrecht and its officers. But the plea agreements did not create a formal mechanism that enables foreign enforcement agencies to ask the DOJ, Swiss authorities, or Brazil to impose sanctions for breach of these conditions. If Odebrecht fails to fully cooperate with foreign enforcement agencies, that foreign government’s only recourse would be to try to convince (presumably through informal channels) the US, Brazilian, or Swiss authorities to sanction Odebrecht for breaching the plea agreement. But it’s unlikely that those governments will have much appetite for assessing these claims of non-cooperation. Furthermore, even if other countries do bring their own cases, the penalties imposed by the US, Switzerland, and Brazil were so high that Odebrecht simply doesn’t have the money to pay sufficient fines to other countries, at least in the short run.

The Odebrecht case may be unusual in its size, but it is not unique. It is therefore useful to reflect on whether the international community should adopt new mechanisms governing how the fines or reparations recovered in settlements of cross-border bribery cases are distributed, in order to ensure proportionality and fairness, particularly to victim nations. The most promising way forward would be to amend the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.The Convention already requires (in Article 4) that Convention parties shall consult with each other to determine which is the most appropriate jurisdiction for prosecution, and also requires (in Article 9) that Convention parties provide, to the fullest extent possible, “prompt and effective legal assistance” to any other Convention party concerning investigations and proceedings within the scope of the Convention. But the Convention does not explicitly address other forms of cooperation, such as ensuring fairness in the distribution of monetary recoveries. The Convention should be amended to include additional language that covers this topic, as follows: Continue reading

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