Analyzing Settlements in Corruption Cases: A Primer

As prosecutions for bribery and other corruption crimes have ramped up around the world, so too has a practice common in the United States that is now spreading: resolving criminal cases short of full trials.  A prosecution can be cut short three ways.  The first is through a plea bargain.  The defendant admits guilt at some point between the investigation and the rendering of a final verdict.  As the term implies, the admission is the result of a bargain, the defendant receiving something in return, most often a lesser sentence.

The second and third ways are through non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements.  With the former, the prosecution does not charge the accused with a crime even though it has sufficient evidence to do so; in the latter, a charge is filed but immediately set aside.  Like a plea bargain, non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements are the result of an agreement between the accused and prosecutors.

The American practice of settling a criminal case short of a trial has always had its critics.  With an increasing number of countries adopting similar practices, several for the explicit purpose of resolving corruption prosecutions, the concerns about settlement heard in America, along with ones peculiar to corruption cases, are now circulating in a larger international community (examples here, here, and here).  For a paper on developing countries and settlements, I summarize the literature on how to analyze settlements.  It appears below.  I believe it robust enough to apply to any country, but would like to hear readers’ comments. Continue reading

Leniency Agreements Under Brazil’s Clean Company Act: Are They a Good Idea?

Brazil’s 2013 Clean Company Act, the country’s first anti-bribery statute applicable to companies, has grabbed Brazilians’ attention due to its recurrent use in the context of the so-called Car Wash operation. The Clean Company Act has provided the main legal basis for Brazilian public authorities (especially federal prosecutors) to sign leniency agreements with construction corporations whose top executives stand accused of bribing officials in exchange for contracts from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil giant. Under the Act, Brazilian authorities may enter into a leniency agreement as long as the company admits its participation in the illicit act, ceases any further participation, provides full restitution for damage caused, and cooperates fully and permanently with the ongoing investigation. In exchange, the fines can be reduced by up to two-thirds and, more importantly, the cooperating company may be exempted from judicial and administrative sanctions, including suspension or debarment from public contracts. Over the course of the Car Wash investigation, Brazilian authorities have already signed five leniency agreements with some of Brazil’s largest engineering firms, and at least twelve more companies are currently negotiating leniency deals with Brazilian authorities.

But do these sorts of leniency agreements provide for sufficient deterrence of corrupt behavior? And are they consistent with the interest in punishing those companies that have committed a serious crime? Those who defend Brazil’s increasing use of leniency agreements emphasize that a similar approach has proven to be effective in countries like the United States, one of the most successful countries in the world in the fight against corruption. Indeed, the leniency agreements authorized by the Clean Company Act were modeled on the Non-Prosecution Agreements (NPAs) and Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) used by US authorities in white-collar criminal law enforcement. However, Brazil is following the US model precisely at a time when the widespread use of NPAs and DPAs is becoming more controversial, in part because of concerns that these sorts of agreements fail to deter economic crimes and allow high-ranking executives to escape accountability for their crimes (for a summary of the criticisms of those agreements, see here and here). Perhaps more importantly, even if one views the US experience with NPAs and DPAs as successful overall, there are several reasons why this model might be more problematic in the Brazilian context. Continue reading

The Walmart FCPA Investigation Revisited (Again): Some Musings and Speculations on the Most Recent Reports

Earlier this month, there was yet another intriguing story about new developments in the US government’s investigation into possible Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations by the Walmart’s foreign operations. The Walmart case is probably the most high-profile (and controversial) FCPA case of the last decade, and the reports suggest that it may finally be lurching toward a conclusion, though the recent story raises as many questions than it answers.

Before proceeding to the most recent developments, here’s a quick, and admittedly oversimplified, recap: In 2005, Walmart received a report from a disgruntled former employee that its Mexican subsidiary had engaged in an extensive bribery scheme to pay off government officials to speed the opening of new stores. After internal investigation, however, Walmart’s executives decided in 2006 not to take meaningful action or disclose the apparent FCPA violations to the US government. In 2011, Walmart’s new general counsel initiated a review of Walmart’s anticorruption compliance worldwide; this audit revealed evidence of significant problems in several countries, including Mexico, China, Brazil, and India. Around the same time, Walmart learned that reporters from the New York Times were conducting an extensive investigation into bribery allegations involving Walmart’s Mexico operations. In attempt to get out in front of the story, in December 2011 Walmart disclosed to the DOJ and SEC potential FCPA problems in its Mexican subsidiary, but indicated that the problems were limited to a handful of discrete cases. In April and December 2012, the New York Times published two lengthy articles (here and here) detailing extensive bribery by Walmart’s Mexican subsidiary, orchestrated by the subsidiary’s CEO and general counsel—allegations that went far beyond the isolated incidents Walmart had disclosed the previous year. Since then, the DOJ and SEC investigation into Walmart’s alleged FCPA violations—not only in Mexico, but in other foreign subsidiaries as well—has been ongoing.

There have been quite a few twists and turns in the story. Perhaps the most dramatic was the Wall Street Journal’s surprising report, from almost exactly one year ago. The highlights from that report included the claims (from “people familiar with the probe”) that (1)the investigation was nearly complete (and, by implication, the case would be resolved soon); (2) the US government’s investigation had found “few signs of major misconduct in Mexico”; and (3) although the investigation had uncovered evidence of “widespread but relatively small payments” in India, the Walmart case turned out to be “a much smaller case than investigators first expected” that “wouldn’t be likely to result in any sizeable penalty.”

The first of those three claims has been refuted by the passage of time—it’s more than a year after the WSJ story, and the case has still not been resolved. The latter two claims are flatly contradicted by the more recent report published by Bloomberg (also based on anonymous “people familiar with the matter”). According to the Bloomberg report: Continue reading

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

A Different Kind of Quid Pro Quo: Conditional Asset Return and Sharing Anti-Bribery Settlement Proceeds

In my last couple of posts, I’ve returned to a theme I’ve written about before: My skepticism about claims that the U.S. government either should (as a matter of policy) or must (under UNCAC or other legal obligations) share settlement proceeds in FCPA cases with the governments of the countries where the bribery took place. I’m also skeptical that there’s any obligation on the part of U.S. or other supply-side enforcers to use any of this settlement money to fund NGO-sponsored projects in (or for the benefit of) those countries.

Asset recovery, however, is different. When the U.S. (or some other country) identifies – at its own initiative or pursuant to the request of another government – assets held in the U.S. that have been stolen from a foreign government, my reading of the law (both conventional domestic legal principles and Chapter V of UNCAC) is that the U.S. has an unconditional legal obligation to return those assets to their rightful owner. At times, the U.S. has indicated that, although it has a general policy of returning stolen assets to the governments from which they were stolen, it does not view this as a legal obligation. Rather, the U.S. seems to want to leave open the option, in some cases, of attaching conditions to the return of the assets, or funneling them through NGOs or other bodies, rather than simply turning them over to the claimant government. I understand why the U.S. has taken this position: Returning assets stolen assets to a claimant government with a reputation for pervasive corruption—where it seems highly likely much of the money will be stolen again—seems awfully unappealing, and doubly so in those cases where the government officials who stole the money in the first place, or their family members and cronies, retain their power and influence in the claimant country. Hence the instinct to attach conditions to the return of the assets, or to use the money to fund NGOs rather than simply turn it over to the claimant government. The problem, though, is that I’m hard-pressed to come up with a legal basis (notwithstanding some valiant attempts) for doing anything other than handing over the money.

So, the situation as it stands looks something like this (and I acknowledge simplifying quite a bit to make things a tad neater than they actually are): On the one hand, many developing countries want wealthy countries like the U.S. to share foreign bribery settlement proceeds with the countries where the bribery took place, but for the most part the wealthy countries do not want to do this, and assert—correctly—that they are under no obligation to do this under UNCAC or any other legal instrument. On the other hand, many wealthy countries would like to retain the flexibility to attach conditions to asset return (or to use seized assets to fund NGO programs rather than turning the money over to the governments), but the claimant countries in the developing world assert—correctly—that there is a legal obligation (enshrined in UNCAC) to return stolen assets, without strings attached.

Framing the issue this way suggests a possible compromise. (In the interests of disclosure, I should say that this is not my original idea: It came up in a conversation I had recently with an analyst at an anticorruption NGO, but since I haven’t had the chance to clear it with him, I won’t name the person or organization here.) The trade would go like this: Continue reading

Laissez-nous Faire: France is Forgoing an Opportunity to Fight Corruption, But Maybe It is the Wrong One

In an ongoing exchange on this blog, Susan Hawley and Matthew Stephenson have debated the desirability and practicality of global standards for the settlement of foreign bribery cases (see here, here, here, and here). A key country at issue in this discussion is France, which has bucked the trend among its peer nations – including the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany – toward resolving foreign corruption cases through negotiated resolution. In fact, France has increasingly come under fire from organizations like the OECD, the EU, and Transparency International for its failure to hold corrupt companies accountable at all – over the past 16 years, the French government has not secured a single corporate conviction for overseas bribery. As Sarah convincingly argued on this blog, the reason is not that French companies are less corrupt or that French authorities are less capable, but rather that procedural barriers prevent productive investigation and resolution of cases. Primarily, the French civil law system lacks a settlement mechanism by which companies can negotiate lighter penalties in exchange for fines and cooperation. France is thus an important target for legal and policy reform affecting out-of-court settlement procedures.

Until very recently, the French government was poised to undertake such reform. Late last year, French Minister of Finance Michel Sapin developed legislation aimed at strengthening the fight against corruption. The draft version of Loi Sapin II, as it is known, contained provisions that put in place a new national anticorruption agency with investigative and oversight powers, enhanced compliance requirements, greater protections for whistleblowers, and stricter disclosure protocols for public officials. The most powerful and controversial element of Loi Sapin II, however, was the “convention de compensation d’intérêt public” (CCIP). Also known as a transaction pénale, the CCIP is a settlement mechanism modeled on the American deferred prosecution agreement (DPA). This tool would have allowed agreements between companies and the government, by which an accused corporation would institute compliance measures and pay fines (capped at 30% of average revenue over the preceding three years) in lieu of facing prosecution.

Just before the text of the law was formally presented, however, the Conseil d’État – the government body that must review draft legislation sponsored by non-parliamentarians before it can be introduced in Parliament – issued a negative opinion on the CCIP. When the text was submitted to the government on March 30, it did not include the transaction pénale. Procedurally speaking, the provision isn’t yet dead – it may still be reintroduced by members of Parliament. Nevertheless, the opinion of the Conseil d’État says a lot about France’s approach to anticorruption, trends in global enforcement, and the prospects for universal settlement standards in a world where legal cultures differ substantially.

Continue reading

Against Global Standards in Corporate Settlements in Transnational Anti-Bribery Cases

A couple weeks ago, Susan Hawley, the policy director of the UK-based NGO Corruption Watch, published a provocative post on this blog calling for the adoption of “global standards for corporate settlements in foreign bribery cases.” Her post, which drew on a recent Corruption Watch report on the use (and alleged abuse) of the practice of resolving foreign bribery enforcement actions through pre-indictment diversionary settlements—mainly deferred-prosecution and non-prosecution agreements (DPAs/NPAs)—echoed similar arguments advanced in a joint letter sent by Corruption Watch, Transparency International, Global Witness, and the UNCAC Coalition to the OECD, on the occasion of last month’s Ministerial meeting on the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.

A central concern articulated in Ms. Hawley’s post, as well as the CW report and the joint letter, is the fear that corporate settlements too often let companies off too easily–and let responsible individuals off altogether–thus undermining the deterrent effect of the laws against transnational bribery. I’m sympathetic to the concern about inadequate deterrence, but unconvinced by the suggestion that over-reliance on DPAs/NPAs is the real problem. (Indeed, I tend to think that under-use of these mechanisms in other countries, such as France, is a far greater concern.) My last post took up that set of issues. But, as I noted there, the question whether the U.S. use of settlements is (roughly) appropriate is conceptually distinct from the question whether there ought to be global standards (or guidelines) on the use of such settlements. After all, while one could object to U.S. practices and call for (different) global guidelines—as Corruption Watch does—one could also object to U.S. practices but still resist attempts to develop global guidelines. Or one could not only endorse current U.S. practices, but also call for global guidelines that similarly endorse those practices. And then there’s my position: basically sympathetic to the general U.S. approach to corporate settlements in FCPA cases, and generally skeptical of the case for global guidelines.

Having spent my last post elaborating some of the reasons for my former instinct, let me now say a bit about the reasons I’m unconvinced by the call for global guidelines on corporate settlements (or at least why I think such calls are premature): Continue reading