The US Can (Probably) Charge Bribe-Taking Foreign Officials as Conspirators or Accomplices in FCPA Cases

Given everything else that’s happening related to corruption right now (much of it awful), perhaps it’s a mistake for me to be spending so much time thinking about fairly narrow doctrinal issues related to applications of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). But my reflections on the recent court of appeals decision in US v. Hoskins (which held that a foreign national could not be charged as an accomplice or co-conspirator in an FCPA violation based on conduct occurring abroad) have gotten me thinking about—and questioning—what I had assumed was a well-settled and straightforward conclusion that the foreign official who takes a bribe from a person or entity covered by the FCPA cannot be charged with aiding and abetting, or conspiring to commit, that FCPA violation.

That conclusion—that bribe-taking foreign officials may not be charged as accomplices or co-conspirators in FCPA cases—was announced by a US court of appeals in 1991 in a case called United States v. Castle. In Castle, according to the allegations (which for present purposes I’ll assume to be true), two private US businessmen paid a $50,000 bribe to two Canadian government officials in order to win a contract to provide public buses to the provincial government. The US government charged the American citizens with violating the FCPA—which, if the facts are as alleged, they clearly did. The Canadian officials cannot directly violate the FCPA, which by its terms prohibits only covered entities from giving (or promising or offering) bribes to foreign public officials; the FCPA does not criminalize the act of taking a bribe. But in the Castle case, the US government tried to get around this problem by charging the Canadian officials with conspiracy to violate the FCPA, pursuant to the federal conspiracy statute, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 371. That section makes it a separate crime (“conspiracy”) for “two or more persons [to] conspire … to commit any [federal] offense,” as long as “one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy.” According to the U.S. government’s theory of the case, once the Canadian officials agreed with the US businessmen to accept money in exchange for a public contract, they had all conspired to commit a federal crime, and once the US businessmen took action in furtherance of this conspiracy (by paying the money), all the parties, including the Canadian officials, were liable as co-conspirators. The US district judge rejected that theory, and the court of appeals affirmed, simply endorsing and reprinting (with one minor correction) the district judge’s ruling.

Since Castle, so far as I can tell, this principle that the US government can’t prosecute bribe-taking foreign officials as conspirators in an FCPA violation (or, similarly, as accomplices to an FCPA violation under another statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2(a)), seems to have become generally accepted, largely unchallenged by the US government, and treated as clearly correct as matter of legal doctrine. And it matters a great deal as a policy matter: If the Castle ruling had gone the other way, than the FCPA—complemented by the general conspiracy and complicity statutes—would give the US government a very powerful tool, for better or worse, to prosecute bribe-taking foreign government officials, at least those with sufficient ties to the US to establish personal jurisdiction (an important qualification I’ll return to later). I’d always assumed, without much reflection, that Castle was rightly decided. But after some digging into the case law, prompted largely by the more recent decision in Hoskins, and re-reading the Castle opinion, I think that Castle’s broad holding is doctrinally incorrect. If certain other conditions hold, a bribe-taking foreign official can be guilty as an accomplice to or co-conspirator in an FCPA violation, even though the foreign official could not directly violate the FCPA. Continue reading