One of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases we’ve been paying relatively more attention to here on GAB is the investigation of JP Morgan’s hiring practices in Asia (mainly China), in connection to allegations that JP Morgan provided lucrative employment opportunities to the children of powerful Chinese officials–both in the government and at state-owned enterprises (SOEs)–in exchange for business. A couple weeks back the Wall Street Journal published a story about the case, indicating that the government and JP Morgan were likely to reach an agreement soon in which the firm would pay around $200 million to settle the allegations. (The WSJ story is behind a paywall, but Thomas Fox has a nice succinct summary of both of the case generally and of the recent developments reported by WSJ.)
I’ll admit that my first reaction, on seeing the WSJ report, was skepticism that we were actually on the verge of seeing a settlement announcement. After all, the last time the WSJ broke a story about an imminent settlement of an FCPA case we’ve been following here on GAB, it was a story about the Walmart investigation last October; that report said that “most of the work had been completed,” and hinted that the announcement of a (smaller-than-expected) settlement was imminent. It’s now nine months later… and still no settlement. Apparently the Walmart case may have gotten more complicated since the WSJ‘s October report, but still, I think there are sometimes good reasons to season these inside scoops with the appropriate grains of salt. But, back to the reports on JP Morgan’s Asian hiring practices.
To me the most interesting feature of the recent report concerns the legal issue that is reportedly the sticking point between the government and JP Morgan. That issue is not the question whether an SOE official is a “foreign official” for FCPA purposes: According to the WSJ report, JP Morgan is not disputing the government’s position that SOE executives, at least in this case, are foreign officials, even though that issue is a major focus of critics who believe the government’s interpretation of the FCPA is too broad. And, the question whether a job for a relative counts as “anything of value”–the question that provoked the extended blog debate between Professor Andrew Spalding and me, as well as a good chunk of the other commentary on the case–also does not seem to be something that JP Morgan is contesting. Rather, at least according to the WSJ report, the big question seems to be whether an offer of a job to an official’s relative, given with the intent to influence that official’s exercise of her duties, is a violation of the FCPA even if there is no quid pro quo–at least if the conduct takes place in a country where preferential hiring for official’s relatives is “standard business practice.”
This seems to be to be a legitimately hard legal question, and one where I’m not yet sure what I think. As our regular readers may know, I’m generally fairly “hawkish” on FCPA enforcement, usually sympathizing with the government’s broad reading. And the text of the FCPA can certainly be read not to require any quid pro quo–indeed, that might be the more natural reading. But in contrast to some of the other accusations of alleged overreach lodged against the US FCPA enforcement agencies, here (if the reports are to be believed) the argument on the other side is fairly strong, both as a matter of law and as a matter of policy. In the end, I think I still come down on the government’s side, both on the legal question and the policy issue. But I’m genuinely conflicted, and would very much like to hear what others think on this one. Continue reading