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Amicus Brief Filed Urging The Supreme Court To Hear “Foreign Official” Challenge

This [1] previous post highlighted the petition for certiorari filed in the Supreme Court requesting the Court hear U.S. v. Esquenazi (the recent 11th Circuit decision of first impression in which the court concluded that certain state-owned or state-controlled enterprises  (SOEs) can be “instrumentalities” of a foreign government such that employees of SOEs can be “foreign officials” under the FCPA).

Last week, the Washington Legal Foundation [2] and the Independence Institute [3] joined to file this amicus brief [4] in support of Petitioners as to Question 1 of the Petition (the “foreign official” issue).

Under the heading “Summary of Argument,” the brief states as follows.

“This case presents an issue of exceptional importance to the business community. Although the FCPA was adopted nearly 40 years ago, the statute has  been the subject of remarkably few court decisions. The result is that there is very little definitive guidance regarding the statute’s meaning that can assist businesses in avoiding criminal violations, yet they are urgently in need of such guidance in light of the significant increase in FCPA enforcement activity during the past decade.

The issue raised by this case—who are the “foreign officials” to whom the FCPA restricts payments?—is the single greatest source of confusion regarding the scope of the FCPA. Until the Eleventh Circuit ruled in this case, no federal appeals court had addressed that issue. Moreover, amici are unaware of any other cases in the appellate pipeline that raise the issue. The reason for the dearth of cases is readily apparent. Although federal prosecutors have initiated numerous FCPA proceedings in recent years, every large business entity against which a proceeding was initiated has entered into a settlement agreement. In light of the huge negative consequences that would befall any company that contested and lost an FCPA case, businesses are categorically unwilling to challenge in court government assertions that payments it made violated the FCPA. Given the absence of any case law, review is urgently needed to provide the business community with concrete guidance regarding the FCPA’s definition of a “foreign official” (and the subsidiary term “instrumentality”). In the absence of such guidance from this Court, businesses will have to navigate these unsettled waters with only the negligible guidance provided by the decision below—with very little likelihood that other appeals courts will weigh in any time soon. The Eleventh Circuit’s guidance is thin indeed; by stating explicitly that its list of relevant factors is non-exclusive, the appeals court leaves American businesses to guess at when a corporation whose controlling shareholder is a foreign government will be deemed an “instrumentality” of that government for FCPA purposes.

Review is also warranted because the court below has adopted a definition of “instrumentality” that is far broader than anything set forth in the FCPA. The Eleventh Circuit’s definition is inconsistent with the language of § 78dd-2(h)(2)(A) as well as the overall structure of the FCPA. In particular, because the word “instrumentality” appears in conjunction with the  words “department” and “agency,” the maxim noscitur a sociis (a word is known by the company it keeps) calls into doubt the Eleventh Circuit’s decision to include entities within the definition of “instrumentality” that bear little resemblance to the common understanding of a government “department” or “agency.”

The appeals court’s definition is also inconsistent with Congress’s and this Court’s use of the term “instrumentality” in other contexts. In particular, the Court has never used that term in conjunction with a corporation that was not created by the government itself and where the government merely acted in a manner consistent with its (temporary) role as a majority shareholder.

The appeals court’s decision is particularly problematic because it arises in a criminal law context in which an individual’s good-faith disagreement with a prosecutor’s interpretation of a statutory term can (and did here) result in imposition of a lengthy prison term.  The Eleventh Circuit conceded that the word “instrumentality” is capable of multiple meanings. It adopted an extremely broad definition of the term, and at the same time it heightened potential uncertainty by insisting that whether a particular entity is an “instrumentality” of a foreign government is a question of fact to be determined by the jury. Indeed, the universal response among defense lawyers was that the decision left the issue even more muddled than it had been previously. The U.S. Department of Justice has declined to exercise the full extent of its authority to provide safe-harbor guidance that would reduce the level of uncertainty. As a result, the competitiveness of American businesses in overseas markets suffers when companies refrain from engaging in legal activities out of a fear that they might expose themselves to FCPA liability. Review is warranted to resolve that constitutionally intolerable level of uncertainty.

The United States has waived its right to respond to the Petition, perhaps in an effort to signal to the Court that the issues raised are unimportant and thus that review should be denied. The United States cannot in good faith assert that the issues raised herein are not of paramount importance. The principal question raised by the Petition (who qualifies as a “foreign official” for purposes of FCPA payment restrictions?) is at issue in a significant number of the numerous recent FCPA investigations, yet this is the first occasion the question has reached the appellate level, and there is little likelihood that the question will again reach this Court in the foreseeable future. At the very least, the United States ought to be directed to file a response and  explain why it believes that the case is unworthy of the Court’s attention.”