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The FCPA’s Murky “Knowledge” Element

Knowledge is one of the more difficult concepts to distill in criminal law.

The FCPA is no exception, particularly when it comes to the FCPA’s “while knowing” standard set forth in the FCPA’s third party payment provisions which generally prohibit otherwise improper payments to “any person, while knowing that all or a portion of such money or thing of value will be offered, given, or promised, directly or indirectly” to a foreign official. (see 78dd-1(a)(3)).

The third party payment provisions have not always included this “while knowing” standard. When first enacted in 1977 and up until 1988 (when the FCPA was amended), the third party payment provisions had a broader standard and applied if a defendant engaged in the prohibited conduct “while knowing or having reason to know” that all or a portion of such money or thing of value would be offered, given, or promised, directly or indirectly to a foreign official.

In a superb new piece titled, “The ‘Knowledge’ Requirement of the FCPA Anti-Bribery Provisions: Effectuating Or Frustrating Congressional Intent?,” – Kenneth Winer and Gregory Husisian of Foley & Lardner (the “Authors”) conclude that “[t]he DOJ and SEC … now interpret the knowledge requirement so broadly that they have effectively eviscerated the 1988 statutory changes thereby raising an important question: Are the DOJ and SEC frustrating the intent of Congress by ignoring the reason that Congress amended the FCPA?” (see here).

These are the type of questions we like to posed here at the FCPA Professor blog and, for the record, I am glad to see that I am not alone in questioning whether certain aspects of current FCPA enforcement frustrate or contradict Congressional intent in enacting or amending the FCPA.

The authors do a fine job of walking the reader through a concise overview of the “knowledge” element’s legislative history, particularly the 1988 House and Senate bills which sought to amend the “knowledge” element. Reviewing case law cited in the compromise conference report, the Authors conclude that the “intent of the 1988 amendments” was to “address concerns that FCPA intermediary violations could be found where there was no actual knowledge” and that even though “Congress adopted language to cover situations beyond actual knowledge, it did so in a very circumscribed fashion.”

That fashion, according to the Authors, – “[o]nly in the limited circumstances where the party had something very close to actual knowledge – that is, both awareness of a ‘high probability’ that a corrupt payment would be made and a ‘deliberate’ decision to avoid gaining information in a conscious effort to avoid learning the truth – is the knowledge requirement satisfied.”

According to the Authors, the DOJ and SEC, and most FCPA commentators, talk about “willful blindness” or “head in the sand” language, provide a list of red flags, and then state that “failure to follow up on red flags will be treated as knowledge, regardless of the reason why the person did not inquire.”

Suppose a company is aware of a “high probability” that a corrupt payment is being made on its behalf, but that the company, perhaps because of “cost, delay, disruption or likely futility involved” in attempting to conduct an investigation, does not further. Under the “common view,” such a failure to investigate is a form of culpable knowledge.

Nonsense says Winer and Husisian. They note that “[o]f course, failing to conduct sufficient due diligence or ignoring red flags can, in many circumstances, be foolish in the extreme,” but that, as noted in the FCPA’s legislative history and cases cited therein, such “foolishness, in and of itself, cannot constitute a finding that knowledge is present.”

According to the Authors, the “net effect of this attitude is to bring the FCPA back to its original ‘reason to know’ standard” and the current enforcement approach utilizing this standard is nothing more than “implementing an approach that Congress specifically rejected.”

Winer and Husisian close by saying:

“The SEC, DOJ, and many commentators might think it would be best if the knowledge requirement was satisfied by failure to conduct adequate due diligence or the failure to follow up on red flags (even if the defendant was not motivated by a purpose of avoiding knowledge of the corrupt payment). But that is not the policy balance that Congress struck in the 1988 amendments. The agencies should rethink their interpretation of the FCPA and enforce the knowledge requirement as Congress intended.”


Curious as to the Author’s take on the knowledge jury instructions from the Bourke and Green trials this summer? The Bourke jury instructions – thumbs up; the Green jury instructions – thumbs down.

Verdict In … Greens Found Guilty

The third FCPA trial of the summer has concluded and Gerald and Patricia Green (two Los Angeles area film executives) have been found guilty by a federal jury of conspiracy to violate the FCPA, substantive FCPA violations, and other charges (see here for the DOJ New Release).

According to the DOJ release, evidence introduced at trial showed that “beginning in 2002 and continuing into 2007, the Greens conspired with others to bribe the former governor of the [Tourism Authority of Thailand] in order to get lucrative film festival contracts as well as other TAT contracts.” According to the release, the evidence also established that the Green’s attempted to disguise the bribe payments by labeling them “sale commissions” and by making the payments “for the benefit of the former governor through the foreign bank accounts of intermediaries, including bank accounts in the name of the former governor’s daughter and friend.”

Reacting to the verdict, Assistant Attorney General Breuer stated that the DOJ “will not waiver in its fight against corruption, whether perpetrated within our borders or abroad” and that the FCPA “is a powerful tool that the [DOJ] will continue to use in an effort to stop individuals like the Greens who seek to further their own business interests through bribes paid to foreign officials.”

The Greens are to be sentenced in December and the conspiracy and FCPA charges each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

As mentioned, the Green trial was the third FCPA trial of the summer.

The other two were the Bourke matter (see here) and the Jefferson matter (see here).

Leading up to these trials, the FCPA bar and the enforcement officials themselves, predicted that one result of these trials would be greater clarity of some of the FCPA’s murky elements.

While the verdicts were, on balance, pro-DOJ verdicts, the verdicts reached in these trials were not exactly uniform.

Bourke was convicted of conspiracy to violate the FCPA (the case did not proceed to trial on a substantive FCPA violation).

Jefferson was also convicted of conspiracy (although it is not entirely clear if the jury found him guilty of conspiracy to violate the FCPA). However, Jefferson was found not guilty on the substantive FCPA charge (the charge predicated on the “cash in the freezer” allegations).

Have these trials provided any greater clarity as to various FCPA elements as widely predicted?

I think it is far to say that as a result of the Bourke verdict (even though it was not a substantive FCPA trial), the FCPA’s knowledge standard has never been broader, and can be satisfied even when an investor, like Bourke, does not actually pay a bribe, but is merely aware that others may be making bribe payments in a widely viewed corrupt country for the potential benefit of an entity in which he is an investor (see here and here).

Beyond this, I’m not sure that any further clarity as to substantive FCPA elements has resulted from these trials, but I would be interested to hear what others have to say.

Will these trials and the largely pro-DOJ verdicts send a “proceed with caution” message to any individual or corporation faced with an FCPA enforcement action and stiffle legitimate defense theories based on the FCPA’s elements?

I expect so, yet that is indeed unfortunate as a significant portion of FCPA enforcements are based largely on DOJ/SEC’s untested and unchallenged interpretations of the law.

The Bourke Jury Instructions

As those who follow the FCPA are already aware, Frederic Bourke, Jr. was recently found guilty by a federal jury of (among other charges) conspiracy to violate the FCPA for his role in a scheme to bribe “foreign officials” in Azerbaijan in connection with the privatization of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan. See here for the DOJ News Release.

Contrary to numerous media reports, Bourke was not on trial for “violating the FCPA” (the original indictment against Bourke contained substantive FCPA charges, however the superseding indictment removed the substantive FCPA charges in favor of conspiracy charges).

Regardless, the Bourke trial was closely followed by the FCPA bar as FCPA trials are very rare. Because FCPA trials are rare, so too are FCPA jury instructions. The Bourke jury instructions (see here) provide for an interesting, albeit frustrating, read. In instructing the jury on the conspiracy counts, the jury was instructed on the seven elements of an FCPA violation.

“Big picture” these FCPA instructions (which begin on Pg. 23 and which the jury was duty-bound to accept) are a mess.

The problem starts with the second element “interstate commerce” and contains a fundamental misstatement of the law. The instructions say (on pg. 24) that a “domestic concern” (as Bourke is under FCPA-speak) “must have intended to make use of the mails or a means or instrumentality of interstate commerce” in order to violate the FCPA. This is the so-called “territorial” jurisdictional provision found at 78dd-2. However, the 1998 amendments to the FCPA expanded the jurisdictional reach of the FCPA, as applied to “domestic concerns,” by adding an alternative “nationality” jurisdictional provision found at 78dd-2(i) which removes the interstate commerce / U.S. territorial nexus requirements. Thus, a “domestic concern” can be charged and found liable for a substantive FCPA violation even if the prohibited activity took place entirely outside of the U.S. The jury instruction that the “domestic concern” “must have intended to make use of the mails or a means or instrumentality of interstate commerce” is thus just plain wrong.

The second problem is found in what the instructions say is the fifth element of a substantive FCPA violation – the knowledge of payment to a foreign official. The instructions say (on pg. 26-27) that a “foreign official” is: (1) an officer or employee of a foreign government; (2) any department, agency, or instrumentality of such foreign government, or (3) any person acting in an official capacity for or on behalf of such government or department, agency, or instrumentality. So far so good as the instruction merely tracks the language of 78dd-2(h)(2). The problem is the next sentence of the instruction – “[a]n ‘instrumentality’ of a foreign government includes government-owned or government-controlled companies” (see pg. 27).

Where did that come from? Certainly not the text of the FCPA, as the statute does not define the term “instrumentality.” While it is true the the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission take the position that government-owned or government-controlled companies are “instrumentalities” of a foreign government and that all employees of such companies (regardless of rank or title) are thus “foreign officials” under the FCPA, this is an unchallenged and untested legal theory.

As I am exploring in a current work-in-progress, DOJ/SEC’s aggressive interpretation of the “foreign official” element – to include employees of government-owned or government-controlled companies – is ripe for challenge in that it is, among other things, not supported by the FCPA’s extensive legislative history and is undermined by reference to other U.S. statutes which cover foreign or domestic government instrumentalities. Another way to look at it is this way – if the DOJ/SEC’s interpretation were to be applied in an intellectually honest fashion, would not all GM or AIG employees be considered U.S. “foreign officials” because the U.S. government owns or controls those companies?

A further problem with the instructions, is that even accepting the broadness by which the instructions define “foreign official” that term is not used consistently throughout the instructions. For instance, in discussing the sixth element of an FCPA violation – purpose of payment, the instructions interchangeably use the terms “foreign official” and “foreign public official.” (see Pg. 28). Even more confusing is that the instructions, when discussing that solicitation of a bribe is not a defense, (see Pg. 29) say that “[i]t is not a defense that the payment was demanded by a government official as a price for gaining entry into a market or to obtain a contract or other beneift.” Thus, literally in the span of three pages, the instructions refer to the key “foreign official” element of an FCPA violation three different ways – “foreign official,” “foreign public official,” and “government official” even though the later two terms appear nowhere in the statute.

What a mess!

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