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Latest FCPA Opinion Procedure Release Reflects High Level Of Anxiety

During last month’s House hearing on the FCPA (see here for the prior post) Representative James Sensenbrenner told Greg Andres (DOJ) that if Andres were the general counsel of a company advising the CEO and everyone else, he would likely be advising the company in the “most narrow way” and “exercising the greatest amount of caution.”

Indeed, the current era of FCPA enforcement has led to a high level of anxiety and skittishness over things that should not, with the end result being overcompliance and inefficient use of resources.

Case in point, the latest FCPA Opinion Procedure Release.

Despite a statutory affirmative defense concerning reasonable and bona fide expenses concerning promotion, demonstration or explanation of products or services, and despite several past “on-point” Opinion Procedure Releases that a first-year associate would be capable of analyzing, the Requestor in Release 11-01 was still apparently skittish enough to go through the time (and no doubt expense) of obtaining a DOJ seal of approval as to conduct that would not raise an eyebrow if directed to a non-foreign official

On June 30th, the DOJ released (here) its first FCPA Opinion Procedure Release of the year – a release dealing with reasonable and bona fide travel expenses in connection with the promotion, demonstration or explanation of products or services – an affirmative defense under the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.

The Requestor was a “U.S. adoption service provider” that “proposes to pay certain expenses for a trip to the United States by one official from each of two foreign government agencies to learn more about the services provided by the Requestor.”

According to the Release, “the two officials will be selected by their agencies, without the involvement of the Requestor” and the Requestor “has no non-routine business pending before the foreign government agencies that employ these officials.”

The Requestor “intends to pay for economy class air fare, domestic lodging, local transport, and meals” and it represented, among other things, that:

it “will host only the designated officials, and not their spouses or family members;”

it “intends to pay all cost directly to the providers [and] no cash will be provided directly to the officials;

any souvenirs to the officials “would reflect Requestor’s business and/or logo and would be of nominal value;” and

it will not “fund, organize, or host any other entertainment, side trips, or leisure activities for the officials, or provide the officials with any stipend or spending money.”

Based on the Requestor’s representations and the above facts and circumstances, the DOJ stated that “the expenses contemplated are reasonable under the circumstances and directly relate to ‘the promotion, demonstration, or explanation of [the Requestor’s] products or services” and therefore the DOJ “does not presently intend to take any enforcement action with respect to the planned program and proposed payments described in the request.”

For additional commentary on the Release 11-01, see here from Thomas Fox (“the question posed to the Department of Justice (DOJ) is so straight-forward, and has been previously asked and answered, that it is difficult to understand how any first year compliance practitioner did not know the answer to it”); here from Howard Sklar (“this is, simply put, not a situation that should have gone to the DOJ”); and here from the FCPA Blog (“in its first FCPA Opinion Procedure Release of 2011, the DOJ confirmed what should be obvious — that the promotional expenses affirmative defense can be used to pay travel expenses of government officials who are being shown a company’s products”).


Two feature articles this week, one from the New York Times the other from Canada’s Globe and Mail, focus on business dealings in Libya.

The New York Times article (here) by Eric Lichtblau, David Rohde and James Risen begins by noting that “some companies, including several based in the United States, appeared willing to give in to” Libya’s demand for monetary contributions to help Libya pay $1.5 billion for its role in the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 – as a condition of continuing to do business in the country.

The article also notes that after the U.S. reopened trade with Libya in 2004, American and international oil companies, telecommunications firms and contractors “discovered that Colonel Qaddafi or his loyalists often sought to extract millions of dollars in “signing bonuses” and “consultancy contracts” — or insisted that the strongman’s sons get a piece of the action through shotgun partnerships.”

Among other examples cited, the articles notes that “in 2008, Occidental Petroleum, based in California, paid a $1 billion “signing bonus” to the Libyan government as part of a 30-year agreement.” According to the article, “Petro-Canada, a large Canadian oil company, made a similar $1 billion payment after Libyan officials granted it a 30-year oil exploration license.”

One strange aspect of the FCPA is that it does not prohibit payments to foreign governments, only foreign officials. See e.g., DOJ Opinion Procedure Release 09-01 (here) stating that the conduct at issue would “fall outside the scope of the FCPA” in that the things of value “will be provided to the foreign
government, as opposed to individual government officials …”.

The Globe and Mail article (here) by Nathan Vanderklippe begins as follows.

“Near the centre of Tripoli sits the bunker, residence and military command post of Moammar Gadhafi. It is hidden behind three concentric rings of defensive walls. It is a fortress that sprawls over six square kilometres. But for much of the past decade, those working hardest to penetrate it have not been citizens rising up against a despot. They have, instead, been wealthy Western companies, intent on wringing riches from the Libyan desert’s massive oil reserves. For some of them, gaining access to Col. Gadhafi – whether directly, or through one of his powerful sons, or through a shadowy network of well-connected “consultants” – was just one of the many challenges of operating in a country some remember as downright bizarre.”

The FCPA Mulligan Rule?

The FCPA Opinion Procedure regulations (here) state that issuers and domestic concerns subject to the FCPA may “obtain an opinion of the Attorney General as to whether certain specified, prospective — not hypothetical — conduct conforms with the Department’s present enforcement policy regarding the antibribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”

Since 1980, the DOJ has issued 55 FCPA opinion procedure releases (see here and here).

In nearly every instance the DOJ expresses an opinion that it does not intend to take any enforcement action as to the disclosed facts or conduct? If my figures are correct, in 54 of the 55 opinion procedure releases (98%) the DOJ expressed such an opinion. [The only exception would appear to be 98-01 (here)].

Perhaps you already knew this, but recently I learned something that may help explain this 98% no enforcement statistic.

What did I learn?

That often times, when the requestor senses that it will not receive a favorable DOJ opinion, it simply withdraws the request. I confirmed that this practice does indeed occur with a former high-ranking DOJ FCPA official and others.

Call it the FCPA mulligan rule.

Sec. 80.15 of the opinion procedure regulations specifically states that “a request submitted under the foregoing procedure may be withdrawn prior to the time the Attorney General issues an opinion to such request.”

But here is the issue as I see it.

How does the requestor get the sense that it will receive an unfavorable DOJ opinion so that it can withdraw the request before the opinion procedure is publicly released?

After all, Sec. 80.09 of the regulations, titled “no oral opinion,” states: “no oral clearance, release or other statement purporting to limit the enforcement discretion of the Department of Justice may be given.”

This would seen to eliminate DOJ oral communications to the requestor as to DOJ’s initial observations which may then motivate the requestor to withdraw the request.

Sec. 80.8 of the regulations requires that the Attorney General “respond to the request by issuing an opinion …”. So if the initial DOJ observation which then motivates the requestor to withdraw the request is communicated in writing, should the writing be made public in the same fashion as the opinions that are actually released? Would this not add to the mix of information available as to the FCPA?

As long as I am in question mode, let me throw out this question (see here for the prior post) – should DOJ’s declination decisions be made public?

At a recent public event, I asked Charles Duross (DOJ FCPA chief) this question and he said (see here) that it was a “difficult issue.” In a recent video (here – start at the 6 minute mark), William Stuckwisch (DOJ) wondered aloud whether DOJ declination decisions should be made public. Last, but not least, in this recent Q&A with Sue Reisinger of Corporate Counsel Billy Jacobson (a former high-ranking DOJ FCPA official) stated: “The Justice Department could publicize cases anonymously that it has not brought because of the company’s actions.”

My Two Cents On The FCPA’s Affirmative Defenses

Students looking for scholarship ideas, should consider the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.


There is a good chance that publication of an article will generate coverage and discussion on the blogosphere and elsewhere.

Case in point is Kyle Sheahen’s “I’m Not Going to Disneyland: Illusory Affirmative Defenses Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.” (see here).

For prior coverage of Sheahen’s article see here, here and here.

Sheahen’s article is about the FCPA’s two affirmative defenses – the so-called local law and promotional expense defenses.

Big picture, Sheahen terms these defenses as being “hollow,” “illusory,” and “useless in practice.”

For starters, I respectfully disagree with Sheahen’s statement that “business and businessmen accused of giving bribes to foreign officials have fared poorly in federal courts” as well as the implication that this somehow supports his thesis.

The three FCPA trials cited from 2009 – Frederick Bourke, William Jefferson, and Gerald and Patricia Greene were a mixed bag for the DOJ, not slam-dunk successes.

For starters, the jury found Jefferson not guilty of substantive FCPA anti-bribery violations (see here).

Sure, Bourke was found guilty by a jury of conspiracy to violate the FCPA and the Travel Act (as well as making false statements to the FBI) (see here), yet when the DOJ alleges that one is a key participant of a “massive bribery scheme” yet secures only a 366 day sentence (see here) from a judge who remarks that “after years of supervising this case, it’s still not entirely clear to me whether Mr. Bourke is a victim or a crook or a little bit of both” – I struggle to put such a case in the decisive “win” category for the DOJ. Plus, Bourke’s case is currently on appeal (see here).

The Green case (see here) would seem to represent the cleanest win for the DOJ even though the sentencing judge expressed concerns whether the Green’s conduct caused any harm in sentencing the couple to six months in prison thereby rejecting the DOJ’s recommended ten year sentence. (See here).

Sheahen’s article was published before the Giffen Gaffe (see here). Giffen aggressively mounted a legal defense and, whether for legal, political or other reasons, the case that began with charges that Giffen made “more than $78 million in unlawful payments to two senior officials of the Republic of Kazakhstan in connection with six separate oil transactions, in which the American oil companies Mobil Oil, Amoco, Texaco and Phillips Petroleum acquired valuable oil and gas rights in Kazakhstan” ended with a one-paragraph superseding information charging a misdemeanor tax violation. Further, back in 2004, Giffen was successful in having FCPA-related criminal charges dismissed when the trial court judge (see here) concluded that the DOJ offered “the slenderest of reeds” to support the collateral criminal charge.

Going back in time …

George McLean won his FCPA case when the Fifth Circuit concluded, see 738 F.2d 655 (5th Cir. 1984) that the FCPA, as it then existed because of the subsequently repealed Eckhardt Amendment, barred prosecution.

Donald Castle and Darrell Lowry (two Canadian “foreign officials”) won their FCPA-related cases, see 741 F.Supp. 116 (N.D. Tex. 1990), when the court dismissed their criminal indictments. The DOJ asserted that even though the officials could not be prosecuted under the FCPA, they could be prosecuted under the general conspiracy statute (18 USC 371) for conspiring to violate the FCPA. However, the court declined DOJ’s invitation to extend the reach of the FCPA through the application of the conspiracy statute to Castle and Lowry.

Richard Liebo was acquitted, following a three week jury trial, of several counts including nine counts of violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions and one count of violating the FCPA’s accounting and record keeping provisions. See 923 F.2d 1308 (8th Cir. 1991). He was found guilty of one FCPA count concerning his company’s purchase of honeymoon airline tickets for the cousin and close friend of Captain Ali Tiemogo, the chief of maintenance for the Niger Air Force. In connection with this conviction, the Eighth Circuit found that the district court “clearly abused its discretion in denying Liebo’s motion for a new trial” and remanded for a new trial.

Hans Bodmer didn’t fare too badly either in 2004 when Judge Shira Scheindlin (the same judge in the Bourke case) held that the portion of the criminal indictment “charging Bodmer with conspiracy to violate the FCPA contravenes the constitutional fair notice requirement, and the rule of lenity demands its dismissal.”

Of course, the DOJ has had its fair share of FCPA successes, but it remains a misperception that FCPA defendants have “fare[d] so badly” in FCPA trials as Sheahen, and others, have asserted.

Returning to the substance of Sheahen’s article, he discusses the October 2008 Bourke decision by Judge Scheindlin (see 582 F.Supp.2d 535) – a case of first impression on the FCPA’s local law defense.

Bourke argued that the FCPA’s local law affirmative defense was applicable because, under Azeri law even though the payments were illegal, he was relieved from criminal responsibility when he reported the payments at issue to the President of Azerbaijan.

Judge Scheindlin disagreed, drawing a hard line between payments – the focus of the FCPA’s local law affirmative defense in her mind – and the related issue of whether a person could not be prosecuted in the foreign country because a provision may relieve that person from criminal responsibility.

Judge Scheindlin concluded that “an individual may be prosecuted under the FCPA for a payment that violates foreign law even if the individual is relieved of criminal responsibility for his actions by a provision of the foreign law.”

I agree with Sheahen’s statement that Judge Scheindlin’s decision of first impression narrowed the FCPA’s local law defense “to the point of extinction.”

I would go a step further and argue that Judge Scheindlin’s decision would seem to violate the basic axiom that a statute should be construed so that effect is given to all of its provisions, so that no part will be inoperative or superfluous, void or insignificant.

In other words, courts should not suppose that Congress intended to enact unnecessary statutes and there is a presumption against interpreting a statute in a way that renders it ineffective.

The local law affirmative defense was added to the FCPA in 1988 and we must presume that Congress intended to enact the affirmative defense for some reason.

It was widely assumed by Congress in 1977 (when the FCPA was enacted), and by the Congress that amended the FCPA in 1988 to include the local law defense as well, that no nation’s written law permitted bribery of its officials.

Yet, given Judge Scheindlin’s narrow construction of the local law defense, the decision would appear to render the local-law defense (a statutory term that must have some meaning) inoperative, superfluous and insignificant.

As to the promotional expense defense, I would respectfully disagree with Sheahen’s apparent conclusion that the defense is meaningless just because it has never been successfully invoked by an FCPA defendant at trial.

Because of the “carrots” and “sticks” the DOJ and SEC possess in an FCPA enforcement action, and because of the resolution vehicles typically offered to FCPA defendants to resolve an FCPA enforcement action (such as non and deferred prosecution agreements) there is much about the FCPA that has never been subjected to judicial scrutiny.

That does not mean however that an element or defense not successfully invoked at trial renders that element or defense meaningless or hallow.

Indeed, Sheahen discusses the FCPA Opinion Procedure Release process. Through this mechanism, those subject to the FCPA have gained degrees of comfort from DOJ “no enforcement” opinions that are based on the promotional expense defense.

Although the Opinion Procedure Releases are not precedent, countless others in the legal, business, and compliance communities find comfort in these releases, as well as the statute itself, when analyzing real-world conduct for potential FCPA exposure.

FCPA enforcement is in need of many fixes and indeed the Opinion Procedure Release process is likely not the best way for the DOJ to make its enforcement positions known.

However, these structural flaws in FCPA enforcement, coupled with the typical ways in which FCPA enforcement actions are resolved, necessarily leads to the conclusion that the FCPA’s affirmative defenses are “hollow,” “illusory,” and “useless in practice.”


I provided Sheahen with my draft post so that he could respond and here is what he said.

“Professor Koehler,

Thank you for your thorough analysis. Although DOJ’s trial record in FCPA prosecutions is not a clean sheet, the government has still been substantively successful in almost every FCPA case that has gone to trial. Further, the fact remains that no FCPA defendant has successfully invoked either the local law or the promotional expenses defense in an FCPA enforcement action.

Also, while I agree that the promotional expenses defense provides some guidelines for compliance with the FCPA, neither it nor the local law defense provide a meaningful defense to an enforcement action. Accordingly, Congress must take action to ensure that individual and corporate defendants have the actual ability to raise the affirmative defenses contemplated by the statutory scheme.

Thanks again and all the best,

Kyle Sheahen

A Narrow Opinion Procedure Release

The DOJ recently issued FCPA Opinion Procedure Release No. 10-03 (see here).

As I discuss in this post, the disclosed facts suggest a broad range of potential issues, but the DOJ’s analysis is strangely narrow and would appear to contain a key acknowledgment (in contrast to prior opinion procedure releases) that local law does indeed matter when determining who is a “foreign official” under the FCPA.

The disclosed facts are as follows.

The “Requestor” is a “limited partnership established under U.S. law,” “headquartered in the U.S.,” and “engaged in development of natural resources trading and infrastructure.”

As described in the release:

“The Requestor is pursuing an initiative with a foreign government regarding a novel approach to particular natural resource infrastructure development. Because the approach is relatively novel and the market is dominated by a consortium of established companies, the Requestor determined that it required assistance in entering into discussions with the foreign government.”

The solution?

According to the release, the Requestor plans to contract with a consultant (a U.S. partnership whose sole owner is a U.S. citizen) who just so happens to have “extensive contacts in the business community and the government in the foreign country” and who “previously and currently holds contracts to represent the foreign government and act on its behalf, including performing marketing on behalf of the Ministry of Finance, and lobbying efforts in the U.S.”

In other words, to get things done in the foreign country, the Requestor would like to turn to someone who knows how to get things done in the foreign country and indeed someone who appears to have a track record of getting things done for the foreign government itself as the consultant is a “registered agent of the foreign government” and has “represented ministries of the foreign government that will play a role in the discussions of the Requestor’s initiative.”

Sounds like plenty of red flags.

In addition, according to the release, “the Consultant will be paid a signing bonus by the Requestor at the time the consulting contract is signed.” Further, the release notes that the “bulk of any payment by the Requestor to the Consultant under the contract will come in the form of success fees, should the Consultant’s efforts result in the foreign government entering into a business relationship with the Requestor.”

Ordinarily, the DOJ views third-party success fees in connection with foreign government business with a high-degree of suspicion.

But not so when it comes to the Requestor’s proposed consultant.

The release contains several “safeguards” the Requestor put in place to “ensure that no conflict of interest would arise between the Consultant’s representation of the Requestor and the Consultant’s separate and unrelated representation of the foreign government.”

Most FCPA enforcement actions involve allegations that a company paid something of value – such as a success fee – to a third-party, such as a consultant, who then provides a portion of the money to a “foreign official” in violation of the FCPA.

The analysis is often whether the company provided the thing of value to the third-party under circumstances that suggest the company was “aware of a high probability” that the thing of value would be passed along to the “foreign official.”

Although the Requestor’s disclosed facts do not suggest a perfect analogy, it is interesting to note that the DOJ’s analysis is not focused on the broad range of potential issues suggested by the disclosed facts.

Rather, in the words of the DOJ, “its opinion is limited to the narrow question of whether the Consultant would be a ‘foreign official’ for purposes of the payments under the consulting contract.”

On this issue, the DOJ stated that because the Consultant is ordinarily “an agent of the foreign government” the Consultant and its employees could be “foreign officials” for purposes of the FCPA “in certain circumstances.”

However, the DOJ was “satisfied that for purposes of the contract with the Requestor” the Consultant will “not be acting on behalf of the foreign government” and that therefore the Consultant is not a “foreign official.”

In its “foreign official” analysis, the DOJ cites local law – a reference to the Requestors disclosure that: “[a]s a matter of law local, the Consultant and its employees are not employees or otherwise officials of the foreign government, and the Requestor has secured a local law opinion that it is permissible for the Consultant to represent both the foreign government and the Requestor at the same time.”

The DOJ’s apparent acknowledgment that local law is indeed relevant in determining who is a “foreign official” under the FCPA is encouraging – even though it stands in contrast to the DOJ’s prior statements in opinion procedure releases.

For instance, in Opinion Procedure Release No. 94-01 (see here) the DOJ opined that a general director of a state-owned enterprise being transformed into a joint stock company is a “foreign official” under the FCPA despite a local law opinion that the individual would not be regarded as either a government employee or a public official in the foreign country.

Similarly, in Opinion Procedure Release No. 08-01 (see here) the DOJ opined that the “Foreign Private Company Owner” at issue was a “foreign official” for purposes of the FCPA notwithstanding the fact that other government officials in the country at issue concluded that the relevant privatization regulations did not apply to the “Foreign Private Company Owner” because he was not a government official for purposes of the regulations.

Even though the DOJ’s analysis in Opinion Procedure Release 10-03 is limited to the narrow question of whether the Consultant “would be a ‘foreign official’ for purposes of the payments under the consulting contract” it does seem to recognize that Requestor’s proposed relationship with the Consultant could perhaps pose some problems.

The substance of DOJ’s analysis ends as follows:

“The Department does not opine on any other aspect of the proposed contract or any other prospective conduct involved in the Request. Indeed, while the Consultant is not a foreign official for FCPA purposes under the limited facts and circumstances described by the Requestor, the proposed relationship increases the risk of potential FCPA violations. This opinion does not foreclose the Department from taking enforcement action should an FCPA violation occur during the execution of the consultancy.”

Requestors are usually able to gain some level of comfort from a DOJ “no enforcement action” opinion in an FCPA Opinion Procedure Release. However, given this last paragraph, the Requestor in Opinion Procedure Release 10-03 may still have some sleepless nights ahead.


As to an oft heard criticism of the FCPA Opinion Procedure Release system – that it takes too long and thus is of little value in a world where business decisions must be made in days or weeks, not months – the release notes that materials were submitted by the Requestor on March 9th, supplemental materials were submitted by the Requestor on August 2nd, and the DOJ release was issued on September 1st.

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