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The FCPA Need Not Be The Grinch That Steals The Holiday Spirit

Grinch

Media sources (as well as FCPA practitioners) are always looking for fresh angles regarding Foreign Corrupt Practices Act topics.  So as the holidays approach, it was not surprising to find articles (here “Making a List and Checking It Twice … Compliance Tips for Holiday Business Gifts” and here “7 Potential FCPA Pitfalls For the Holiday Season”) discussing the FCPA risks of holiday gift giving.

Yes, certain FCPA enforcement actions have involved gift giving, including in connection with holidays and festivals – such as Chinese New Year and India’s Diwali Festival.

However, as previously highlighted in this post (a review of the book “Suspicious Gifts“), throughout human history, gifts have been a respected and legitimate form of gratitude and generosity, serving as a social glue important to any cohesive society. However, and invoking a concept from the book, in this new era of anti-corruption enforcement, everything it seems is viewed through a “bribery gaze.”

  • When you want to be generous – it could be bribery!
  • When you want to be friendly – it could be bribery!
  • When you allow yourself to be invited – it could be a bribe!
  • When you accept a present or prize – it could be a bribe!

This “bribery gaze” has social and public policy consequences. As the author of the book argued:

“Campaigns to eliminate these gift exchanges are at the same time campaigns to restrict the gamut of courtesy or ritual exchanges. The manifestations of courtesy, gratitude, and social bonds, which are so important as social glue in any cohesive society, are not just called into question, but criminalized.”

The holiday season ought not be gift-less because of the FCPA or any other similar law.

Indeed, as the DOJ/SEC issued FCPA Guidance states:

“A small gift or token of esteem or gratitude is often an appropriate way for business people to display respect for each other. Some hallmarks of appropriate gift-giving are when the gift is given openly and transparently, properly recorded in the giver’s books and records, provided only to reflect esteem or gratitude, and permitted under local law.  […] The FCPA does not prohibit gift-giving. Rather, just like its domestic bribery counterparts, the FCPA prohibits the payments of bribes, including those disguised as gifts.”

My own two cents on the FCPA risks of gift giving around the holidays is as follows.

During this upcoming season of giving, I think it would be wise for companies not to view everything through a bribery gaze, but with a sense of practicality. The corporate community – which is frequently bombarded with doomsday scenario after scenario by FCPA Inc. – sometimes needs to take a step back to realize that in order to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions there has to be corrupt intent. While it may seem a bit counterintuitive, gift giving during the holidays can actually be less risky because it is the holiday season and gestures of good will are common.  Companies should be more concerned with a gift that occurs outside the normal periods of gift giving.

Gifts And The “Bribery Gaze”

[I originally published this post as a book review on Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Book (a joint project of Rutgers School of Law-Newark and Rutgers School of Criminal Justice) and it is republished below with permission.]

Throughout human history, gifts have been a respected and legitimate form of gratitude and generosity, serving as a social glue important to any cohesive society. Yet at the same time, gifts have been offered to seek influence, have compromised the integrity of the gift recipient, and have thus represented a form of bribery.

These divergent realities are the subject of Professor Malin Akerstrom’s engaging new book “Suspicious Gifts.” Professor Akerstorm, a Swedish sociologist by discipline, examines the everyday dilemmas faced by low-level professionals working in the public sector and the business persons who interact with such public officials to chart the ambiguity between legitimate gifts and illegitimate bribery.

Acknowledging the corrupting power of gifts, Professor Akerstrom is nevertheless critical of contemporary anticorruption efforts that seemingly label all gifts as blameworthy or even criminal. Invoking the phrase the “bribery gaze” on a number of occasions, Professor Akerstorm highlights the following warnings found in anti-corruption literature.

  • When you want to display hospitality – it could be bribery!
  • When you want to be generous – it could be bribery!
  • When you want to be friendly – it could be bribery!
  • When you take self-promoting measures – it could be corrupt marketing!
  • When you allow yourself to be invited – it could be a bribe!
  • When you accept a present or prize – it could be a bribe!
  • If you don’t say no thanks or decline a perk in time – it could be corruption!

These circumstances, of course, are not academic, but present in real-world bribery enforcement actions. While the Swedish examples Professor Akerstrom highlights may be foreign to most readers outside of that region, gifts are also frequently alleged as bribes in U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement actions. For example, recent FCPA enforcement actions have involved: flowers, cigarettes, bottles of wine; karaoke bars; and tea sets.

As Professor Akerstrom rightly notes however, the current “bribery gaze,” in which everything seems to be transformed into a hazard, a trap or criminal bribery, is not without social and public policy consequences. She persuasively argues:

“Campaigns to eliminate these gift exchanges are at the same time campaigns to restrict the gamut of courtesy or ritual exchanges. The manifestations of courtesy, gratitude, and social bonds, which are so important as social glue in any cohesive society, are not just called into question, but criminalized.”

In this new era of enforcement of bribery and corruption laws, many are pounding the table for more enforcement, as if the quantity of enforcement was an inherent good regardless of enforcement theories, resolution vehicles, or collateral social and public policy considerations.

Regarding gifts as a form of bribery, Professor Akerstorm asks, “should the ideal society be gift-less?” With the current “bribery gaze,” expanding theories of enforcement, and risk-averse business organizations responding by eliminating most forms of gratitude and generosity, this appears to be where the winds are blowing.

Yet in “Suspicious Gifts” Professor Akerstorm reminds those in the anti-corruption space – whether practitioner, policy-maker or scholar – that bribery and corruption is seldom the simple and safe issue it appears to be at first blush.  

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