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“Foreign Official” Rewind – Part 2

Rewind

Ten years ago this week, the 11th Circuit released its decision in U.S. v. Esquenazi.

The case was, and remains, the only appellate court decision in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act history to substantively address the FCPA’s “foreign official” element.

As discussed below, the Esquenazi decision was, and remains, a flawed decision.

In pertinent part the court stated:

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“Foreign Official” Rewind

Rewind

Ten years ago this week, the 11th Circuit released its decision in U.S. v. Esquenazi. Set forth below is the post originally published on FCPA Professor on May 16, 2014 summarizing the decision.

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Numerous prior posts (see here for instance) have highlighted the historic appeal in U.S. v. Joel Esquenazi and Carlos Rodriguez.

Although there were several issues on appeal, the appeal is best known as the first time in FCPA history in which an appellate court has the opportunity to weigh in on the prominent enforcement theory that employees of alleged state-owned or state-controlled entities are “foreign officials” under the FCPA.  (The defense relied, in part, on my foreign official declaration and, as previously disclosed, I served as a pro-bono expert to the defense in this case).

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Friday Roundup

Roundup

Esquenazi speaks, checking in on Goldman Sachs, and released. It’s all here in the Friday roundup.

Esquenazi Speaks

In 2011, Joel Esquenazi was convicted of one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA and wire fraud; seven counts of FCPA violations; one count of money laundering conspiracy; and 12 counts of money laundering for a bribery scheme involving Haiti Teleco. Esquenazi was sentenced to an FCPA record 15 years in prison and his conviction was affirmed by the 11th Circuit in 2014 (see here) resulting in the two factor control and function test for determining whether an enterprise is an “instrumentality” under the FCPA.

Esquenazi was recently released from prison due to COVID concerns to serve the remainder of his sentence at home. In this approximate 25 minute podcast with his appellate counsel (Markus Funk – Perkins Coie), Esquenazi talks about the circumstances of his case, the conduct of the trial court judge, his journey through the federal prison system and his time in prison (including over 7,000 hours of tutoring).

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If Only The Supreme Court Had Accepted Cert In The “Foreign Official” Challenge

If Only

As highlighted here, here and here, last Fall the Supreme Court had the opportunity to correct the 11th Circuit’s flawed interpretation of the important “foreign official” element of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions in U.S. v. Esquenazi.

As highlighted here, the Supreme Court declined the opportunity to hear the case.

If only the Supreme Court had accepted cert the likely outcome would have been similar to last week’s Supreme Court decision in Yates v. U.S. in which the court reversed the 11th Circuit’s flawed statutory interpretation of Sarbanes Oxley in the (in)famous are “fish” a “tangible object” case.

The issues addressed by the Supreme Court in Yates were very similar to the issues the Court was asked to address in Esquenazi.

Indeed, the 11th Circuit’s flawed interpretation in Esquenazi was even more egregious because, as highlighted in my amicus brief, (i) competing versions of the FCPA Congress considered yet rejected, specifically included state-owned or state-controlled enterprise (SOE) concepts; and (ii) laws passed both before the FCPA and after the FCPA contain the term “instrumentality” as well as SOE concepts.

Despite the compelling arguments made for cert in Esquenazi, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act community was left pondering what if (and because of how the DOJ and SEC have chosen to enforce the FCPA will likely be asking what if for some time).

The what if was likely answered by the Court in Yates and the below post highlights excerpts from the majority opinion written by Justice Ginsburg.

“Mindful that in Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress trained its attention on corporate and accounting deception and cover-ups, we conclude that a matching construction of §1519 is in order: A tangible object captured by §1519, we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information.”

[…]

“On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found the text of §1519“plain.” Because “tangible object” was “undefined” in the statute, the Court of Appeals gave the term its “ordinary or natural meaning,” i.e., its dictionary definition, “[h]aving or possessing physical form.”

[…]

In the Government’s view, §1519 extends beyond the principal evil motivating its passage. The words of §1519,the Government argues, support reading the provision as a general ban on the spoliation of evidence, covering all physical items that might be relevant to any matter under federal investigation.

Yates urges a contextual reading of §1519, tying “tangible object” to the surrounding words, the placement of the provision within the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and related provisions enacted at the same time, in particular §1520 and §1512(c)(1). Section 1519, he maintains, targets not all manner of evidence, but records,documents, and tangible objects used to preserve them, e.g., computers, servers, and other media on which information is stored.

We agree with Yates and reject the Government’s unrestrained reading. “Tangible object” in §1519, we conclude, is better read to cover only objects one can use to record or preserve information, not all objects in the physical world.

[…]

The ordinary meaning of an “object” that is “tangible,”as stated in dictionary definitions, is “a discrete . . . thing,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1555 (2002), that “possess[es] physical form,” Black’s Law Dictionary 1683 (10th ed. 2014). From this premise, the Government concludes that “tangible object,” as that term appears in §1519, covers the waterfront, including fish from the sea.

Whether a statutory term is unambiguous, however,does not turn solely on dictionary definitions of its component words. Rather, “[t]he plainness or ambiguity of statutory language is determined [not only] by reference to the language itself, [but as well by] the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole.” Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U. S. 337, 341 (1997). See also Deal v. United States, 508 U. S. 129, 132 (1993) (it is a “fundamental principle of statutory construction (and, indeed, of language itself) that the meaning of a word cannot be determined in isolation, but must be drawn from the context in which it is used”). Ordinarily, a word’s usage accords with its dictionary definition. In law as in life, however, the same words, placed in different contexts, sometimes mean different things.

[…]

In short, although dictionary definitions of the words “tangible” and “object” bear consideration, they are not dispositive of the meaning of “tangible object” in §1519.

[…]

The legislative history reveals that §1512(c)(1) was drafted and proposed after §1519. See 148 Cong. Rec. 12518, 13088–13089 (2002). The Government argues, and Yates does not dispute, that §1512(c)(1)’s reference to “other object” includes any and every physical object. But if §1519’s reference to “tangible object” already included all physical objects, as the Government and the dissent contend, then Congress had no reason to enact §1512(c)(1): Virtually any act that would violate §1512(c)(1) no doubt would violate §1519 as well, for §1519 applies to “the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States . . . or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter,” not just to “an official proceeding.”5

The Government acknowledges that, under its reading,§1519 and §1512(c)(1) “significantly overlap.” Brief for United States. Nowhere does the Government explain what independent function §1512(c)(1) would serve if the Government is right about the sweeping scope of §1519. We resist a reading of §1519 that would render superfluous an entire provision passed in proximity as part of the same Act.6 See Marx v. General Revenue Corp., 568 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (slip op., at 14) (“[T]he canon against surplusage is strongest when an interpretation would render superfluous another part of the same statutory scheme.”).

[…]

Had Congress intended “tangible object” in §1519 to be interpreted so generically as to capture physical objects as dissimilar as documents and fish, Congress would have had no reason to refer specifically to “record”or “document.” The Government’s unbounded reading of“tangible object” would render those words misleading surplusage.

Having used traditional tools of statutory interpretation to examine markers of congressional intent within the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and §1519 itself, we are persuaded that an aggressive interpretation of “tangible object” must be rejected. It is highly improbable that Congress would have buried a general spoliation statute covering objects of any and every kind in a provision targeting fraud in financial record-keeping.

[…]

Finally, if our recourse to traditional tools of statutory construction leaves any doubt about the meaning of “tangible object,” as that term is used in §1519, we would invoke the rule that “ambiguity concerning the ambit of criminal statutes should be resolved in favor of lenity.” Cleveland v. United States, 531 U. S. 12, 25 (2000) (quoting Rewis v. United States, 401 U. S. 808, 812 (1971)).That interpretative principle is relevant here, where the Government urges a reading of §1519 that exposes individuals to 20-year prison sentences for tampering with any physical object that might have evidentiary value in any federal investigation into any offense, no matter whether the investigation is pending or merely contemplated, or whether the offense subject to investigation is criminal or civil. See Liparota v. United States, 471 U. S. 419, 427 (1985) (“Application of the rule of lenity ensures that criminal statutes will provide fair warning concerning conduct rendered illegal and strikes the appropriate balance between the legislature, the prosecutor, and the court in defining criminal liability.”). In determining the meaning of “tangible object” in §1519, “it is appropriate, before we choose the harsher alternative, to require that Congress should have spoken in language that is clear and definite.” See Cleveland, 531 U. S., at 25 (quoting United States v. Universal C. I. T. Credit Corp., 344 U. S. 218, 222 (1952)). See also Jones v. United States, 529 U. S. 848, 858–859 (2000) (rule of lenity “reinforces” the conclusion that arson of an owner-occupied residence is not subject to federal prosecution under 18 U. S. C. §844(i) because such a residence does not qualify as property “used in” commerce or commerce-affecting activity).

For the reasons stated, we resist reading §1519 expansively to create a coverall spoliation of evidence statute, advisable as such a measure might be. Leaving that important decision to Congress, we hold that a “tangible object” within §1519’s compass is one used to record or preserve information. The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.”

Supreme Court Declines To Hear “Foreign Official” Challenge

As highlighted in previous posts (here, here and here), the defendants in U.S. v. Esquenazi (see here for the May 2014 11th Circuit decision) petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case – principally on the “foreign official” issue.  As previously noted, the cert petition was believed to be the first substantive FCPA cert petition in FCPA history and was supported by amicus briefs, including my own.

This morning, the Supreme Court, which decides its own docket, released this Orders List declining to hear the “foreign official” challenge in U.S. v. Esquenazi.

Cert denial in the case means that the 11th Circuit decision stands as a final decision.  Cert denial does not mean that the Supreme Court agreed or disagreed with the 11th Circuit decision.

As noted in previous posts, the Supreme Court has never heard an FCPA case.

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The below statement may be attributed to Professor Koehler.

“The reasoning of the Supreme Court in declining to hear the petition is not known, but is likely due to the absence of a circuit split on the “foreign official” issue.  This absence is largely a result of alternative resolution vehicles used by the DOJ (and SEC) as well as other discretionary decisions by the enforcement agencies. So long as these dynamics continue, Supreme Court review of the key elements of a top-priority federal criminal statute of significant importance to all businesses and individuals engaged in international commerce is unlikely.”

Counsel for Esquenazi (Markus Funk and Michael Sink – both of Perkins Coie) offered the following statement.

“Statistically speaking, having the Supreme Court hear Mr. Esquenazi’s case was of course a long-shot.  But, as the amicus petitions highlighted, the confusion the appellate court’s ruling added to the ongoing muddle of what qualifies as an ‘instrumentality’ of a foreign government provided some hope that the Court might weigh in on this issue of great concern to the global business community.  That the Court decided to pass on the opportunity is disappointing.”

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