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Judge Denies Esquenazi’s “Foreign Official” Challenge

In a cursory November 19th opinion (see here) devoid of substantive analysis, Judge Jose Martinez (S.D. Fla.) denied Joel Esquenazi’s “foreign official” challenge. (See here and here for prior posts).

Esquenazi’s challenge was launched by a lawyer with no apparent FCPA expertise and his brief did not even scratch the surface as to the FCPA’s extensive legislative history regarding the “foreign official” element. Esquenazi’s “foreign official” brief was just one of several dismissal motions (such as selective and vindictive prosecution and spoilation of defense favorable evidence) filed over a brief time period – a factor which perhaps influenced Judge Martinez’s view of Esquenazi’s otherwise valid “foreign official” challenge – an issue at the core of a significant number of recent FCPA enforcement actions.

In its November 17th response, the DOJ termed Esquenazi’s challenge premature. The DOJ did offer to provide supplemental briefing on the meaning of “foreign official” “to elaborate on how the FCPA’s plain text, its current interpretation by courts, its legislative history, and U.S. treaty obligations provide no support for the defendants’ novel and confusing definition.”

Against this backdrop, within 48 hours of the DOJ’s response, Judge Martinez denied Esquenazi’s challenge.

The substance of Judge Martinez’s decision is as follows.

“The Court […] finds that the Government has sufficiently alleged that Antoine and Duperval were foreign officials by alleging that these individuals were directors in the state-owned Haiti Teleco. Any factual arguments Defendant has on this point may be addressed at trial.”

“The Court also disagrees that Haiti Teleco cannot be an instrumentality under the FCPA’s definition of foreign official. The plain language of this statute and the plain meaning of this term show that as the facts are alleged in the indictment Haiti Teleco could be an instrumentality of the Haitian government.”

As to Esquenazi’s vagueness challenge, the Court stated as follows.

“… the Court also disagrees that the phrase ‘department, agency, or instrumentality’ in the definition of ‘foreign official’ is unconstitutionally vague. ‘Vagueness arises when a statute is so unclear as to what conduct is applicable that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application.’ Defendant has not met this standard, and the Court find that persons of common intelligence would have fair notice of this statute’s prohibitions.”

DOJ Argues That Esquenazi’s “Foreign Official” Challenge is Premature

The DOJ filed its response brief (here) in the Joel Esquenazi enforcement action – an action which, as described in this prior post, the defendant is challenging the DOJ’s “foreign official” interpretation.

As it did in the Nguyen / Nexus Technologies case (see here – middle of the post) the DOJ asserts as follows. “Although styled as a “motion to dismiss,” the defendants’ submission is instead a premature request for a ruling on the sufficiency of the government’s evidence concerning the status of officers of Telecommunications D’Haiti (“Haiti Teleco”) as a foreign officials of a government instrumentality before the evidence regarding that issue has been presented to the jury. The defendants’ arguments, which are premised on misstatements of both the law and the facts and are premature at best, will be moot after presentation of the government’s case. Therefore the defendants’ motion should be denied.”

The response brief contains a separate section on “the Nature of Haiti Teleco” and states as follows. “At the times relevant to the Indictment, between 2001 and 2004, Haiti Teleco held a state granted monopoly over land line telephone service in Haiti. During that time, Haiti Teleco was 97% state-owned by the Central Bank of Haiti, the Banque de la Republic of Haiti (“BRH”), which held 97% of Haiti Teleco’s shares. No one knows who owned the remaining 3% of Haiti Teleco’s shares, as no records still exist concerning their ownership, yet no person or company has claimed them in institutional memory. Therefore, effectively and functionally, during this period, Haiti Teleco operated with 100% state-ownership. Also during this period, Haiti Teleco was 100% state-controlled.”

The response brief asserts as follows. “… the defendants seek to circumvent the trial process and have the Court determine, before the presentation of any evidence, that the government has not met its burden of proving that Haiti Teleco was a instrumentality of a foreign government as defined by the FCPA. As will be demonstrated in the government’s case-in-chief, whether Haiti Teleco was an instrumentality of the Republic of Haiti is not a close case, a fact the defendants likely understand and therefore attempt to raise this issue before the evidence has been presented. Taken as true, the Indictment is more than sufficient to meet the Hagner standard and the precedent of this Circuit. Therefore, the motion should be denied.”

Under the heading, “Interpretation of the Term Government Instrumentality” the DOJ’s brief states in full as follows.

“The bulk of the defendants’ Motion focuses on suggesting that the Court adopt an insupportably narrow interpretation of government instrumentality that is contradicted by the statute on its face, case law, legislative history, and international treaties. The defendants’ proffered arguments are, in any event, arguments for jury instructions or for the Court after the government’s
case-in-chief pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29. However, if the Court would like supplemental briefing on the meaning of “foreign official,” the government is more than willing to elaborate on how the FCPA’s plain text, its current interpretation by courts, its legislative history, and U.S. treaty obligations provide no support for the defendants’ novel and confusing definition. These sources confirm that the definition of “foreign official” includes officials of state-owned and state-controlled companies. Further, it is not limited to the narrow and ambiguous restriction that it applies only to “officials performing a public function.” DE 283 at 2. This tortured formulation finds no support, even in the sources the defendants themselves cite. The government stands prepared to brief and argue this issue again, should the defendants raise it, upon a Rule 29 motion or in the context of formulating jury instructions.”

The DOJ response brief also contains a section which argues that the term “foreign official” is not unconstitutionally vague.

Esquenazi Challenges DOJ’s “Foreign Official” Interpretation

Like many FCPA defendants (corporate and individual), Joel Esquenazi allegedly violated the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions by providing something of value, not to a foreign government official, but to an employee of an alleged state-owned or state-controlled enteprise (“SOE”).

In a December 2009 indictment (here), the DOJ alleged that: (i) “Telecommunications D’Haiti (“Haiti Teleco”) was the Republic of Haiti’s state-owned national telecommunications company;” (ii) Robert Antoine and Jean Rene Duperval were, at various times, “the Director of International Relations of Haiti Teleco” and a “foreign official as that term is defined in the FCPA;” and (iii) Esquenazi, and others provides, things of value to these “foreign officials” in order to obtain or retain business in violation of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.

Unlike most FCPA defendants (corporate and individual), including others charged with Esquenazi in the same indictment, Esquenazi is putting the DOJ to its burden of proof, specifically as to the FCPA’s “foreign official” element.

In a November 2nd motion to dismiss the indictment (here), Esquenazi “respectfully moves the Court to dismiss the indictment for failure to state a criminal offense and, in the alternative, for vagueness with respect to who would constitute a ‘foreign official’ within the meaning of the” FCPA.

The motion states as follows.

“The instant indictment fails to state a criminal offense because it alleges that the recipients of the improper payments were ‘foreign officials’ because they were employees of an entity ‘owned’ by the Republic of Haiti. Such a definition of ‘foreign official’ is unsupported by the text or the purpose of the FCPA. The FCPA is a public bribery statute which criminalizes improper payments to officials performing a public function. Mere control or partial control or ownership (or partial ownership) of an entity by a foreign government no more makes that entity’s employees ‘foreign officials’ than control of General Motors by the U.S. Department of the Treasury makes all GM employees U.S. officials.” (emphasis in original).

Alternatively, the motion states as follows.

“… the Court should dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the FCPA’s definition of ‘foreign official,’ which includes employees of any foreign government ‘department, agency or instumentality,’ is unconstitutionally vague. Especially in the context of third country under a coup such as Haiti was under at the relevant time, a vague definition of ‘foreign official’ to include employees of entities solely based on partial or even full government ‘ownership’ of those entities would unfairly sweep nearly all economic activity within the scope of the statute.”

Richard J. Diaz, an attorney from Coral Gables, Florida, filed the motion on behalf of Esquenazi.

*****

For prior entries regarding the Haiti Teleco case see here.

As noted in a prior post, an interesting twist is that Haiti Teleco is currently 60% owned by Viettel, a telecommunications company run by Vietnam’s military (see here).

Indicting a “Foreign Official”

Yesterday, the DOJ announced (see here) the unsealing of an indictment (see here) against Joel Esquenazi, Carlos Rodriguez, and Marguerite Grandison which charges (among other things) conspiracy to violate the FCPA and substantive FCPA violations for an alleged scheme to bribe two former employees of Haiti Teleco, the alleged “state-owned national telecommunications company.”

Esquenazi and Rodriguez are former executives of a privately owned, Florida-based telecommunications company and Grandison was the President of Telecom Consulting Services Corp., a Florida based company which served as an intermediary.

The unsealed indictment is the latest chapter in this matter; in May 2009, the DOJ announced (see here) the guilty pleas of Juan Diaz and Antonio Perez in connection with the same scheme.

This matter is also yet another example of an FCPA enforcement action in which the “foreign official” is an employee of an alleged state-owned or state-controlled entity.

That, however, is not why this enforcement action is noteworthy.

It is noteworthy because DOJ also indicted Robert Antoine and Jean Rene Duperval – the alleged “foreign officials.” According to the indictment, Antoine and Duperval both served as the “Director of International Relations of Haiti Teleco” and were responsible for negotiating contracts with international telecommunications companies on behalf of Haiti Teleco.

Of course, the charges were not FCPA charges, because the FCPA only covers “bribe-payers” not “bribe-takers” (see here, here, for prior posts on this subject).

Rather the charges against Antoine and Duperval were money laundering conspiracy and/or substantive money laundering charges.

According to the DOJ release, Antoine is from “Miami and Haiti” and Duperval is from “Miramar, Fla. and Haiti.” Further, according to the indictment, both individuals had bank accounts in the U.S. and these accounts were used in connection with the bribery scheme. (I wonder if Washington Mutual, Wachovia, or Miami Federal Credit Union were aware that Haitian “foreign officials” were among its customers!)

To my knowledge this is the first time “foreign officials” have been specifically charged as defendants in connection with an FCPA enforcement action. This indictment of “foreign officials” comes on the heels of AG Holder’s recent speech (see here) in which he stated that the U.S. government was committed to recovering funds obtained by “foreign officials” through bribery.

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