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DOJ Files Opposition Brief in Carson “Foreign Official” Challenge

On February 21st, various defendants in the U.S. v. Carson case pending in the Central District of California filed a historic challenge to the DOJ’s interpretation that employees of alleged state-owned or state-controlled enterprises are “foreign officials” under the FCPA. (See here for the prior post).

Yesterday, the DOJ filed its opposition brief (see here).

The DOJ brief is supported by the same declaration from Clifton Johnson (Assistant Legal Adviser for Law Enforcement and Intelligence in the Legal Adviser’s Office of the United States Department of State) ordered stricken in the Lindsey “foreign official” challenge (see here and here) and also filed in the O’Shea “foreign official” challenge (see here).

The DOJ brief is also supported by a declaration from FBI Special Agent Brian Smith (here) as to “some facts related to certain of the entities involved” in the case and “information pertaining to state-owned enterprises in China” and “certain portions of legislative history related” to the FCPA.

Also yesterday, Nathaniel Edmonds (Assistant Chief, DOJ Fraud Section) filed a notice of appearance in the case.

DOJ Files “Foreign Official” Response Brief In O’Shea Matter

With attention focused on the “foreign official” challenge in the Lindsey matter pending in the C.D. of California (a ruling may soon occur), the DOJ yesterday filed (here) its “foreign official” response brief in the O’Shea matter pending in the S.D. of Texas. See here for the prior post.

The DOJ’s response is substantively similar to its response in the Lindsey matter. See here for the prior post.

In its O’Shea response, the DOJ attaches the same declaration of Clifton Johnson (Assistant Legal Adviser for Law Enforcement and Intelligence in the Legal Adviser’s Office of the United States Department of State) as it filed in the Lindsey matter. See here for the prior post. As noted in this prior post, the judge in the Lindsey ordered the declaration be stricken.

Lindsey Defendants Move to Strike State Department “Foreign Official” Declaration *UPDATE* Judge Strikes State Department Declaration

Monday’s post (here) detailed the recent declaration by Clifton Johnson, Assistant Legal Adviser for Law Enforcement and Intelligence in the Legal Adviser’s Office of the United States Department of State in the Lindsey “foreign official” challenge pending in the Central District of California.

The Lindsey defendants have moved (here) to strike the State Department declaration. Among other arguments made, the Lindsey defendants state as follows.

“The opinion of one employee of the Department of State, or even of the Department of State as a whole, on the terms of the Convention and what the treaty required of the United States, as well as the meaning of the FCPA, a United States criminal statute, has no bearing on the matter before the Court. In any event, it is the job of the federal courts, not the executive branch, to be the final arbiter of what the FCPA actually provides. See generally Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177 (1803) (“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”).”

“On the other hand, the foreign policy implications of a particular interpretation, and how to deal with them, are the business of Congress and the President to address. Mr. Johnson’s suggestion to this Court to decide foreign policy is inappropriate. Courts concern themselves with the interpretation of the law as written. Congress is perfectly capable of amending the statute if it decides it is necessary to do so in light of a court’s decision. See generally McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350, 360 (1987) superseded by statute, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, Pub. L. No. 100-690, 102 Stat. 4181 (“If Congress desires to go further, it must speak more clearly.”).”

Alternatively, the Lindsey defendants argue that if the Court is inclinded to consider the State Department declaration, that it should order Mr. Johnson to appear at the March 24th motion hearing. As noted in an exhibit to the motion to strike, the DOJ has stated that it “will not voluntarily produce Mr. Johnson as a witness at that hearing.”

*UPDATED*

In an order yesterday, presiding judge Howard Matz ordered (here) the State Department declaration be stricken.

For additional coverage see here.

State Department Declaration in Lindsey “Foreign Official” Challenge

In its opposition brief (here) in the Lindsey “foreign official” challenge, the DOJ states at footnote 5:

“If this Court were to interpret the FCPA in such a way that officials of state-owned and state-controlled enterprises could not be foreign officials, the United States would be out of compliance with its treaty obligations under the OECD Convention. The government has requested a declaration from the State Department confirming this assessment and explaining its implications for U.S. foreign policy. Given the short response period, the declaration could not be finalized, but the government will endeavor to secure the declaration before argument on this motion and will file it if and when it is received.”

Last Friday, the DOJ filed a declaration by Clifton Johnson, Assistant Legal Adviser for Law Enforcement and Intelligence in the Legal Adviser’s Office of the United States Department of State – see here.

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Readers may also be interested in reviewing the OECD Convention (here) including commentary 15; a previous post (here) on the OECD Convention and U.S. positions; and a previous post (here) on how another OECD signatory country views the term “foreign public official.”

The Giffen Gaffe

Perhaps one day the true story will be told about the DOJ’s prosecution of James Giffen.

I don’t pretend to know what happened behind the scene other than to know that something significant occurred behind the scene.

That conclusion is compelled when an original indictment (see here) charging “Giffen with making 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” is resolved via a one-paragraph superseding information (see here) charging a misdemeanor tax violation.

Sure, DOJ can say that it prosecuted a functionally defunct entity, The Mercator Corporation – in which Giffen was the principal shareholder, board chairman, and chief executive officer – with violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions. Yet that criminal information (see here) merely alleges that “Mercator caused the purchase of two snowmobiles that were shipped to Kazakhstan for delivery to KO-2” (a senior official of the Kazakh Government).

You read that correctly.

From an FCPA perspective this entire, nearly decade-long prosecution, was reduced to allegations about two snowmobiles for a Kazakh official.

So what was that something significant that occurred behind the scene?

I don’t know.

But I do know this.

Part of Giffen’s defense was that his actions were taken with the knowledge and support of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Department of State and the White House. The DOJ did not dispute the fact that Giffen had frequent contacts with senior U.S. intelligence officials or that he used his ties within the Kazakh government to assist the United States. With the court’s approval, Giffen sought discovery from the government to support such a public authority defense and much of the delay in the case was due to the government’s resistance to such discovery and who was entitled to see such discovery.

Perhaps it was that public airing of the information in these documents would be embarrassing to the U.S. government or impact U.S. foreign relations with a key oil and gas producing country.

If so, it is troubling to think that our government condones bribery, when done with the approval or the wink and nod of government officials, while aggressively prosecuting commercial actors – often times based on untested and dubious legal theories.

For the record, Giffen pleaded guilty (see here) last Friday to a one-count criminal information charging him with willfully failing to supply information on tax returns regarding foreign bank accounts in violation of 26 USC 7203. The information charges, and Giffen pleaded guilty to, filing a U.S. individual income tax return which failed to report that he maintained an interest in, and signature and other authority over, a bank account in Switzerland in the name of Condor Capital Management, a British Virgin Islands corporation he controlled. In pleading guilty, Giffen also relinquished right, title and interest he may have had, directly or indirectly, in several named Swiss bank accounts.

Pursuant to the plea agreement, Giffen’s sentencing range will be 0 to 6 months and the applicable fine range will be $250 to $5,000.

For the record, Mercator also pleaded guilty (see here) last Friday to a one-count criminal information charging it with violating the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions. According to the information, Mercator “advised Kazakhstan in connection with various transactions related to the sale by Kazakhstan of portions of its oil and gas wealth.” The information alleges that between 1995 and 2000 Mercator was paid approximately $67 million in success fees for its work in assisting the Kazakh Ministry of Oil and Gas Industries develop a strategy for foreign investment in the oil and gas sector and coordinating the negotiation of numerous oil and gas transactions. The information charges that certain senior officials of the Kazakh government (including KO-2) had the authority to hire and pay Mercator and that Mercator was therefore “dependant upon the goodwill” of the officials. The one-paragraph statutory allegation merely states that Mercator “caused the purchase of two snowmobiles that were shipped to Kazakhstan for delivery to KO-2.”

As indicated in the plea agreement, the DOJ and Mercator could not agree on whether the 1998 Sentencing Guidelines or the 2009 Sentencing Guidelines apply – an issue that will be left for the court to decide. If the 2009 guidelines apply, the plea agreement sets forth a fine range of $650,000 to $1.3 million. If the 1998 guidelines apply, the plea agreement sets forth a fine range of $30,000 to $60,000.

Whether Mercator’s and/or Giffen’s actions were indeed taken with the knowledge and support of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the Department of State and the White House, the following paragraph from the Mercator plea agreement would seem relevant:

“Because the offense involved an elected official or a public official in a high-level decision-making or sensitive position, the offense level is increased 4 levels pursuant to U.S.S.G. 2C1.1(b)(3).”

That provision (see here) defines “public official” to include, among other categories, an individual “in a position of public trust with official responsibility for carrying out a government program or policy; acts under color of law or official right; or participates so substantially in government operations as to possess de facto authority to make governmental decisions.”

DOJ releases in FCPA enforcement actions are typically peppered with get-tough, this sends a message type of language. The release (see here) in the Giffen / Mercator enforcement action does not contain any quotes from DOJ officials.

William Schwartz of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP (here), a former Assistant United States Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York where he was Deputy Chief of the Criminal Division, represented both Giffen and Mercator.

So, what to make of the Giffen Gaffe.

It seems that Giffen prevailed not because of the facts or the law, but because he possessed significant leverage over the government in that he asserted his actions were taken with the knowledge and support of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the State Department and the White House.

Few FCPA defendants can make a similar claim. Thus, resolution of the Giffen case would seem to have little or no effect on the nuts and bolts of future FCPA enforcement actions.

Yet, resolution of the Giffen case does raise some troubling issues as to the DOJ’s enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

For starters, the Giffen case and the Frederick Bourke case (see here for prior posts) generally marked the beginning of the FCPA’s resurgence. Regardless of the outcome of Bourke’s Second Circuit appeal, the trial phase ended with the sentencing judge saying:

“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.”

In both the Giffen and Bourke cases, the DOJ made spectacular allegations only to see these enforcement actions end with a whimper.

The Giffen resolution would also seem embarrassing for the Justice Department which actively preaches the transparency and anti-corruption gospel message around the world while calling on other countries to increase enforcement of their own bribery laws.

However, what does it say about transparency in our country when a case that begins with criminal allegations of more than $78 million in unlawful payments to senior Kazakh officials ends with a misdemeanor tax violation and a largely meaningless FCPA enforcement action against a functionally defunct entity focused merely on two snowmobiles?

The Giffen resolution should further enrage segments of the business community that justifiably see a double standard in that certain business practices seem tolerated when done in connection with government business or policy, yet aggressively prosecuted, often times based on untested and dubious legal theories, when done in connection with a purely commercial transaction.

The Giffen Gaffe is troubling enough in isolation.

Coupled with another bribery blunder from approximately six months ago, it is an open question whether the government’s enforcement of the FCPA, to borrow a parliamentary phrase, would survive a no-confidence vote.

In February, the DOJ alleged (see here) that BAE, the largest defense contractor in Europe and the fifth largest in the U.S. as measured by sales, “provided substantial benefits” “through various payment mechanisms both in the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. and elsewhere” to a Saudi official “in a position of influence” to award fighter jet deals. The DOJ stated that BAE “provided support services to the [Saudi official] while in the territory of the U.S.” and that these benefits “included the purchase of travel and accommodations, security services, real estate, automobiles and personal items.” The DOJ alleged that over $5 million in invoices for benefits provided to the Saudi official were submitted by just one BAE employee during a one year period. Yet resolution of the BAE enforcement action contained no FCPA charges.

Sure the U.S. may prosecute the most bribery cases in terms of shear numbers compared to other countries.

Yet, as is becoming increasingly obvious, many of those cases are settled via privately negotiated resolution vehicles that are not subjected to any meaningful judicial scrutiny and are based on dubious and untested legal theories.

On the flip side, when allegations of egregious or widespread bribery are alleged, the charges are not even FCPA anti-bribery violations.

Before another U.S. government official goes abroad to spread the anti-corruption gospel, preach transparency, and question other countries commitment to prosecuting bribery, it would seem that our government and Justice Department first need to examine its own enforcement of the FCPA.

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