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Digi’s Disappearing Act … And A Proposal

SEC filings are carefully crafted, tightly worded documents created by in-house specialists and often vetted by outside professionals. In short, precise words matter in SEC filings.

In a July 22nd 8-K filing (here), Digi International Inc. provided an update on its previously disclosed FCPA internal investigation including this statement: “[t]he investigation also identified certain books and records and related internal controls issues under the FCPA.” (emphasis added).

Given the above wording, it would seem reasonable to conclude that the company (with the assistance and input from outside counsel) identified conduct that implicated the FCPA. Why else would the disclosure contain the clause “under the FCPA”?

Fast forward to August 2nd when the company issued a press release (here) stating, in reference to the July 22nd 8-K and the investigation, that: “Digi has now received confirmation through discussions with representatives of the DOJ and the SEC that they will not be initiating any enforcement proceedings against Digi.”

That’s quite the disappearing act. And a quick one at that.

As noted in a prior post (here) Digi is “the leading supplier of multifunction communication devices to the U.S. Federal Government.”

FCPA enforcement (or lack of enforcement in this case) is already largely an opaque process and Digi’s curious disappearing act serves as another example for why transparency and accountability in FCPA enforcement is needed.

So here is my proposal to shed more light on the DOJ and SEC’s enforcement of the FCPA.

In instances such as Digi (i.e. when a company voluntarily discloses an FCPA internal investigation to the DOJ and the SEC and when the DOJ and the SEC decline enforcement) require the DOJ and the SEC to publicly state, in a thorough and transparent manner, the facts the company disclosed to the agencies and why the agencies declined enforcement on those facts.

Here is why I think the proposal makes sense and is in the public interest.

For starters, the DOJ and the SEC are already wildly enthusiastic when it comes to talking about FCPA issues. Enforcement attorneys from both agencies are frequent participants on the FCPA conference circuit and there seems to be no other single law that is the focus of more DOJ or SEC speeches than the FCPA. Thus, there is clearly enthusiasm and ambition at both agencies when it comes to the FCPA.

Further, both the DOJ and the SEC have the resources to accomplish this task. Both agencies have touted the increased FCPA resources in their respective offices and the new personnel hired to focus on the FCPA. Combine enthusiasm and ambition with sufficient resources and personnel and the proposal certainly seems doable.

Most important, the DOJ is already used to this type of exercise. It is called the FCPA Opinion Procedure Release (see here) a process the DOJ frequently urges those subject to the FCPA to utilize.

Under the Opinion Procedure regulations, an issuer or domestic concern subject to the FCPA can voluntarily disclose prospective business conduct to the DOJ which then has 30 days to respond to the request by issuing an opinion that states whether the prospective conduct would, for purposes of the DOJ’s present enforcement policy, violate the FCPA.

The DOJ’s opinions are publicly released (see here for the most recent one) and the FCPA bar and the rest of FCPA Inc. study these opinions in great detail in advising clients largely because of the general lack of substantive FCPA case law.

If the DOJ is able to issue an enforcement opinion as to voluntarily disclosed prospective conduct there seems to be no principled reason why the enforcement agencies could not issue a non-enforcement opinion as to voluntarily disclosed actual conduct

Such agency opinions would seem to be more valuable to those subject to the FCPA than the already useful FCPA Opinion Procedure Releases. If the enforcement agencies are sincere about providing guidance on the FCPA, as they presumably are, such agency opinions would seem to provide an ideal platform to accomplish such a purpose.

Requiring the enforcement agencies to disclose non-enforcement decisions after a voluntary disclosure could also inject some much needed discipline into the voluntary disclosure decision itself – a decision which seems to be reflexive in many instances any time facts suggest the FCPA may be implicated.

(For more on the important voluntary disclosure decision and the role of FCPA counsel see here.)

Notwithstanding the presence of significant conflicting incentives to do otherwise, it is hoped that FCPA counsel advises clients to disclose only if a reasonably certain legal conclusion has been reached that the conduct at issue actually violates the FCPA. Accepting this assumption, transparency in FCPA enforcement would be enhanced if the public learned why the enforcement agencies, in the face of a voluntary disclosure, presumably disagreed with the company’s conclusion as informed by FCPA counsel. If the enforcement agencies agreed with the conclusion that the FCPA was violated, but decided not to bring an enforcement action, transparency in FCPA enforcement would similarly be enhanced if the public learned why.

A final reason in support of the proposal is that it would give companies such as Digi a benefit by contributing to the mix of public information about the FCPA.

In most cases, companies spend millions of dollars investigating conduct that may implicate the FCPA and on the voluntary disclosure process. When the enforcement agencies decline an enforcement action, presumably because the FCPA was not violated, these costs are forever sunk and the company can legitimately ask why it just spent millions investigating and disclosing conduct that the DOJ and the SEC did not conclude violated the FCPA.

However, if the enforcement agencies were required to publicly justify their declination decision, the company would achieve, however small, a return on its investment and contribute to the mix of public information about the FCPA – a law which the company will remain subject to long after its voluntary disclosure and long after the enforcement agencies declination decision. Thus, the company, the company’s industry peers, and indeed all those subject to the FCPA would benefit by learning more about the DOJ and the SEC’s enforcement conclusions.

Transparency, accountability, useful guidance, a return on investment.

All would be accomplished by requiring the enforcement agencies to publicly justify a declination decision in the limited instances where no enforcement action follows a voluntary disclosure.

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