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House Passes Impotent Debarment Bill

The façade of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement is so deep that the House of Representatives recently passed legislation that will fail to accomplish its stated purpose – to debar corporations committing FCPA violations from federal government contracts.

On September 15th, the House, by a unanimous 409-0 vote, passed H.R. 5366 (“Overseas Contractor Reform Act”) (see here). The Act generally provides that a corporation “found to be in violation of the [FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions] shall be proposed for debarment from any contract or grant awarded by the Federal Government within 30 days after a final judgment of such a violation.”

The Act’s key trigger term for debarment – “found to be in violation” of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions – is a trigger that is not reached in nearly every FCPA enforcement action because of the façade of FCPA enforcement. Thus, the Act represents impotent legislation.

Nearly every FCPA enforcement action against a corporation is resolved through a non-prosecution agreement (“NPA”) or a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”). In an NPA, such as the recent NPAs against UTStarcom, Inc. (here) and Helmerich & Payne, Inc. (here), criminal charges are not filed in court. Rather, the “charges” are resolved via a private letter agreement that is subject to no judicial scrutiny. In a DPA, such as the recent DPAs against Technip S.A. (here) and Snamprogretti Netherlands BV (here), criminal charges are technically filed in court, but those charges are never prosecuted if the company adheres to compliance undertakings set forth in the DPA. Because of the prevalence of NPAs or DPAs in the FCPA context, a corporation entering into such an agreement with the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) is never “found to be in violation” of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions.

The Act will be even more impotent given the frequency by which the DOJ resolves clear instances of corporate bribery without charging FCPA anti-bribery violations. Three recent examples highlight this troubling feature of the façade of FCPA enforcement. In March 2010, the DOJ alleged that Daimler AG (“Daimler”) “engaged in a long-standing practice of paying bribes” to foreign officials in at least 22 countries. Despite these allegations, the DOJ resolved the matter against Daimler without charging FCPA anti-bribery violations (see here). In February 2010, the DOJ alleged that BAE Systems Plc (“BAE”) “provided substantial benefits,” including through U.S. payment mechanisms, to a Saudi public official “who was in a position of influence regarding” a lucrative fighter jet contract. Despite these allegations, the DOJ resolved the matter against BAE without charging FCPA anti-bribery violations (see here). In December 2008, the DOJ alleged that Siemens AG engaged in pattern of bribery “unprecedented in scale and geographic reach” and that the “corruption involved more than $1.4 billion in bribes to government officials in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.” Despite these allegations, the DOJ resolved the matter against Siemens without charging FCPA anti-bribery violations (see here).

Numerous other examples could also be cited and because of how FCPA violations are typically resolved by the DOJ, the Act’s debarment provisions will only be triggered in the rarest of instances.

Yet this salient fact was presumably not understood by Representatives who unanimously voted for the Act and championed it as common sense, effective legislation. Who can blame the Representatives for not understanding the full effects of the façade of FCPA enforcement? Most Representatives probably assumed that the DOJ prosecutes companies that commit FCPA anti-bribery violations with FCPA anti-bribery charges in a transparent manner subject to judicial oversight and scrutiny. Yet in this current façade of FCPA enforcement era nothing can be taken for granted.

Perhaps those who championed the Act were aware of its impotence yet voted for it because the costs of voting against it were too great a few months before an election. Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) sponsored the Act in response to an occurrence that is merely tangential to the FCPA – the conduct of Xe Services (formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide) following the 2007 shooting in Nissour Square Iraq that left 17 dead. (See here, here and here). It is clear from the floor statements of various Representatives (see here) that Blackwater’s conduct, and a desire to rein in military contractors, motivated passage of the Act.

Whatever the motivations for unanimous House passage of the Act, because of the façade of FCPA enforcement, the Act is impotent in addressing the conduct it seeks to address. The Act now moves to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. If the Senate is serious about imposing a debarment penalty on those who commit FCPA anti-bribery violations, a penalty deserving of serious consideration to best effectuate deterrence, the Senate first needs to understand the façade of FCPA enforcement and draft a bill that can actually accomplish its stated purpose.

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