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Let’s Pause Before We Dole Out Dollars

Out of thin air

Previous posts here and here addressed the calls of some that settlement amounts in an FCPA enforcement action be, at least in part, returned to the so-called victims of the underlying bribery.

Today’s post is from Joe Murphy.

Murphy is the author of 501 Ideas for Your Compliance and Ethics Program (SCCE; 2008) and a frequent commentator on compliance issues.


There was recently an online posting championing the idea of the Department of Justice using some of the $9 billion criminal penalty imposed on one company for violations of sanctions against Sudan, Iran and Cuba to compensate victims of the regimes in those countries.  The Department would explore who those victims were and determine how to compensate them.

As a student of political science, I find this worrisome.  Any figure with that many zeros behind it is real money.  And, it can fairly be said, that money is a form of power.  Here we would have unelected enforcement officials making policy decisions about how to spend large pools of funds. Determining exactly who were the victims of such systemic violations is not simply an administrative task; there will be important policy decisions to be made, including matters of foreign policy.

When the fines were small this could be considered an incidental function. But when the amounts are in the billions, this is cause for much more consideration. Sure, we are often frustrated by the slow process of legislative deliberation, but that is the governmental system we have chosen. The raising and allocation of funds is subject to a system of checks and balances.  We live in a democracy, not a government of selected elites who choose to spend money as they think best. Enforcement officials should be enforcing the law and taking steps to prevent violations. Courts should be hearing disputes and resolving conflicts. But they are not legislatures and should not be selecting where to dole out billions of dollars in funds.

As the size of criminal fines has ballooned we have passed the point where this issue can be ignored.  There are serious policy issues.  If, on the one hand, the funds were simply added to the general funds of the government we would also have the troublesome issue of law enforcement being converted into a revenue-raising operation.  This specter is seen in Europe, where the EU’s competition law enforcers sometimes seem more like revenue agents than public servants dedicated to preventing violations. Consider the institutional bias this would introduce if an enforcement agency is a funding source for government operations.  Instead of having an incentive to stamp out violations, there would at least appear to be an opposite interest:  let the violations ripen into large cases so there is more revenue to harvest.

On the other hand, if the proceeds go elsewhere, then what is done with the money and who decides?  In the US at the federal level the proceeds go to victim reimbursement.  But as the cases deal with systematic violations or ones where victims are not clearly defined, this is not so easy.  When the violations are not simply theft, how do we determine who the victims are?  Who makes those decisions?  Is there a process in place capable of handling this?  And in a system where the victims are capable of pursuing their own compensation through litigation, what happens to the penalty funds generated by government?

If enforcers are allocating billions of dollars, can lobbying for that money be far behind?  What alert non-profit would pass up the opportunity to have access to those funds? And, as the enforcers should know well, dealing in those sums eventually invites fraud.  Will the enforcers require reports on how the funds were spent?  Will they audit or investigate this?  Will they then be allocating resources to monitor their grants to the victims and those who purport to benefit the victims?  Is this a business we want enforcers conducting?

Giving this level of power to enforcement officials should at least cause us to stop and think more about the process. They were not trained in how to do this, they were not selected for this, and they are not accountable to the public for what they do. Up until now, this question has not only not been answered, but for the most part it is not even being asked.  I find this at least a cause for concern.

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