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Mission Creep At The SEC?

Today’s post is from Bruce W. Bean (Professor and Director, LLM Program at Michigan State University College of Law – here).


Last week FCPA Professor had a post (see here) describing the SEC’s internal search for the new Head of the Division of Enforcement’s FCPA Unit.

As previously reported (see here), Cheryl Scarboro, Head of the Commission’s FCPA Unit, will shortly join the Washington, D.C. office of Simpson Thacher.

The internal SEC marketing materials for this position state that this “Unit seeks to expand the Commission’s global reach in this area by executing targeted sweeps and sector-wide investigations, identifying systemic practices that give rise to potential FCPA violations and aggressively enforcing anti-bribery statutes.”

“[E]xpand the Commission’s global reach?” We do not find this concept in the FCPA. Nor is it in the original Securities Exchange Act that established the SEC. Has the Commission really run out of legitimate domestic prosecution targets? Does the Commission actually believe that, having long ignored stock manipulation by Wall Street traders (who can afford to mount a vigorous defense), it should declare victory in the domestic equities markets, shout “Mission Accomplished” and move on to police the rest of the world?

The most revealing aspect of this internal job posting for the new Head of the FCPA Enforcement Unit is this sentence, which encapsulates the SEC’s jurisdictional philosophy. “The Unit selects cases that present unique legal, evidentiary and policy challenges and attempts to develop case law and legal precedent that will have the greatest deterrent impact on conduct that violates the FCPA.”

Certainly “unique legal, evidentiary and policy challenges” are presented each time we have the Commission stretch and distort the language of the FCPA as it “attempts to develop case law.” For example, there is no FCPA language supporting the determination that millions of Chinese employees at State-Owned Enterprises are “foreign officials.” Similarly, we search in vain for the statutory basis for FCPA liability for a foreign company whose foreign subsidiary committed an act which the prosecutor claims violates the FCPA.

This newly developed FCPA “case law,” of course, is largely created by the enforcement attorneys. (See here for a prior post on “prosecutorial common law”). It is seldom fully litigated before the Judicial Branch. After all, few defendants can afford to litigate against the Government, and those that could most often do not wish to risk “debarment” from doing further business with the Government until proven innocent.

FCPA enforcement has come to mean, “Let’s see just how far we can push the inherent ambiguities in the statute.” When that rare defendant does stand up and fight as in U.S. v. Giffen, we see a multi-year, multi-million dollar legal defense during which a Federal Court ultimately did not endorse the prosecutor’s attempt to “develop new case law.”

Unquestionably, there is marvelous deterrent value when the SEC makes clear that it aggressively pursues FCPA violators. Prosecutors also find good value in high profile prosecutions, since this accelerates their passage through the SEC’s revolving door to much more lucrative private practice.

A closing note of warning. As outrageous as it may seem, the SEC’s jurisdictional and enforcement philosophy is comparatively good news. On Friday, July 1, the former Head of the Unit, Cheryl Scarboro, is likely to start at Simpson Thacher. That is also the date the U.K. Bribery Act comes into force. The Bribery Act actually does purport to give British prosecutors statutory authority to pursue bribery anywhere on the planet Earth. Stay tuned!

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