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Troubling Trends and Problematic Patterns

That is the alternate title I’ve given to Shearman & Sterling’s “Recent Trends and Patterns in FCPA Enforcement” (here).

The periodic publication is always in my “must-read” category. The author group is first-rate and includes noted FCPA practitioners Philip Urofsky (former Assistant Chief of the DOJ Fraud Section responsible for FCPA enforcement) and Danforth Newcomb (a dean of the FCPA bar).

The Shearman & Sterling piece raises particularly pointed questions as to the Panalpina-related enforcement actions and the seemingly vanishing “obtain or retain business” element of an FCPA anti-bribery violation.

I have covered these issues extensively as well – see here for several posts on the Panalpina-related enforcement actions and here (pg. 971 “Just How Was that Business Obtained or Retained”) as to questions about the enforcement agencies’ “obtain or retain business” allegations or interpretations.

The Shearman & Sterling piece states that “some of the government’s cases appear to blur the lines or muddy the waters when it comes to the limits of the statute.” The authors state as follows:

“In several cases, such as Pride International, Panalpina, and Royal Dutch Shell, the theories used to hold parents accountable for the acts of subsidiaries and vice versa appear to be unclear. In others, such as Pride International and Tidewater, the connection of the alleged conduct to “obtaining or retaining business,” a critical element of the statute was not pleaded or, worse, was pled in a way that suggests that virtually any bribe that improves a company’s profitability is sufficient – a result that is not consistent with established precedent and the language of the statute.”

Under the heading “Enforcement Strategies” the authors state:

“As in years past, the enforcement actions brought in 2010 provide insight, albeit sometimes clouded, into the DOJ’s and the SEC’s views of the scope and meaning of certain aspects of the statute, as well as their enforcement priorities and strategies. In doing so they are at times helpful and at other times opaque or, even worse, disturbing. As always, however, it is important to remember that although these agreements may have been hotly negotiated, in the end each of the companies and individuals settled. Thus, none of the government’s interpretations, or its view of how the law applied to the facts, has been subjected to a searching judicial examination in the context of a contested adversary proceeding.”

Under the heading “The Business Nexus” the author state:

“The Panalpina cases and certain allegations in other cases are likely to reopen the debate as to the meaning of the “obtain or retain business” element. This element is recognized as a critical factor in narrowing the scope of the FCPA. How much it does so, however, has long been a matter of debate. In its 2004 decision in U.S. v. Kay, the Fifth Circuit appeared to have ended the debate, holding that the FCPA was not limited to bribes to obtain business from a foreign government or even to bribes that led “directly to the award or renewal of contracts.” Analyzing the indictment in that case, the court held that “bribes paid to foreign officials in consideration for unlawful evasion of customs duties and sales taxes could fall within the purview of the FCPA’s proscription.” (emphasis in original). The court warned, however, that the scope of the statute was not limitless, stating, “We hasten to add, however, that this conduct does not automatically constitute a violation of the FCPA: It still must be shown that the bribery was intended to produce an effect – here, through tax savings – that would ‘assist in obtaining or retaining business.’”

Although some of the bribes in the Panalpina cases were made to obtain contracts and other specific business advantages, most of the payments were made to customs or tax officials to reduce duties and taxes, to expedite customs clearances, or to evade import regulations. In the latter cases, the government made very little effort to link such payments to obtaining or retaining business. For example, in Pride International, the DOJ alleged a number of what it termed “bribery schemes,” including payments to a Mexican Customs Official “to avoid taxes and penalties for alleged violations of Mexican customs regulations relating to a vessel leased by Pride International.” Similarly, in GlobalSantaFe, the SEC alleged that through a number of “suspicious payments” the company “avoided costs and gained revenue.” Without more explanation, such barebones allegations create the impression that the government equates gaining revenue or reducing costs generally with “obtaining or retaining business.” That, however, is the very opposite of the holding in Kay […].”

“Reading between the lines of the pleadings, we can, in many cases, construct some theory of how certain of the payments might have fallen within the Kay rule, e.g., some payments appear to have allowed the importers to bring in equipment and rigs without which they could not perform new or existing contracts. It is even possible that, similar to the facts in Kay, the importers could not have competed for existing or new business had they paid the full duties or taxes or complied with other local requirements. The pleadings, however, for the most part only hint at such an underlying rationale, leaving us to wonder exactly what does the government think the business nexus means today?”

When an author group including a former DOJ official responsible for enforcing the FCPA (in a more measured and disciplined era) uses words such as “disturbing” and phrases such as “not consistent with established precedent and the language of the statute” – well, I think we all should take notice.

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