In the US, the SEC and the DOJ have been negotiating civil settlements with defendants for violations of the FCPA for several years, raising plenty of revenue for the US government in the process. The SFO’s last director, Richard Alderman, has followed the same path during his four year tenure at the SFO - all of the corporate defendants who were charged with corruption in recent years agreed to a civil settlement instead of defending the charges at trial. This chosen path has been repeatedly criticised by the new Director, David Green QC, who took up office in April 2012. In his public speeches since April, Mr Green has made it clear that while civil settlements remain an option for the SFO, in cases where there has been a systemic and major breach of corruption laws, it is more likely to be in the public interest to prosecute, and that is precisely what he will do. His view is that settlements are for corporates which are less culpable, either because the conduct wasn’t systemic, and/or that it was the result of the misconduct of one or two rogue employees, rather than being an institutional issue. It will be remembered that the courts, and in particular Sir John Thomas (the President of the Queen's Bench Division), was very vocal in his criticism of the SFO’s so-called "private deals" with defendants, not least because in his view the jurisdiction of the judges was being usurped.
Nevertheless the SFO’s resources to try cases are very limited, due to government cutbacks, so whatever the strong words of Mr Green about bringing more prosecutions, the reality is that the SFO does not have the funds or people to pursue to trial more than one or two large corruption cases in any year.
One of the more serious consequences of the many civil settlements in the US has been that there is almost no FCPA jurisprudence at all in the US, despite the Act being 35 years old. This fact is particularly surprising when you remember that due to the size of the country and its litigious culture, for most areas of law disputed before the courts there is a huge and almost overwhelming volume of case-law: so much so that one can often find lines of legal authority going in opposite directions in different courts around this huge country.
The paucity of case-law means that it is difficult for corporates, individuals, defendants and their lawyers to know or to advise with particular certainty on specific provisions of the FCPA. This was itself one of the many complaints made in the letter which was sent jointly to the SEC and the DOJ in February 2012, and on which we posted a blog here on 23rd February 2012. The absence of authority means that many terms of the FCPA eg the definition of “foreign official” or “instrumentality”, or the way in which successor liability would be treated in mergers and acquisitions are still, many decades after the FCPA was enacted, ambiguous.
It seems highly probable that the same thing will happen in the UK – namely, that if only 1 or 2 corruption cases are pursued to trial by the SFO per year, as seems likely, then ten years from now, there will be only 10 or 20 authorities, or maybe a lot fewer if the US experience really rings true in the UK.
One of the ways in which the US system has addressed this problem, whether intentionally or not, is by the DOJ’s opinion procedure. This is dealt with at Chapter 9 of the new FCPA Guidance, from pages 86 to 88 which can be found here.
“DOJ’s opinion procedure is a valuable mechanism for companies and individuals to determine whether proposed conduct would be prosecuted by DOJ under the FCPA.398 Generally speaking, under the opinion procedure process, parties submit information to DOJ, after which DOJ issues an opinion about whether the proposed conduct falls within its enforcement policy. All of DOJ’s prior opinions are available online.399 Parties interested in obtaining such an opinion should follow these steps....”
The Guidance then outlines the formal requirements and steps to obtain an opinion. It continues:
“DOJ will evaluate the request for an FCPA opinion.410 A party may withdraw a request for an opinion at any time prior to the release of an opinion.411 If the request is complete and all the relevant information has been submitted, DOJ will respond to the request by issuing an opinion within 30 days.412 If the request is incomplete, DOJ will identify for the requestor what additional information or documents are required for DOJ to review the request. Such information must be provided to DOJ promptly. Once the additional information has been received, DOJ will issue an opinion within 30 days of receipt of that additional information.413 DOJ’s FCPA opinions state whether, for purposes of DOJ’s present enforcement policy, the prospective conduct would violate either the issuer or domestic concern anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA.414 DOJ also may take other positions in the opinion as it considers appropriate.415 To the extent that the opinion concludes that the proposed conduct would not violate the FCPA, a rebuttable presumption is created that the requestor’s conduct that was the basis of the opinion is in compliance with the FCPA.416 In order to provide non-binding guidance to the business community, DOJ makes versions of its opinions publicly available on its website.”
So although the opinion is to be regarded as non-binding guidance, it is nevertheless still hugely useful to parties all across the US, to enable them to understand the US government’s position on many issues under the FCPA. Here is a link to the opinion releases on the DOJ’s website.
By way of example, here is a summary of one dated 14th June 2004 taken from the DOJ's website here:
June 14, 2004
Background: Requestor, a U.S. law firm, proposed to sponsor a trip to the U.S. for twelve Chinese officials. On the trip, the officials would meet with U.S. public sector officials to discuss U.S. regulation of employment issues, labor unions, workplace safety, and legal institutions and procedures regarding workplace conflict resolution. The firm intended to pay for travel, lodging, meals, and insurance for the twelve officials and one translator during the ten-day, three-city trip.
Decision: DOJ explained that it did not intend to take enforcement action based on the disclosed facts and circumstances, including that:
(1) the firm had no business before the entities that might send officials;
(2) the firm obtained written assurance the visit would not violate any PRC laws;
(3) the foreign Ministry would select the officials participating;
(4) the firm would pay all costs directly to providers; and
(5) the firm would not pay expenses for spouses, family, or other guests.”
The full text of it is also available although it is still only a couple of pages.
By way of contrast, in the UK there is no such formal procedure and therefore no body of opinions available for parties or adviser to access. It may not have been widely known that the SFO did have, under Mr Alderman's directorship, an option whereby a party and/or its lawyers could approach the SFO and ask for informal guidance on a particular situation, either anonymously or otherwise, and the SFO would give its view – orally, face to face. This was not as useful, however, as it was not in writing and it was not published anywhere for others to see. That option was effectivley removed by Mr Green on his arrival at the SFO, however, who has said publicly that it is not the SFO's job to advise companies on their future conduct and that there is plenty of guidance "out there already", the inference being, clearly, that a request for a face to face meeting will no longer be granted.
Our proposal at the Bribery Library is that the US DOJ opinion procedure should be adopted in a similar way in the UK. It will greatly assist companies which are still struggling with understanding and complying with the new laws, but it will also serve UK society well in that it will assist in making the Bribery Act effective by preventing bribery. Ultimately, the government’s aims are to reduce the amount of corruption both domestic and overseas, not to raise money by fining large corporations. This is unlikely to be an unduly burdensome additional task for the SFO because it could pick and choose which requests it actually answers, those which it feels will be widely read and considered. If the SFO is worried about costs, it could consider charging companies for the privilege of obtaining an opinion? If the new Director's concerns are not about costs, it would be interesting to know his views on the US opinion procedures, and why his position on opinions should differ.