As defenses against the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act go, “I didn’t know” is among the most popular. I didn’t know it was against the law. I didn’t know our agent would give money to foreign officials. I didn’t know our partner’s brother-in-law works for the prime minister. Often the defense has no visible means of support and is only a handy excuse. Other times, though, the defense is sincere and looks strong. But even then it probably won’t work, as David H. Mead discovered the hard way back in 1998.
Mead, the former president of Saybolt Inc., was charged with violating and conspiring to violate the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions by making a $50,000 corrupt payment to government officials in Panama. Mead pleaded not guilty and went to trial. His defense rested in part on evidence that Saybolt’s former outside counsel had advised that the $50,000 payment might not violate the FCPA if it came from Saybolt’s Dutch affiliate. That advice was wrong, and Saybolt and Mead were indicted. Saybolt — which later sued its former lawyer for legal malpractice — pleaded guilty and paid a $1.5 million fine.
At Mead’s trial, prosecutors had the burden of proving Mead acted with “knowledge” that the $50,000 payment was illegal under U.S. law. In his instructions to the jury, the judge explained the concept of legal “knowledge” and how the jury could determine what Mead knew:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury:
The element of knowledge may be satisfied by inferences you may draw if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what otherwise would have been obvious to him. When knowledge of the existence of a particular fact is an element of the offense, such knowledge may be established if a person is aware of a high probability of its existence and then fails to take action to determine whether it is true or not.
If the evidence shows you that the defendant actually believed that the transaction was legal, he cannot be convicted. Nor can he be convicted for being stupid or negligent or mistaken; more is required than that. But a defendant’s knowledge of a fact may be inferred from willful blindness to the knowledge or information indicating that there was a high probability that there was something forbidden or illegal about the contemplated transaction and payment. It is the jury’s function to determine whether or not the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to the inferences and the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence here.
The jury, for some reason, didn’t believe that Mead believed the payment was legal. Nor did the jury believe he had been stupid or negligent or mistaken. Had he been willfully blind? That would mean he knew more than Saybolt’s own lawyer. Unfortunately for Mead, in the face of the evidence the jury somehow found that he had “knowledge” the payment would violate the law. He was convicted and sentenced to four months in prison, home detention and probation, and a $20,000 fine. The best explanation is that the New Jersey jury simply didn’t want a $50,000 bribe to a government official in Panama to go unpunished.
If the “I didn’t know” defense didn’t work back then for David H. Mead — who violated the FCPA on the advice of counsel — then it’s unlikely to work now in most other cases.
See U.S. v. David H. Mead and Frerik Pluimers (Cr. No. 98-240-01), D.N.J., 1998. See also Stichting Ter Behartiging Van De Belangen Van Oudaandeelhouders In Het Kapitaal Van Saybolt International B.V. (Foundation of the Former Shareholders of Saybolt International B.V.) v. Philippe S.E. Schreiber and Walter, Conston, Alexander & Green P.C. (S.D.N.Y.) (99 Civ. 114411, Memorandum Order, Filed June 13, 2001) and U.S. v. Saybolt North America Inc. (Cr. No. 98CR10266WGY), D. Mass., Aug. 18, 1998.