Does it ever pay to stonewall the Department of Justice in an FCPA investigation? We’re asking because of an item that ran in the May 21st edition of the U.K. Times Online (available here). It described the DOJ’s detention of BAE‘s ceo and a director as they travelled separately through the Houston and Newark airports last week. The DOJ, investigating alleged corrupt payments to Saudi officials, reportedly searched and copied information from their laptops, phones and briefcases, then let the men continue traveling. In the Times piece, Joshua Hochberg, the former head of the DOJ’s group responsible for Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecutions, explained “that the recent heavy-handed behaviour of investigators indicated ‘a severe lack of cooperation by BAE’.”
Is a “severe lack of cooperation” a viable legal strategy — for BAE and its personnel, or for any company facing an FCPA investigation? Does being non-cooperative and recalcitrant ever serve the best interests of a corporation? When dealing with the FCPA, does ordering company employees and agents to keep quiet and stay away from the DOJ ever enhance a company’s defensive position?
The questions aren’t merely academic. In most criminal investigations, corporate targets have some options to consider. They can decide to force the government to do the hard work of uncovering evidence. That’s their right. Defendant’s don’t have to testify against themselves, and the government’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is a safeguard for corporations too. At its criminal trial, an accused company can sit mute and force the government to make its case.
But the FCPA doesn’t work like a typical criminal statute. Companies facing FCPA charges don’t go to trial. They can’t withstand the withering publicity — the front page stories around the world of their alleged international public bribery. They usually can’t risk being banned from U.S. government contracts, or losing their export licenses — which can happen based on mere allegations of FCPA offenses. And anyway, their chances at trial are exremely bleak. With the application of respondeat superior, once a company employee admits to violating the FCPA, the company is guilty as a matter of law. That’s the rule in most U.S. circuits that have considered the question. It doesn’t matter if the guilty employee held a low rank or was violating company policy. The employee’s guilt is still imputed to the company. So one bad apple really does spoil the barrel.
Companies are sitting ducks in FCPA cases, and their people are vulnerable too. Let’s face it, what director, officer or executive responsible for compliance wants to risk his or her hide because an assistant sales manager in Mongolia decided sui generis to grease some government palms? In other words, it’s all downside risk to fight the DOJ in an FCPA case. So instead, companies cooperate, knowing a “good” outcome — usually involving a deferred prosecution agreement — is only possible when the DOJ is on their side.
If fighting isn’t an option, if cooperating is the only way to salvation, then the DOJ ends up holding all the cards. Its decision to investigate and charge a corporation becomes paramount. There won’t be a trial where lawyers can argue, raise defenses, challenge the witnesses’ credibility, and implore the jury to dish out justice. Instead the process will start and end with the DOJ itself. Yes, there are grounds to criticize the prosecutors’ omnipotence in FCPA cases. But for now that omnipotence is a fact of life that has to be faced. Why, then, would a corporation under investigation for alleged FCPA offenses thumb its nose at the prosecutors? What’s to be gained?
Instead of fighting, the path forward has been for accused companies to work with the DOJ, to investigate the facts cooperatively, to self-disclose the results, to take remedial action, and to hope the DOJ will be willing to defer the prosecution if the company keeps its nose clean. But that’s not what BAE is doing. Why not?
Well, in the U.K., BAE has been protected. The Serious Fraud Office — responsible for investigating and prosecuting high-level overseas public corruption — opened a file on the company but closed it in 2006 under irresistible pressure from the Blair government. The High Court in March this year ruled that the SRO couldn’t legally drop the investigation, but the government is now appealing that decision to the House of Lords. In the U.K., BAE may yet keep its secrets. So is the company also betting that its U.K. protectors will prevail against U.S. prosecutors as well? That the Western Alliance will be unwilling to press the case and embarrass Saudi Arabia — a key security ally and OPEC’s largest exporter?
We don’t know what’s going on inside BAE. It has denied doing anything illegal. So all we really know is that the company isn’t playing by the usual rules. Instead of making peace with the DOJ, it’s flipping the feds an awfully rude gesture. Does that mean BAE has a legal strategy that relies on an ultimate savior, such as the man in the White House? If that’s true, what happens if the strategy doesn’t work? What happens if BAE ends up in the hands of the Department of Justice like every other company facing FCPA allegations? In that case, BAE and its leaders will have lost an enormous bet, and life will never be the same.
View prior posts about BAE here.