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The Supremes And The FCPA

Questions about ambiguity in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act have been around since its inception. See, for example, our post Looking Again At U.S. v. Kay (November 7, 2007). The Supreme Court will answer those questions soon, either by granting review of Kay and deciding what “obtaining or retaining business” means, or by refusing to take the case and allowing the government to continue its “expansive enforcement” of the law. Here’s what’s happening.

David Kay and Douglas Murphy were sentenced in 2005 to 37 and 63 months in prison respectively for violating the FCPA. They bribed Haitian officials in order to reduce their company’s taxes. The Fifth Circuit denied their final request for a rehearing in January 2008, and in April they petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review. Kay v. United States (Docket: 07-1281) is on the docket of the Justice’s opening conference on September 29, 2008 for the Court’s October 2008 term. The petition for certiorari and all cert-stage briefs are available at

Kay and Murphy are arguing, among other things, that the only bribes outlawed by the FCPA are those intended to assist in obtaining or retaining business. That’s the so-called “business nexus” element of an offense. And, they say, the bribes they paid to reduce taxes don’t fit within the business nexus element at all.

They’re supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — “the world’s largest business federation.” It hopes the Supreme Court will hear the case and use it to draw new limits around FCPA enforcement. The Kay case, the Chamber says, has obliterated the business nexus element. Because of that, it says, American executives are now exposed to “expansive enforcement” of the FCPA that threatens them “with prison for conduct not criminalized by the plain language of the statute.”

To illustrate the government’s expansive approach, the Chamber’s amicus brief includes a unique list of FCPA enforcement actions. These are cases based on bribes paid to foreign officials for something other than a direct award of work. We show footnotes from the brief in square brackets.

In the wake of Kay, there have been numerous FCPA actions predicated in part or in whole on payments made to reduce or avoid regulatory burdens, and many additional cases remain under investigation. Among others, the DOJ and SEC have entered into resolutions with companies alleged to have paid bribes to obtain

(1) government inspection reports and laboratory certifications;[2]

(2) reductions in annual employment tax obligations;[3]

(3) reductions in general tax obligations;[4]

(4) refunds on previous tax payments;[5]

(5) customs clearance for goods or equipment that were improperly or illegally imported;[6]

(6) customs clearance for goods delayed due to the failure to post bonds with sufficient funds to cover duties and tariffs;[7]

(7) encourage the repeal or amendment of national regulations limiting foreign investments;[8]

(8) repeal of a government decree requiring an environmental impact study to be conducted;[9]

(9) expedited government registration certifications required by law to produce, warehouse, or market products in the country;[10] and

(10) beneficial changes to laws and regulations relating to land development.[11]

Additional ongoing investigations implicate payments to bribe tax, customs and administrative officials to obtain (1) reduced tax obligations; (2) importation of construction equipment in violation of customs regulations; (3) customs clearance for goods and equipment; (4) immigration and tax benefits; and (5) a beneficial tax audit.

2 See SEC v. Delta & Pine Land Co., No. 07-cv-01352 (D.D.C. filed July 25, 2007); In the Matter of Delta & Pine Land Co., SEC Admin. Proceeding File No. 3-12712, Cease & Desist Order at 3 (July 26, 2007), available at 2007/34-56138.pdf

3 In the Matter of Bristow Group Inc., SEC Admin. Proceeding File No. 3-12833, Cease & Desist Order at 3 (Sept. 26, 2007), available at /2007/34-5633.pdf; Press Release, SEC Institutes Settled Enforcement Action Against Bristow Group for Improper Payment to Nigerian Gov’t Officials and Other Violations (Sept. 26, 2007), available at

4 In the Matter of Baker Hughes Inc., SEC Admin. Proceeding File No. 3-10572, Cease & Desist Order (Sept. 12, 2001), available at; SEC v. KPMG Siddharta Siddharta & Harsono, No. H-01-3105 (S.D. Tex. filed Sept. 11, 2001); SEC v. Mattson, No. H-01-3106 (S.D. Tex. filed Sept. 11, 2001).

5 SEC v. Triton Energy Corp., No. 97-cv-00401-RMU (D.D.C. filed Feb. 27, 1997).

6 In the Matter of BJ Servs. Co., SEC Admin. Proceeding File No. 3-11427, Cease & Desist Order (Mar. 10, 2004), available at

7 United States v. Vetco Gray Controls Inc., No. 07-cr-004 (S.D. Tex. filed Jan. 5, 2007).

8 SEC v. BellSouth Corp., No. 02-cv-00113-ODE (N.D. Ga. filed Jan. 15, 2002). It is worth noting that the Senate originally proposed language that would have prohibited payments made for the purpose of “obtaining or retaining business … or directing business to, any person or influencing legislation or regulations of [the foreign] government.” S. 305, 95th Cong. § 103 (1977) (emphasis added). This language was ultimately rejected in favor of the current statute.

9 See News Release, Monsanto Announces Settlements With DOJ and SEC Related to Indonesia (Jan. 6, 2005), available at

10 See SEC v. Dow Chem. Co., No. 07-cv-336 (D.D.C. filed Feb. 12, 2007).

11 United States v. Halford, No. 01-cr-00221-SOW-1 (W.D. Mo. filed Aug. 3, 2001); United States v. Reitz, No. 01-cr-00222-SOW-1 (W.D. Mo. filed Aug. 3, 2001); United States v. King, No. 01-cr-0190-DW (W.D. Mo. filed June 27, 2001).

What does the government say? That in the context of the entire statute, the language is not ambiguous. “The business nexus element requires that a bribe to a foreign official be made ‘in order to assist [the company] in obtaining or retaining business for or with * * * any person.’ 15 U.S.C. 78dd-1(a)(1). The word ‘business’ is ordinarily understood to mean a ‘commercial or mercantile activity customarily engaged in as a means of livelihood.’ Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 302 (1993). Thus, the statutory language does not restrict the FCPA’s coverage to the award or renewal of contracts, but more broadly reaches actions that assist in obtaining or retaining business. Moreover, the FCPA carves out an exception from its prohibition for payments for ‘routine governmental action.’ 15 U.S.C. 78dd-1(b); see also 15 U.S.C. 78dd-1(f )(3) (defining ‘routine governmental action’). That exception would be superfluous if the statute were limited in the manner that [Kay and Murphy] propose.”

Kay and Murphy reply this way:

Though the Government’s reading is consistent with one broad dictionary definition of “business”, the court of appeals correctly recognized that other common and narrower definitions of “busi­ness” render petitioners’ conduct perfectly lawful: “[T]he word business can be defined at any point along a continuum from a ‘volume of trade,’ to ‘the purchase and sale of goods in an attempt to make a profit,’ to ‘an assignment’ or a ‘project.'” (quoting Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dic­tionary 201 (1989)). The spectrum of potential mean­ings thus runs from a person who hopes to “improve his business” in terms of seeking to better his general economic performance to one who hopes to “receive the business” of a customer in terms of obtaining a particular relationship or contract. Notably, the lim­iting phrase, “for or with . . . any person” (15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1(a)(1)(B)) favors the latter interpretation. The statutory text is accordingly ambiguous.

The Fifth Circuit’s choice of the broadest, govern­ment-favoring interpretation of “business” produced a startlingly sweeping interpretation of this frequently employed provision of federal criminal law—one that criminalizes all payments intended to have any posi­tive effect on the company. Under that broad theory, the court of appeals was able to conclude that, be­cause “[a]voiding or lowering taxes reduces operating costs and thus increases profit margins, thereby free­ing up funds that the business is otherwise legally obligated to expend”, such conduct “assist[s] . . . in obtaining or retaining business” within the meaning of the FCPA. The Government accordingly urges that criminal liability attaches whenever “the resulting savings benefit the com­pany’s existing business.” The problem is that “[t]he same can be said about virtually any con­tact with a foreign official that somehow—and no matter how indirectly—enables the company to take some action that reduces costs or otherwise benefits it.”

(footnotes omitted)

For those interested in the history of the case, it dates back to Kay and Murphy’s indictment in 2001 for bribes they paid in Haiti in the late 1990s. At trial, the district court dismissed the indictment, agreeing that the FCPA’s language of “obtaining or retaining business” didn’t cover payments to reduce taxes or customs duties. In 2004, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the payments might fall within the FCPA’s prohibitions by giving companies a commercial advantage. It remanded the case for the trial court to decide if there was sufficient evidence that the bribes could satisfy the business nexus element.

In 2005, a jury convicted Kay and Murphy. They appealed again to the Fifth Circuit, this time also arguing that the mens rea element of an FCPA offense was missing from their indictments. In October 2007, the Fifth Circuit affirmed their convictions. They filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which was denied in January 2008. With appeals to the Fifth Circuit exhausted, in April they petitioned the Supreme Court for review.


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