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The SEC Takes It Back

Disgorging profits is a common and prominent feature these days in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act settlements with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Last year Siemens disgorged $350 million and this year KBR paid $177 million. Maybe because disgorgements now happen so often, or because the payments have become so enormous, we automatically accept them as a suitable remedy. We don’t question why the SEC uses disgorgement, where the remedy came from, or where it’s going.

But at least one person has asked those questions. He’s David C. Weiss (Dartmouth College, Michigan Law School), student-author of an extended note in the January 17, 2009 edition of the Michigan Journal of International Law.

According to Weiss, disgorgement never appeared in an FCPA enforcement action until just five years ago. That’s right — 27 years passed without a single FCPA-related disgorgement order. Then, in 2004, ABB Vetco Gray, Inc. paid $16.4 million in disgorgement and prejudgment interest. Next came Titan Corp. in 2005, paying $15.5 million. That same year, Diagnostics Products Corp. disgorged $2.8 million and DPC (Tianjin) Co. Ltd. $2.8 million. In 2006, Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. disgorged $7.7 million and Statoil $10.5 million. In 2007, Baker Hughes Inc. disgorged $23 million, El Paso Corp. $5.5 million, and York International $10 million.

Want to hear the rest? In 2008, Fiat disgorged $7.2 million, Siemens $350 million, Faro Technologies $1.8 million, Willbros $10.3 million, AB Volvo $19.6 million, Flowserve $3.2 million, and Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp. $289,000. And so far this year, ITT Corporation has disgorged $1.4 million, and KBR $177 million.

Disgorgement, then, has a short but intense history in FCPA enforcement actions, and it seems to have appeared out of the blue. As Weiss puts it, “The SEC has developed the ‘law’ of disgorgement with neither the input, contemplation, nor blessing of Congress, and it is for this reason that one should ask normative questions about the role of disgorgement in the future enforcement of the prohibition on foreign bribery.”

He points out that the SEC began requiring disgorgement just when other countries (with U.S. encouragement) started enacting their own extra-territorial anti-corruption laws. So here’s the question: When more than one country enforces antibribery laws against a single company, which jurisdictions, if any, should use disgorgement as a remedy? Who decides, for example, if Siemens should forfeit ill-gotten gains to the United States Treasury or the German Chancellery? How about Italy or Norway, Greece or Argentina?

Weiss looks at laws around the world aimed at punishing foreign public bribery, and particularly those with disgorgement-like remedies. “The penal codes of at least twenty-one countries,” he says, “include provisions for ‘forfeiture’ or ‘confiscation’ of the proceeds of a crime, or they base the amount of a fine on such proceeds.” His survey shows just how new most of the laws are — the majority coming into force either following enactment of the OECD anti-corruption convention in 1998 or after the events of 9/11 in 2001.

There’s no evidence, Weiss says, that “Congress intended that the SEC pursue disgorgement as it has done since 2004. This fact alone should at least make one question the normative function of disgorgement.” Disgorgement, he says, wasn’t mentioned when the FCPA was first debated and adopted in 1977, nor when Congress amended the law in 1988 or 1998. Weiss himself doesn’t say the SEC lacks the legal mandate to pursue disgorgement or that the remedy is somehow improper. But he does point out that the “lack of any statement that disgorgement should be part of the SEC’s enforcement arsenal, and the rarity of the remedy at the time that Congress passed the FCPA and its amendments, are reasons that some commentators have used to question the impropriety of the remedy.”

It’s great to see the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as the object of some fresh research and scholarship. And at 47 pages and 238 footnotes (a couple of which mention the FCPA Blog), Weiss’ work is thorough and thoughtful.

The cite for the note is: Weiss, David C.,The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, SEC Disgorgement of Profits, and the Evolving International Bribery Regime: Weighing Proportionality, Retribution, and Deterrence, Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 30, No. 2 (January 17, 2009).

It’s available from SSRN here.
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