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Goodbye To Waivers? Not So Fast . . .

Companies facing criminal indictment for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and other federal laws have a sure-fire way to help themselves. They can cooperate. Those found to have “fully cooperated” under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are entitled to reduced penalties; most of them escape with a deferred or non-prosecution agreement. How does the government measure cooperation? One way has been to look at whether the target agreed to spill the beans on employees by waiving the attorney-client privilege.

The Justice Department claims it has never forcibly stripped an organization of the privilege. That’s technically true. As a matter of law only the holder of the privilege can give it up. But it’s also true that organizations have routinely waived the privilege because of various inducements. Translation: the DOJ made them offers they couldn’t refuse.

Cindy A. Schipani, above, a professor from the University of Michigan’s business school (B.A. Michigan State, J.D. University of Chicago) has written an excellent paper (scholarly but readable) on the topic. It’s called “The Future of the Attorney-Client Privilege in Corporate Criminal Investigations” (available from SSRN here). Ellen Podgor cited it on the White Collar Crime Prof Blog here.

Prof Schipani traces the history of the waiver as a measure of organizational cooperation. She starts from the Holder Memorandum in 1999 by then-Deputy Attorney General (now AG) Eric Holder, followed by the Thompson Memorandum (2003), the McCallum Memorandum (2005) and the McNulty Memorandum (2006). Each encouraged waiver of the privilege by linking it to some extent to reduced penalties and deferred or non-prosecution agreements. And under the various DOJ guidelines, refusing to waive the privilege became implicitly linked with the threat of indictment, maximum penalties, and corporate ruin.

How serious that threat was became clear, Prof Schipani says, in May 2002. Arthur Andersen LLP was charged with obstruction of justice for shredding documents related to its audit of Enron. The jury convicted Andersen and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Prof Schipani says,

The indictment and subsequent conviction . . . devastated the firm’s reputation. Moreover, because the SEC does not allow convicted felons to audit public companies, the firm agreed to surrender its Certified Public Accounting licenses and its right to practice before the SEC, which effectively put what was once a “big five” accounting firm out of the business. Numerous Andersen clients deserted the firm, as did many partners and personnel, and Andersen was obliged to sell off profitable components of its business. In the aftermath, nearly 28,000 U.S. Andersen employees lost their jobs.

Although the Supreme Court reversed Andersen’s conviction in 2005 — holding that the trial court’s jury instruction was faulty — the firm was already gone.

By 2006, Prof Schipani says, most in-house and outside counsel were convinced that a “culture of waiver” permeated the DOJ and SEC. And they were right. “Nearly 80% of the [deferred or non-prosecution agreements] entered into before June, 2006 reportedly include waiver of privilege,” she says. “One would imagine the percentage to be significantly lower if corporations believed waiver to be optional and inconsequential.”

In August 2008, under heavy flak, the DOJ issued the so-called 2008 Guidelines. They purported to restore the privilege by removing consideration of a waiver from the evaluation of an organization’s cooperation. Did anything change?

Prof Schipani says it’s still too early to tell. But, she warns,

The 2008 Guidelines remain ambiguous regarding whether disclosure of internal investigation reports or interview memoranda prepared by attorneys may be required in order for a firm to receive credit for cooperation. If a corporation is deemed to have failed to timely disclose the relevant facts “for whatever reasons,” the guidelines instruct prosecutors not to give cooperation credit.

Her conclusion: Even if the DOJ does not make official demands for waivers, “corporations under governmental investigations may still feel pressure to voluntarily waive the privilege, particularly relating to factual work product.”

View the “2008 Guidelines” in the U.S. Attorney’s Manual 9-28.000 / Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations here and USAM 9-28.710 on attorney-client and work-product protections here.

Download the McNulty Memo here and the Thompson Memo here.

Read prior posts about the attorney-client privilege here.
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