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Asian Values, FCPA Risks

By Michael S. Diamant

Few FCPA compliance challenges are as vexing as the provision of everyday business courtesies, like gifts, meals, drinks, travel, and entertainment. Because the FCPA has no de minimis threshold, even minor expenditures could implicate the statute’s anti-bribery and accounting provisions. Although they are a necessary and common facet of international business, such benefits have led to enforcement actions against companies like Lucent Technologies, Avery Dennison, and UTStarcom.

Multinational companies that do business in China confront this challenge daily. The Chinese business environment particularly amplifies this risk for two reasons. First, the Chinese government owns a huge percentage of its domestic economy.  It is thought to own more than 70% of the country’s productive wealth, and it is the majority shareholder of 31% of publicly listed Chinese companies.

This has profound implications for FCPA compliance due to how the law is currently enforced: In their prosecution of companies like Schnitzer Steel, the U.S. regulators have taken an expansive view of the meaning of “foreign official.” The statute defines “foreign official” as an “any officer or employee of a foreign government or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof.” According to the U.S. authorities, this includes for-profit businesses, like steel mills, that are only partially owned or controlled by a foreign government.

Therefore, China’s broad ownership of its publicly listed companies qualifies a huge percent of Chinese businesspeople as “foreign officials” according to U.S. regulators.  When you discuss a prospective deal over dinner or a drink with a Chinese business executive, you might be giving a thing of value to a foreign official!

Second, Chinese business culture typically values the provision of things of value to build relationships. This development of business connections, termed guanxi, is especially important for multinational companies trying to develop business in China and make inroads into that country’s booming economy. Further, the failure to reciprocate courtesies that have been provided by your business counterparties in the past may be seen as rude and could hamper business. The risk of offending on one hand may be balanced against the risk of violating the FCPA on the other.

Over the years, we have advised numerous multinational companies on how to handle this conundrum.  This month we published an article in the Virginia Law & Business Review that gathers some of our accumulated wisdom on the issue, both by performing a legal analysis of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions to determine why certain business courtesies are permissible while others are not and by providing some internal compliance suggestions to manage this risk with regard to a company’s Chinese operations. We hope readers of the FCPA Blog find it helpful. It can be downloaded here.

Michael Diamant is a member of the white collar defense and investigations practice group in the Washington, D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. His practice focuses on white collar criminal defense, internal investigations, and corporate compliance. He has conducted internal investigations in eleven countries on four continents regarding possible FCPA violations and assisted clients in complying with government subpoenas and negotiating settlements with enforcement agencies.

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