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Is The Giffen Case America’s BAE?

We’re always happy to hear from lawyer Andy Spalding, left. He recently returned from a year-long Fulbright Research Grant in Mumbai, India, and is now on the faculty at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

He’s been thinking about the extraordinary case of James Giffen, the former middleman to U.S. oil companies doing business in Kazakhstan. He writes:

Dear FCPA Blog,

With James Giffen’s plea on Friday to a mere misdemeanor, the case is drawing to an anti-climatic and curious close. In an era of ever-increasing fines and penalties for FCPA violations, Giffen’s modest settlement seems an aberration; even more peculiar, some have commented on how the otherwise highly-capable Southern District prosecutors fumbled through this case with atypical awkwardness.  

All of this gives rise to speculation that the case was subject to political pressures — namely, that either the agencies that were asked to produce documents and stonewalled, or outside agencies that may have bore down on the Southern District, determined that the foreign policy implications of this case, involving delicate relations with resource-rich Kazakhstan, were so sensitive as to outweigh any public interest in Giffen’s fulsome prosecution.

If political forces did indeed compromise the prosecution (and few of us can know for sure), does this scenario seem familiar to anyone?

Let’s recall the similarly strange prosecution of BAE, the British defense contractor who allegedly paid more than $2 billion in bribes and kickbacks to a Saudi Arabian prince. The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office opened an investigation, which it suddenly closed.  We would learn that pressure to terminate the investigation came from outside (or perhaps, above) the SFO: the Blair government apparently insisted on the file’s closure in response to Saudi threats to cease cooperation with the UK’s anti-terrorism efforts.  

The High Court in London berated the SFO for capitulating, and on appeal the House of Lords declared SFO’s handling of the matter “extremely distasteful”; the SFO director resigned shortly thereafter. In apparent protest of the the SFO’s decision, our DOJ opened its own investigation, and the SFO eventually reopened its file. The result? BAE settled with the DOJ for $400 million, the third-highest amount in FCPA history. But the SFO fined BAE a relative pittance — £30 million. The parallel is unmistakable, and striking: in a case with heightened foreign policy sensitivities, allegations that seem to otherwise warrant a substantial settlement resulted in something far less.

In fairness to the DOJ, this may not be their fault: whether due to an uncooperative client, or irresistible political pressure, they may have wanted to push further but were hamstrung. Still, it raises a compelling question: Is the Giffen case America’s BAE?

Thanks,
Andy Spalding

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