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Cameo Corruption, Conclusion: Zero Dark Third-Party Intermediaries

In the previous four posts, we examined how the practice of allowing public officials to appear in films could be used as an alternative method of bribery. While we’ve focused on the idea of a foreign official receiving a cameo, the analysis actually applies to anyone who has a substantial enough connection to a foreign official. After all, the FCPA prohibits bribery through third-party intermediaries. So how should Hollywood behave when doling out film roles abroad?

First and foremost, filmmakers should be vetting all potential actors for any contacts with foreign officials. While it might be relatively easy to find out whether someone is a foreign official, determining whether an actor has potentially damaging connections is a harder task.

The challenge arises from the propensity of high-profile individuals to interact. Public officials are often celebrities, and it’s common for them to develop relationships with other celebrities. Even if a professional actor has the credentials to make her appropriate for a particular role, if a clear connection between an official and an actor exists, filmmakers need to careful about engaging the professional actor.

For example, the Academy Award-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty was filmed in India. At the time of filming, India media reported that the film would include Shabana Azmi, a famous Bollywood actress who also served as a member of the Indian parliament from 1997 to 2003. Since her retirement from parliament, Azmi has remained a social activist with close ties to political elites, which happen to include her husband, Javed Akhtar, a member of parliament since 2009.

It doesn’t look like Azmi ended up making the final cut of Zero Dark Thirty, but she almost certainly participated in some capacity. (As I mentioned in Part IV, an offer of value to a foreign official is enough for FCPA purposes.)

It’s also worth noting that Zero Dark Thirty grossed more than $362,000 in India during its opening weekend. It could be argued that media coverage of Azmi’s role contributed to the film’s revenue in India, and that whatever compensation Azmi received also gave value to her husband Akhtar, a foreign official. While there’s no evidence that the lack of attribution to Azmi in the film’s credits were an attempt to hide something, some might see it that way.

There’s absolutely no suggestion that Zero Dark Thirty’s creators engaged in corrupt behavior. But it’s self evident that anyone involved in the film would prefer not to be mentioned in the same breath as the FCPA. And we know that an investigation, even without proof of liability, can damage an enterprise and the people associated with it.

Ultimately, if filmmakers still choose to feature foreign officials or people like Azmi, their best strategy is to fully disclose their decisions and explain why no improprieties exist. A cameo is, after all, in the open, and coming to a movie theater near you. Inadequate due dilgence and analysis at the outset could lead to more serious problems than a barrage of rotten tomatoes.

In turn, it would be helpful for the DOJ to address the broader issue of a foreign official providing a benefit that doesn’t actually involve the use of the official’s formal authority. This is a blind spot in the current guidance, and a political cameo isn’t the only practice that fits that description. In the meantime, entertainers will have to deal with the lack of certainty.

Part I of this series is here, Part II is here, Part III is here, and Part IV is here.

Ilya Zlatkin is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond School of Law and holds degrees in economics and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia. He is currently awaiting the results of the Illinois bar exam and is in the process of becoming a Certified Fraud Examiner. He can be contacted here.

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