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Memo to movie makers: Film roles can be something ‘of value’

In the fall of 2013, the FCPA Blog published my series Cameo Corruption, which focused on the potential use of film roles as something “of value” that could be improperly offered to influence foreign officials.

In the conclusion of that series, I encouraged filmmakers to vet their talent to avoid claims that some actors were third-party intermediaries.

To further my argument, I brought up legendary Indian actress Shabana Azmi as an example of someone with political connections starring in Western films. Having mentioned Azmi for my academic purposes, I didn’t really think about her again.

Fast-forward to August 2016. Having gotten more and more involved with the entertainment industry, I found myself as an extra on the set of Signature Move. At the time, I didn’t know much about the film, other than the fact that the Chicago film community was very excited about it.

As I went about my business, I saw an actress whom I’d surely seen somewhere. It took a few moments to connect the dots but, sure enough, there was Ms. Azmi two feet away from me.

I quickly transitioned from star-struck to sheepish, as I remembered my previous “connection” with her. By this point, my views on the matter had been informed by various instances of princeling employment. While penalizing JP Morgan, Qualcomm, BNY Mellon, and others for their improper hiring practices, the authorities made clear that hiring a relative of a government official was not inherently illegal. As noted here previously, if you use the same hiring standards for an official’s relative as you would for anybody else, then you’re on your way toward compliance.

Observing Shabana on set, I immediately realized that the producers of Signature Move would withstand any scrutiny, as would anyone else who chose to hire this woman. Aside from simply having that aura of someone I would want to see on screen, she offered insightful advice with respect to camera angles, sightlines, and other aspects of filmmaking. And, on top of that, I saw the film crew incorporating her advice.

But not everybody is Shabana Azmi.

Though the cameo corruption analysis remains somewhat esoteric, the potential of employing relatives of foreign officials won’t go anywhere. Excluding anything to do with Shabana Azmi, I stand by my thesis that strategic allocation of film roles can indeed be used as an alternative method of bribery.

To further the discussion, I’d like to propose that the DOJ and SEC take a page from USCIS. I feel pretty comfortable conjecturing that Shabana Azmi came to Chicago on an O-1 visa.

There are two types of O-1 visas:

  • O-1A, for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics (not including the arts, motion pictures or television industry)
  • O-1B, for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry

Even if I’m wrong about her visa type, I think it’s safe to say that Shabana Azmi would qualify for O-1B.

There are additional types of visas that are designed for people with extraordinary abilities – not necessarily tied to any type of industry. For example, there’s the EB-2 National Interest Waiver.

If an individual qualifies for one of these types of visas, then a company should be able to employ that individual, regardless of any affiliations with foreign officials. Such objective standards (which, admittedly, depend on some subjectivity from the USCIS) would go a long way toward providing certainty to businesses that rely on leveraging high-profile individuals, many of whom have ties to foreign officials.

As the princeling cases have shown, however, the risk isn’t limited to persons with extraordinary abilities. In fact, relatives of foreign officials are much more commonly given marginal roles — internships, entry-level positions, etc. Further, those jobs are frequently granted outside of any immigration context. Under those circumstances, companies would indeed have no other choice than to follow best practices.

With respect to the film industry, I’d still recommend that filmmakers likewise adopt these best practices, but also use the O-1 visa requirements as a guide. There’s a world of difference between hiring Shabana Azmi or the no-name paramour of a political elite.


Ilya Zlatkin is a Chicago attorney focusing on corporate transactions, entertainment law, and international entrepreneurship. He’s also a Certified Fraud Examiner. He can be contacted here.

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