Archive for the ‘Enforcement Agency Policy’ Category

Judge Rakoff Offers A Few Final Zingers

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

If you have not noticed by now, I admire Judge Jed Rakoff (S.D.N.Y.).

Although outside the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act context, FCPA Professor has covered from day one (see here and here) Judge Rakoff’s concerns about SEC settlement policy as expressed in SEC v. Citigroup.  As highlighted in this post, the Second Circuit recently rebuked Judge Rakoff for his refusal to sign off on the settlement and concluded that the SEC does not need to establish “the truth” of the allegations against a settling party as a condition for approving consent decrees because, in the words of the Court, “trials are primarily about truth” whereas “consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism.”

On remand and obligated to assess the SEC v. Citigroup settlement through the narrow prism the Second Circuit adopted, Judge Rakoff had little choice but to approve of the settlement.  However, in doing so in his opinion yesterday, Judge Rakoff offered a few final zingers as he wrote:

“Nonetheless, this Court fears that, as a result of the Court of Appeal’s decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary’s contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever. But it would be a dereliction of duty for this Court to seek to evade the dictates of the Court of Appeals. That Court has now fixed the menu, leaving this Court with nothing but sour grapes.”

In the prior post highlighting the Second Circuit’s decision, I noted that the most troubling aspect of the decision is the statement that if the “S.E.C. does not wish to engage with the courts, it is free to eschew the involvement of the courts and employ its own arsenal of remedies instead.”  As highlighted in my article “A Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Narrative,” in the FCPA context this is largely the path the SEC has chosen.  As noted,  in 2013 50% of SEC corporate FCPA enforcement actions were not subjected to one ounce of judicial scrutiny either because the actions were resolved via a non-prosecution agreement or administrative cease and desist orders.

On this issue, Judge Rakoff states in a footnote as follows.

“[T]he Court of Appeals invites the SEC to avoid even the extremely modest review it leaves to the district court by proceeding on a solely administrative basis. (“Finally, we note that to the extent that the S.E.C. does not wish to engage with the courts, it is free to eschew the involvement of the courts and employ its own arsenal of remedies instead.” ). One might wonder: from where does the constitutional warrant for such unchecked and unbalanced administrative power derive?”

As to this last point, see also this recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Russell Ryan ((King & Spalding and previously an Assistant Director of the SEC Enforcement Division).

“[A]  surge in administrative [SEC] prosecutions should alarm anyone who values jury trials, due process and the constitutional separation of powers. The SEC often prefers to avoid judicial oversight and exploit the convenience of punishing alleged lawbreakers by administrative means, but doing so is unconstitutional. And if courts allow the SEC to get away with it, other executive-branch agencies are sure to follow. [...]  On its website, the SEC accurately describes itself as “first and foremost” a law-enforcement agency. As such, the agency should play no role in deciding guilt and meting out punishment against the people it prosecutes. Those roles should be reserved for juries and life-tenured judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution. Today’s model of penal SEC law enforcement is categorically unsuited for rushed and truncated administrative hearings in which the agency and its own employees serve as prosecutor, judge and punisher. Such administrative prosecution has no place in a constitutional system based on checks and balances, separation of powers and due process.”

*****

I also tipped my hat to Judge Rakoff in this November 2013 post for his speech “Why Have No High Level Executives Been Prosecuted in Connection with the Financial Crisis?” As highlighted in the post, Judge Rakoff hit on many of the same general issues (outside the FCPA context) I discussed in my 2010 Senate FCPA testimony - namely the general lack of individual enforcement actions in connection with most corporate FCPA enforcement actions and how this dynamic (far from the “but nobody was charged” claim)  could best be explained by the quality and legitimacy of the corporate enforcement action in the first place given the prevalent use of non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements to resolve corporate FCPA enforcement actions.  As highlighted in the post, in answering his own question, Judge Rakoff offered that “one possibility … is that no fraud was committed.  This possibility should not be discounted.”

Friday Roundup

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Elevate, a surprise verdict? SEC Chair on compliance, self-reporting and cooperation, quotable, and for the reading stack.  It’s all here in the Friday Roundup.

Elevate Your FCPA Knowledge and Practical Skills

Join lawyers and other in-house counsel and compliance professionals from around the country – indeed the world –  already registered for the inaugural FCPA Institute July 16-17th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The FCPA Institute is a unique two-day learning experience ideal for a diverse group of professionals seeking to elevate their FCPA knowledge and practical skills.  FCPA Institute participants will have their knowledge assessed and upon successful completion of a written assessment tool can earn a certificate of completion. In this way, successful completion of the FCPA Institute represents a value-added credential for professional development.

To register see here.

A Surprise Verdict?

As has been widely reported (see here and here for instance) Rebekah Brooks, a former senior News Corporation executive, was found not guilty of various counts (including conspiracy to commit misconduct – in other words bribery) by an English jury earlier this week.

The bribery-related verdict comes as a bit of a surprise given that Brooks – as highlighted in this previous post and as reported by the media:

“[Rebekah Brooks testified that] she authorized payments to public officials in exchange for information on “half a dozen occasions” during her time as a newspaper editor—but did so only in what she said was the public interest. [...]  On the stand, Ms. Brooks, who edited News Corp’s Sun newspaper and its now-closed News of the World sister title, said the payments were made for good reasons, and done so on rare occasions and after careful consideration. “My view at the time was that there had to be an overwhelming public interest to justify payments in the very narrow circumstances of a public official being paid for information directly in line with their jobs,” said Ms. Brooks.”

As to the other defendants – Andy Coulson (a former senior News Corp. editor) and Clive Goodman (a former royal reporter for New Corp.’s defunct News of the World publication) –  the jury failed to reach a verdict on the bribery-related count.

At the beginning of the trials, in this October 2013 post, I observed:

“What happens in these trials concerning the bribery offenses will not determine the outcome of any potential News Corp. FCPA enforcement action.  But you can bet that the DOJ and SEC will be interested in the ultimate outcome.  In short, if there is a judicial finding that Brooks and/or Coulson or other high-level executives in London authorized or otherwise knew of the alleged improper payments, this will likely be a factor in how the DOJ and SEC ultimately resolve any potential enforcement action and how News Corp.’s overall culpability score may be calculated under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines.”

SEC Chair White on Compliance, Self-Reporting and Cooperation

SEC Chair Mary Jo White recently delivered this speech titled “A Few Things Directors Should Know About the SEC.”

Among other topics, White spoke about the importance of compliance, self-reporting and cooperation and relevant portions of the speech are highlighted below.

Compliance

“Ethics and honesty can become core corporate values when directors and senior executives embrace them.  This includes establishing strong corporate compliance programs focused on regular training of employees, effective and accessible codes of conduct, and procedures that ensure complaints are thoroughly and fairly investigated.  And, it must be obvious to all in your organization that the board and senior management highly value and respect the company’s legal and compliance functions.  Creating a robust compliance culture also means rewarding employees who do the right thing and ensuring that no one at the company is considered above the law.  Ignoring the misconduct of a high performer or a key executive will not cut it.  Compliance simply must be an enterprise-wide effort.”

Self-Reporting and Cooperation

“Even in the best run companies with strong boards, the right tone at the top and robust compliance programs, wrongdoing will almost inevitably occur from time-to-time.  What should you do when that happens?  How should you respond?  What does the SEC expect you to do?  When should a company self-report wrongdoing to the SEC or other authorities?  All of these questions require careful consideration and appropriate action. For tonight, I will focus just on the last one about self-reporting.

If your company has uncovered serious wrongdoing, you will need to decide whether, how and when to report the matter to the SEC.  One immediate question you will have to answer is whether what has been discovered constitutes material information that requires public disclosure.  If the answer is yes, that fact will also invariably dictate an obvious affirmative answer to broader self-reporting to the SEC.

In other situations, you will need to decide whether to call us about a serious, but non-material event – perhaps a rogue employee in a small foreign subsidiary has been bribing a foreign official in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”).  You intend to take decisive action against the employee and enhance your FCPA compliance program.  Your disclosure lawyer’s view is that the occurrence does not require public disclosure.  That does not, however, end your inquiry or responsibilities.  Your company still needs to decide whether to self-report to the SEC, and consider what that may mean for the company.

As many of you know, the Commission in the 2001 Seaboard statement on cooperation, explained how self-reporting, cooperation, self-policing, and remediation factor into our decisions when considering enforcement actions.  And, I can tell you from experience that of those four factors, self-reporting is especially important to both the SEC and the Department of Justice.

What are the benefits to your company of self-reporting?  You can read about that in the SEC’s press releases on enforcement actions, which routinely highlight how the quality of a company’s cooperation has affected any resulting enforcement action.  Typically, a company realizes the benefits of cooperation through a reduced penalty, or, at times, no penalty or even not proceeding in an exceptional case.

Not that you should need any extra incentive, but keep in mind that there are also downsides in deciding not to self-report.  If the wrongdoing is not self-reported, the opportunity to earn significant credit for cooperation may be lost.  And, with our new whistleblower program … the SEC is more likely than ever to learn of the misconduct through another channel.

Let me just say a few words about how to cooperate with SEC investigations.

As an initial matter, the decision to cooperate should be made early in the investigation.  The tone and substance of the early communications we have with a company are critical in establishing the tenor of our investigations and how the staff and the Commission will view your cooperation in the final stages of an investigation. Holding back information, perhaps out of a desire to keep options open as the investigation develops, can, in fact, foreclose the opportunity for cooperation credit.  We are looking for companies to be forthcoming and candid partners with the SEC investigative team – and the board has a responsibility to ensure that management and the legal team are providing this kind of cooperation.

When choosing the path of self-reporting and cooperation, do so decisively.  Make it clear from the outset that the board’s expectation is that any internal investigation will search for misconduct wherever and however high up it occurred; that the company will act promptly and report real-time to the Enforcement staff on any misconduct uncovered; and that the company will hold its responsible employees to account.

There is, of course, cooperation and then there is cooperation, just as there are compliance programs that look great on paper but are not strongly enforced.  We know the difference.  Cooperation means more than complying with our subpoenas for documents and testimony – the law requires you to do that.  If you want your company to get credit for cooperation – and you should – then sincere and thorough partnering with the Division of Enforcement to uncover all the facts is required.”

As highlighted in this previous post, here is what White had to say about cooperation issues as a lawyer in private practice.

“Today, before making their decisions about charging companies, some prosecutors are exerting considerable – some say, extreme -pressure on corporate behavior under the not so subtle threat that if the company doesn’t do as the government wishes, the company risks, at the end of the day, being indicted.”

[...]

“To ensure that a company does not become that ‘rare’ case resulting in a corporate indictment with all of its attendant negative consequences, a company must not poke the government in the eye by declining any of its requests or suggestion of how a cooperative, good corporate citizen is to behave in the government’s criminal investigation.  This template, in my view, can give prosecutors too much power.”

Quotable

Homer Moyer (Miller & Chevalier) states as follows in the June issue of Global Investigations Review.

“As this area of law has evolved, the challenges for all concerned have changed.  Agencies plainly hold most of the cards here.  They have great leverage in these cases.  [...] [T]hey are rarely subject to judicial review.  That creates a special responsibility for enforcement agencies.

As a practical matter, they are creating the operative jurisprudence.  Companies and practitioners read those settlements and try to tease out of them the principles that have been at play.  So it’s important that the government articulates its legal rationales, and frankly it’s important the government self-policies.  It may invest in a lengthy investigation at the end of which it should take no action.  And that’s sometimes hard for an agency to do.

The agencies have, over the last 25 years, expanded their jurisdictional reach; they’ve expanded their theories of liability; they have expanded the penalties imposed with new kinds of penalties and new kinds of settlements.  So I think there’s a burden on the agencies, given that much sway, to act especially responsibly.

[...]

[T]he great interest in this area has been prompted in part by reports of enormous costs to corporations of investigations.  I think law firms have to address that.  Many of the reported cases are stupefying and, in my opinion, can be avoided.  But that takes a little clear-eyed thinking on the part of both outside law firms and corporations.”

Reading Stack

From Transparency International UK - Countering Small Bribes.  As described in this release:

“[The report] provides practical advice on addressing the challenge of countering small bribes including “grease payments”. It is also designed to be of assistance to regulators, law-makers, prosecuting agencies and professional advisers. Countering small bribes is a complex challenge for companies. Transparency International research shows that, globally, more than 1 in 4 people paid a bribe in a recent 12 month period, highlighting the scale of the problem facing companies. Demands most often occur in overseas markets, where employees may be vulnerable through travelling alone or the company needs to release critical goods from customs. The guidance provides a set of principles, discussion and advice designed to help companies operate to high ethical standards, protect their reputations and fulfill their legal obligations.”

*****

A good weekend to all.

DOJ’s Knox Follows The Same Tired Script

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Department of Justice enforcement officials frequently speak about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  However, most of these events are private in which the public has to fork over a couple thousand of dollars to a private company who markets the public officials to drive attendance at the event (see here for the prior post).  The end result is that there is seldom the opportunity to analyze FCPA statements by DOJ officials.

That is what makes video clips (here and here) of Jeffrey Knox (DOJ Fraud Section Chief) at a recent CFO Network event sponsored by the Wall Street Journal valuable.

In the video clips, Knox follows the DOJ’s same tired script when it comes to voluntary disclosure and other issues when it comes to the DOJ’s FCPA enforcement program.

Moreover, as highlighted below, Knox’s statements on voluntary disclosure are contradicted by previous statements by former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer – as well as numerous statements by former DOJ FCPA enforcement officials.

Most problematic, Knox’s statements on voluntary disclosure and the source of DOJ corporate FCPA enforcement actions are contradicted by the facts.

In the first video clip, Dennis Berman (Business Editor, WSJ) returns to a topic previously explored by Forbes in 2010 (see here for the “Bribery Racket”) as well as the WSJ in 2012 (see here for “FCPA Inc. and the Business of Bribery”) and calls the relationship between FCPA law firms, companies, and the DOJ a “protection racket all around” and that the “three party relationship might bring some good, but in a way it doesn’t feel like justice, it feels like a business arrangement.”

Knox of course disagreed and stated that it is “just not true” that the DOJ outsources its FCPA investigations to law firms.  Knox stated:  ”we don’t outsource, internal investigations are a tool, an important tool in many cases for us that is used throughout law enforcement, there is nothing exceptional about the FCPA, but we are not relying on it [internal investigations].”

Knox’s statement that the DOJ does not rely on law firm investigations in bringing FCPA enforcement action is contradicted by previous statements by former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer.  While at the DOJ, Breuer stated that the DOJ “absolutely need[s] companies through their firms to provide us with their investigations.”  (See here).

Moreover, Knox’s statement is contradicted by the facts.

As highlighted here, in 2013, 57% of corporate FCPA enforcement actions were the direct result of voluntary disclosures.  As highlighted here, in 2012, 56% of corporate FCPA enforcement actions were the direct result of voluntary disclosures.  As highlighted here, in 2011, 73% of corporate FCPA enforcement actions were the direct result of voluntary disclosures.

As to voluntary disclosures, Knox stated that the “earlier that the company engages with us the better position it is going to be in” regarding various aspects of its FCPA scrutiny.

For obvious reasons, the DOJ favors voluntary disclosure as it makes its job easier and is the fuel that feeds its FCPA enforcement program.  However, in contrast to Knox’s statement about voluntary disclosure, several former DOJ enforcement officials have questioned the need for  FCPA voluntary disclosures in many instances.

Indeed, the former Chief of the DOJ’s Fraud Section stated (obviously after he left that position) as follows.

“It often will not be in a company’s best interest to disclose if, for example, the allegations prove not to be credible or if it is unclear whether the conduct even amounts to a violation of law. Under those circumstances, a disclosure could unnecessarily embroil the company in a lengthy and costly government investigation and result in other repercussions such as triggering civil litigation and harm to a company’s reputation that could otherwise be avoided. It’s a challenging calculus. […] However, the fact that a company doesn’t disclose a problem that ultimately comes to DOJ’s attention is not necessarily going to damage the company’s credibility with DOJ. Regulators recognize that not every allegation should be of interest to them – and, frankly, having counsel that knows when they’ll be interested and when they won’t is really important.”

Similarly, as noted by a former SEC enforcement attorney and a former DOJ enforcement attorney:

“Not all potential [FCPA] problems, however, are appropriate for disclosure. After investigation, allegations of misconduct may not result in a determination that illicit activity has occurred. […] Prematurely attracting the government’s attention may, as a practical matter, shift the burden to the company to prove the absence of a corruption problem. Enforcement officials may feel the need as a matter of basic human nature to seek some type of resolution to a case where they have invested significant time and effort. Companies need to weigh the potential benefits of cooperation against the significant costs of initiating a potentially unwarranted government investigation.”

As evident from the above video clips, Alexandra Wrage (President of Trace International) joined Knox in the discussion of FCPA issues.  Wrage rightly shot back at Knox’s voluntary disclosure comments and noted that early voluntary disclosure “is terrifying to companies before they have their arms around the scope of the problem.”  Wrage noted that the “idea that a company is going to go in first without knowing the full extent of the problem, I don’t think any general counsel is going to sign off on this.”

In the second video clip, the WSJ’s Berman asks Knox, using various examples of FCPA scrutiny that have resulted in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in pre-enforcement action professional fees and expenses, “is the cure worst than the disease.”

To his credit, Knox rightly noted that “in some instances companies are spending too much money on investigations.”  His statement is similar to the one Chuck Duross (then the DOJ FCPA’s Unit Chief) made at an ABA conference in September 2013.  As highlighted here, Duross suggested that often company lawyers are seeking to over do it through a global search of operations for FCPA issues.  He discussed a case in which a company and its professional advisors came to a meeting with a global search plan and he said “no, no, no, that is not what I want.”  He indicated that the lawyers and other professional advisors in the room “looked unhappy,” but that the general counsel of the company was happy.  (For more on this dynamic, see this prior post).

For her part, Wrage agreed with Knox that there is “lots of scare tactics by law firms” when it comes to the FCPA.

One final comment.

During the discussion, Knox stated that there is ”massive corruption going on around the world.”  Similar to the issues discussed in this recent post, this statement alone ought to cause the enforcement agencies to pause and reflect whether – 37 years after passage of the FCPA – enforcement agency policies and positions (which are frequently modeled by other nations) are most effective in accomplishing the objectives of the FCPA.

Is The DOJ Picking on Non-U.S. Companies and Individuals?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Today’s post is from David Simon (Foley & Lardner).

*****

The debate over whether the United States should impose its values on the rest of the world through enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) is over.

Almost everyone now rejects the cultural relativist argument—that there are different business cultures in different parts of the world, and that the United States should respect those differences and refrain from imposing our standards of doing business on U.S. companies operating abroad.  Rather, the rise of anti-corruption legislation, the proliferation of OECD standards, and increased enforcement—not only by the United States, but by many countries enforcing their own anticorruption laws—all show an emerging consensus that corruption of this nature is objectively bad.  The United States should be commended for leading the way on this.

Yet the recent enforcement activity of the Department of Justice[i] (“DOJ”) raises questions as to whether it is enforcing the FCPA in a manner consistent with the statute’s purpose (and the overarching purpose of domestic criminal law).  According to Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole, whose remarks are available here, that purpose is U.S.-centric:

“In enacting the FCPA … Congress recognized that foreign bribery had tarnished the image of U.S. businesses, impaired public confidence in the financial integrity of U.S. companies, and had hampered the functioning of markets, resulting in market inefficiencies, market instability, sub-standard products and services, and an unfair playing field.”

True enough, but it is hard to dispute that the focus of FCPA enforcement has to some extent shifted away from U.S. businesses and citizens.  As noted on FCPA Professor, eight of the top ten corporate FCPA settlements have involved non-U.S. businesses.

Likewise, the number of individual FCPA prosecutions against non-U.S. citizens has been increasing.  In recent years, individual criminal prosecutions have been brought against citizens of the Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Switzerland, Venezuela, and Sri Lanka—and some involve very tenuous connections to the United States.

For example, as previously highlighted on this blog, in December 2011 the DOJ charged, among others, former Siemens executive and German national Stephan Signer under the FCPA based on conduct concerning the Argentine prong of the 2008 Siemens enforcement action.  The jurisdictional allegation against Signer was that he caused Siemens to transfer two wires to bank accounts in the United States in furtherance of a scheme to bribe Argentine government officials.[ii]

I do not argue that the FCPA does not permit the DOJ to charge non-U.S. citizens or companies.  Indeed, the 1998 amendments make it clear that Congress intended to give the DOJ that power, providing it with jurisdiction over several categories of non-U.S. entities and individuals.  It should be noted, however, that the DOJ has adopted a markedly broad interpretation of the FCPA’s territorial jurisdiction provisions, resulting in increasingly attenuated connections between the United States and individual defendants like Mr. Signer.  These connections may include merely “placing a telephone call or sending an e-mail, text message, or fax from, to, or through the United States.”[iii]  The legal significance of these increasingly tenuous jurisdictional justifications, previously referred to on FCPA Professor as “de facto extraterritorial jurisdiction,” remains a contentious, and related, issue.

The question I raise here is not whether the DOJ’s policy of enforcement is legal, but whether such a focus (or, at least, the perception of such a focus) on non-U.S. persons and companies is prudent and appropriate.  In describing the principles underlying the jurisdiction to prescribe, the American Law Institute (“ALI”) notes that the United States has “generally refrained from exercising jurisdiction where it would be unreasonable to do so.”[iv]  But “[a]ttempts by some states—notably the United States, to apply their law on the basis of very broad conceptions of territoriality or nationality [has bred] resentment and brought forth conflicting assertions of the rules of international law.”[v]  Indeed.

The concerns I have about this are not confined to FCPA enforcement.  The same trend is apparent in other areas of the law, such as economic sanctions and export controls.  The pattern of enforcement being concentrated against non-U.S. companies is shown just as sharply under those laws, with the recent economic sanctions against such firms as ING Bank ($619 million against Netherlands financial institution), Royal Bank of Scotland ($100 million against UK financial institution), and Credit Suisse ($536 million against Swiss financial institution).  With the U.S. Government reportedly considering the first $10 billion penalty for violations of U.S. economic sanctions laws against BNP Paribas (a French financial institution), French President Francois Hollande reportedly has personally lobbied against what is perceived as an unfair singling out of an EU financial institution for payment of such a large fine.  To the French Government, at least, the inequity of the U.S. Government assessing a fine that surpasses the entire yearly profits of one of the largest French financial institutions is plain.

The pattern of enforcement described above, should it be allowed to continue, sends a message to the rest of the world that the DOJ is mostly interested in big dollar settlements and soft foreign targets.  Is this the message we wish to send to our foreign allies in the fight against corruption?

Although the DOJ’s application of the FCPA (and other laws governing international business conduct)  to prosecute increasing numbers of foreign persons may be legal, and technically “reasonable” at international law, that does not necessarily make it appropriate or advisable.  Rather, these attempts to apply a broad conception of territoriality in pursuit of greater numbers of prosecutions and larger settlements may be more damaging than DOJ perceives.  This has the potential to undermine the U.S. position that anti-corruption is a global issue, and counteracts the progress the U.S. has made in altering its image from that of an overreaching imperialist power to a competent and moderate leader in the creation and enforcement of global anti-corruption norms.

*****

This article in today’s New York Times DealBook discusses many of the same issues highlighted in the above post.


[i] I focus here principally on the DOJ, not the SEC.  The DOJ, of course, is a law enforcement agency charged with enforcing criminal laws.  The SEC is a regulatory agency, and the companies and individuals subject to its jurisdiction essentially opt in by taking advantage of the U.S.’s financial markets.

[ii] Indictment at 40, United States v. Uriel Sharef, et. al., 11CR-1-56 (S.D.N.Y 2011), available at http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/fcpa/cases/sharef-uriel/2011-12-12-siemens-ndictment.pdf.

[iii] See U.S. Dep’t of Justice & U.S. Sec. Exch. Comm’n, A Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, 11 (Nov. 14, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/fcpa/guide.pdf.

[iv] Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States, § 403 cmt. a. (1986).

[v] Id. at Chapter One: Jurisdiction to Prescribe, Subchapter A.: Principles of Jurisdiction to Prescribe, Introductory Note.

Second Circuit Concludes That SEC Settlements Are Not About The Truth, But Pragmatism

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Although outside the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act context, these pages have covered from day one (see here and here) Judge Rakoff’s concerns about SEC settlement policy as expressed in SEC v. Citigroup.  As noted in this December 2011 post, Judge Rakoff refused to sign off on the settlement and in pertinent part stated:

“Purely private parties can settle a case without ever agreeing on the facts, for all that is required is that a plaintiff dismiss his complaint.  But when a public agency asks a court to become its partner in enforcement by imposing wide-ranging injunctive remedies on a defendant, enforced by the formidable judicial power of contempt, the court, and the public, need some knowledge of what the underlying facts are: for otherwise, the court becomes a mere handmaiden to a settlement privately negotiated on the basis of unknown facts, while the public is deprived of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance.”

Judge Rakoff called the SEC’s long-standing resolution policy ”hallowed by history, but not by reason” and stated that the policy “deprives the Court of even the most minimal assurance that the substantial injunctive relief it is being asked to impose has any basis in fact.”  Judge Rakoff’s stated that the “SEC, of all agencies, has a duty, inherent in its statutory mission, to see that the truth emerges; and if it fails to do so, this Court must not, in the name of deference or convenience, grant judicial enforcement to the agency’s contrivances.”

Yesterday, the Second Circuit concluded (see here for the decision) that the SEC does not need to establish “the truth” of the allegations against a settling party as a condition for approving consent decrees because, in the words of the Court, “trials are primarily about truth” whereas “consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism.”  The Second Circuit’s rebuke of Judge Rakoff was hardly a surprise given the same court’s March 2012 procedural decision in the same case (see here for the prior post) in which it stated – as to SEC settlement policy – that “it is not … the proper function of federal courts to dictate policy to executive administrative agencies.”

In pertinent part, the Second Circuit concluded that “there is no basis in the law for the district court to require an admission of liability as a condition for approving a settlement between the parties. The decision to require an admission of liability before entering into a consent decree rests squarely with the S.E.C.”

Under the heading “scope of deference” the opinion states in pertinent part as follows (internal citations omitted).

“We turn, then, to the far thornier question of what deference the district court owes an agency seeking a consent decree. Our Court recognizes a “strong federal policy favoring the approval and enforcement of consent decrees.” “To be sure, when the district judge is presented with a proposed consent judgment, he is not merely a ‘rubber stamp.’”

The district court here found it was “required, even after giving substantial deference to the views of the administrative agency, to be satisfied that it is not being used as a tool to enforce an agreement that is unfair, unreasonable, inadequate, or in contravention of the public interest.” Other district courts in our Circuit view “[t]he role of the Court in reviewing and approving proposed consent judgments in S.E.C. enforcement actions [as] ’restricted to assessing whether the settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate within the limitations Congress has imposed on the S.E.C.to recover investor losses.’”

The “fair, reasonable, adequate and in the public interest” standard invoked by the district court finds its origins in a variety of cases. Our Court previously held, in the context of assessing a plan for distributing the proceeds of a proposed disgorgement order, that “once the district court satisfies itself that the distribution of proceeds in a proposed S.E.C. disgorgement plan is fair and reasonable, its review is at an end.” The Ninth Circuit— in circumstances similar to those presented here, a proposed consent decree aimed at settling an S.E.C. enforcement action—noted that “[u]nless a consent decree is unfair, inadequate, or unreasonable, it ought to be approved.”

Today we clarify that the proper standard for reviewing a proposed consent judgment involving an enforcement agency requires that the district court determine whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, with  the additional requirement that the “public interest would not be disserved,” in the event that the consent decree includes injunctive relief. Absent a substantial basis in the record for concluding that the proposed consent decree does not meet these requirements, the district court is required to enter the order.

We omit “adequacy” from the standard. Scrutinizing a proposed consent decree for “adequacy” appears borrowed from the review applied to class action settlements, and strikes us as particularly inapt in the context of a proposed S.E.C. consent decree.

The adequacy requirement makes perfect sense in the context of a class action settlement—a class action settlement typically precludes future claims, and a court is rightly concerned that the settlement achieved be adequate. By the same token, a consent decree does not pose the same concerns regarding adequacy—if there are potential plaintiffs with a private right of action, those plaintiffs are free to bring their own actions. If there is no private right of action, then the S.E.C. is the entity charged with representing the victims, and is politically liable if it fails to adequately perform its duties.

A court evaluating a proposed S.E.C. consent decree for fairness and reasonableness should, at a minimum, assess (1) the basic legality of the decree, (2) whether the terms of the decree, including its enforcement mechanism, are clear; (3) whether the consent decree reflects a resolution of the actual claims in the complaint; and (4) whether the consent decree is tainted by improper collusion or corruption of some kind.  Consent decrees vary, and depending on the decree a district court may need to make additional inquiry to ensure that the consent decree is fair and reasonable. The primary focus of the inquiry, however, should be on ensuring the consent decree is procedurally proper, using objective measures similar to the factors set out above, taking care not to infringe on the S.E.C.’s discretionary authority to settle on a particular set of terms.

It is an abuse of discretion to require, as the district court did here, that the S.E.C. establish the “truth” of the allegations against a settling party as a condition for approving the consent decrees. Trials are primarily about the truth. Consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism. “[C]onsent decrees are normally compromises in which the parties give up something they might have won in litigation and waive their rights to litigation.”

Thus, a consent decree “must be construed as . . . written, and not as it might have been written had the plaintiff established his factual claims and legal theories in litigation.” Consent decrees provide parties with a means to manage risk. “The numerous factors that affect a litigant’s decision whether to compromise a case or litigate it to the end include the value of the particular proposed compromise, the perceived likelihood of obtaining a still better settlement, the prospects of coming out better, or worse, after a full trial, and the resources that would need to be expended in the attempt.“  These assessments are uniquely for the litigants to make. It is not within the district court’s purview to demand “cold, hard, solid facts, established either by admissions or by trials,” as to the truth of the allegations in the complaint as a condition for approving a consent decree.

As part of its review, the district court will necessarily establish that a factual basis exists for the proposed decree. In many cases, setting out the colorable claims, supported by factual averments by the S.E.C., neither admitted nor denied by the wrongdoer, will suffice to allow the district court to conduct its  review. Other cases may require more of a showing, for example, if the district court’s initial review of the record raises a suspicion that the consent decree was entered into as a result of improper collusion between the S.E.C. and the settling party. We need not, and do not, delineate the precise contours of the factual basis required to obtain approval for each consent decree that may pass before the court. It is enough to state that the district court here, with the benefit of copious submissions by the parties, likely had a sufficient record before it on which to determine if the proposed decree was fair and reasonable.

[…]

The job of determining whether the proposed S.E.C. consent decree best serves the public interest, however, rests squarely with the S.E.C., and its decision merits significant deference.  [F]ederal judges—who have no constituency—have a duty to respect legitimate policy choices made by those who do. The responsibilities for assessing the wisdom of such policy choices and resolving the struggle between competing views of the public interest are not judicial ones: “Our Constitution vests such responsibilities in the public branches.”

[…]

To the extent the district court withheld approval of the consent decree on the ground that it believed the S.E.C. failed to bring the proper charges against Citigroup, that constituted an abuse of discretion.  […] The exclusive right to choose which charges to levy against a defendant rests with the S.E.C.

[…]

Finally, we note that to the extent that the S.E.C. does not wish to engage with the courts, it is free to eschew the involvement of the courts and employ its own arsenal of remedies instead. The S.E.C. can also order the disgorgement of profits.  Admittedly, these remedies may not  be on par with the relief afforded by a so‐ordered consent decree and federal  court injunctions. But if the S.E.C. prefers to call upon the power of the courts in ordering a consent decree and issuing an injunction, then the S.E.C. must be willing to assure the court that the settlement proposed is fair and reasonable. “Consent decrees are a hybrid in the sense that they are at once both contracts and orders; they are construed largely as contracts, but are enforced as orders.”  For the courts to simply accept a proposed S.E.C. consent decree without any review would be a dereliction of the court’s duty to ensure the orders it enters are proper.”

*****

Judge Rakoff may have lost this case, but I agree with this New York Times article “that he had already secured a victory of sorts, having set in motion a series of events that swayed public opinion and influenced the S.E.C.’s broader enforcement agenda.”  For instance, the SEC’s revision to its long-standing neither admit nor deny settlement policy (see here) is largely attributable to Judge Rakoff.

For additional analysis of the Second Circuit’s decision, see here from Professor Peter Henning writing at the NY Times Dealbook, here from Professor Eric Gerding writing at the Conglomerate.

*****

In Gabelli v. SEC (see here for the prior post) a unanimous Supreme Court recognized that the SEC is a different type of plaintiff. Thus, the most troubling aspect of the Second Circuit’s opinion is the statement that if the “S.E.C. does not wish to engage with the courts, it is free to eschew the involvement of the courts and employ its own arsenal of remedies instead.”

As highlighted in my article “A Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Narrative,” in the FCPA context this is largely the path the SEC has chosen.  As noted,  in 2013 50% of SEC corporate FCPA enforcement actions were not subjected to one ounce of judicial scrutiny either because the actions were resolved via a non-prosecution agreement or administrative cease and desist orders.