Dig into the details of most FCPA enforcement actions and one quickly discovers that the conduct at issue is old – in some cases very old.

The February 2011 enforcement action against Tyson Foods for instance related to conduct between 2004 and 2006. See here for the SEC’s complaint.

The January 2011 enforcement action against Maxwell Technologies alleged conduct going back to 2002. See here for the SEC’s complaint.

The December 2010 enforcement action against Alcatel-Lucent alleged conduct going back to 2001. See here for the SEC’s complaint.

The June/July 2010 Bonny Island bribery enforcement actions alleged conduct going back to 1995. See here for the SEC’s complaint against Technip for instance.

The FCPA does not have a specific statute of limitations, rather the “catch-all” provisions in 18 USC 3282 (for criminal actions) and 28 USC 2462 (for civil actions) apply.

Cooperation is often the name of the game in FCPA enforcement inquiries and, because of that, tolling agreements are frequently agreed to. Thus, discussing a fundamental black-letter law concept like statute of limitations in the FCPA context seems foolish.

But imagine a world (a world that perhaps is slowly developing – see here for instance) in which individuals and companies in FCPA enforcement actions do mount legal defenses based on black-letter legal principles such as statute of limitations.

In that world, it is likely one would see judicial opinions like the recent opinion from U.S. District Court Judge Jane Boyle (N.D. Tex.) in SEC v. Microtune, Inc. et al (see here for the opinion).

The relevant facts are as follows.

In June 2008, the SEC filed an enforcement action against Microtune and two of its former executives alleging a fraudulent stock-option backdating scheme between 2000 and mid-2003. As noted in the opinion, the “crux” of the limitations defense “was that most of the acts forming the basis of the SEC’s case occured between 2001 and mid-2003.”

The precise issue before the court was “whether the doctrine of fraudulent concealment, relied on by the SEC, operate[d] to toll the running of the five-year limitations period under the facts of the case.” The SEC argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the limitations defense “because the ‘discovery rule’ and certain equitable tolling principles including ‘fraudulent concealment’ and the ‘continuing violations doctrine’ applied and salvaged claims that would otherwise be barred by the five-year statute of limitations.” The court had previously rejected the SEC’s “discovery rule” and “continuing violations doctrine” claims, and focused on the SEC’s “fraudulent concealment” theory for tolling the statute of limitations.

The court noted that in order for the SEC to prevail on its “fraudulent concealment” claim, it had to show that it “acted diligently once [the SEC] had inquiry notice, i.e., once [the SEC] knew of or should have known of the facts giving rise to [its] claim.” The court held that there was “no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the SEC acted diligently nor as to whether the SEC discovered the alleged wrongdoing within the limitations period.”

As noted in the opinion, “when asked about the SEC’s diligence” counsel for the SEC explained as follows: “we, often for resource reasons, wait until the company does its own investigation before we complete ours.” [In July 2006, Microtune announced it was commencing an internal review as to the alleged practices].

Judge Boyle was not persuaded and stated as follows. “While perhaps an understandable method of allocating Commission resources, such justification does not excuse the SEC’s apparent inactivity from mid-2004 to mid-2006, when further investigation would have uncovered the full extent of Microtune’s backdating and would have allowed the SEC to bring a complaint against Microtune much earlier than 2008.”

Accordingly, the judge dismissed all claims against the defendants falling outside of the five year limitations period – except those saved as a result of tolling agreements reached in 2007 and 2008.

See here for an article about the ruling from Shannon Green at Corporate Counsel.

Ask any FCPA practitioner and, in a candid moment, they will tell you that SEC FCPA inquiries often unnecessarily drag on for many years, including long stretches of complete inactivity, unreturned phone calls, and other delays due to SEC resource issues – including turnover of SEC attorneys assigned to the case.

Again, because cooperation tends to be the name of the game in FCPA inquiries and because tolling agreements are frequently agreed to, the SEC’s lack of diligence in an FCPA matter is generally not a relevant issue.

However, every once in a while it is interesting to think of what would happen if FCPA enforcement largely took place in the context of an adversarial system.

The recent Microtune decision would seem to provide a glimpse.