The debate on whether the use of Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) and Non-Prosecution Agreements (NPAs) has become lively again over the past couple of weeks. Last week, there was a panel hosted by the Corporate Crime Reporter conference at the National Press Club. The panel was moderated by Steven Fagell, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, and the panelists included Denis McInerney, the Criminal Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General, David Uhlmann, the former chief of the Environmental Crimes Section at the Department of Justice (DOJ), and currently a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, the FCPA Professor, Michael Koehler, Kathleen Harris, a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP in London, and Anthony Barkow, a partner at Jenner & Block in New York.
The FCPA Professor wrote about the conference in two posts this week. The second post, entitled “Seeing the Light from the ‘Dark Ages’”, reported on the panel discussion. In this post, the Professor flatly says that DPAs and NPAs should be abolished in the context of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement and that a compliance defense should be added to the FCPA. In the other corner stands Mike Volkov, who said in a recent post, entitled “The Continuing Controversy Over DPAs and NPAs”, that DPAs and NPAs are part of the growing arsenal of prosecutorial tools that can be brought to bear by the DOJ and now the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The Professor previously articulated his views against DPAs and NPAs last fall in a post entitled “Assistant Attorney General Breuer’s Unconvincing Defense Of DPAs / NPAs”. In that post he said that the “use of NPAs or DPAs allow “under-prosecution” of egregious instance of corporate conduct while at the same time facilitate the “over-prosecution” of business conduct.” The ‘under-prosecution’ comes “because they [DPAs and NPAs] do not result in any actual charges filed against a company, and thus do not require the company to plead to any charges, allow egregious instances of corporate conduct to be resolved too lightly without adequate sanctions and without achieving maximum deterrence.” The ‘over-prosecution’ comes “because of the “carrots” and “sticks’ relevant to resolving a DOJ enforcement action often nudge companies to agree to these vehicles for reasons of risk-aversion and efficiency and not necessarily because the conduct at issue actually violates the law.” Volkov, being a former prosecutor, says that “Prosecutors like to have a variety of tools. An up or down decision system – indict or decline to indict – does not give prosecutors any ability to address the hard cases, where they are more inclined to decline prosecution rather than indict.”
However, I am neither a former prosecutor, like Volkov, nor a former white collar defense lawyer, like the Professor. I am a recovering trial lawyer who then went in-house. From this background I think that there is another line of reasoning as to why DPAs and NPAs are useful FCPA compliance enforcement tools and that line of reasoning is certainty. The primary reason for the prosecution and a company entering into a DPA/NPA is certainty. The one thing I learned in almost 20 years of trying cases is that nothing is certain when you leave the final decision to an ultimate trier of fact who is not yourself, whether that trier of fact be a jury, judge or arbitrator. The most important thing for a company is certainty and that is even more paramount when a potential criminal conviction looms over its corporate head. Certainty is equally critical for the prosecution. No matter how ‘slam dunk’ the facts are, or appear to be, once a prosecutor turns over the final decision in a case to another trier of fact; the prosecution has lost certainty in the final decision. Every corporate defendant who goes to trial can and should raise all procedural and factual defenses available to it. No prosecutor can ever be 100% certain that it will win every court ruling or that a guilty conviction will be upheld on appeal. However, a DPA/NPA can bring certainty. For a company, certainty in its rights and obligations, for the prosecution the same is true.
There was another article which considered the panel discussion held at the Corporate Crime Reporter conference entitled “McInerney Defends Deferred and Non Prosecution Agreements”. This article included quotes from David Uhlmann, who said that he believes, “This is about a profound ambivalence in parts of the Department about the very notion of corporate criminality.” Uhlmann believes that it this ambivalence which has driven the use of DPAs. He believes that the DOJ should make an “up or down” decision on whether a corporation should be prosecuted or not. He was quoted as saying “There is no more important role that the Justice Department plays than its role investigating and prosecuting crime. And if the Justice Department believes that a particular case warrants criminal prosecution, it should bring criminal charges. It should not sacrifice criminal prosecution to a private agreement never entered in court, never overseen by a judge in any meaningful way that doesn’t involve any public hearing, that doesn’t involve any corporate officials coming into the courtroom admitting guilt. On the other hand, if the Justice Department doesn’t believe that a criminal prosecution is necessary or warranted, then they should decline. They should decline prosecution in favor of — in most cases they have the option of civil or administrative enforcement.”
The Professor had a slightly different take on the use of DPAs in the context of criminal prosecutions of corporations. He was quoted as saying, “The Department has become so uncomfortable with the traditional notions of corporate criminal liability that they have constructed and indeed championed this alternative reality that is equally problematic.” Further, “These resolutions have had a troubling, distortive and toxic effect on this one area of law,” Koehler concluded. “There is no judicial scrutiny of most fcpa enforcement theories.” And, lastly, “Of course, the Justice Department is in favor of these because it makes their job easier. Of course, the FCPA bar and FCPA Inc. is in favor of these it expands the market for legal services.”
Criminal Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General McInerney made clear that he is not ambivalent at all about corporate criminal liability and specifically stated this. So let me speak from the perspective of a lawyer from Houston, who has represented companies in the energy space for quite some time. The frustration that boiled over from the lack of prosecutions regarding the financial troubles of the recent years should not obscure the fact that the DOJ has and will continue to pursue criminal cases against corporations.
But to paraphrase Joe Jackson, something else is going on ‘round here with prosecutions of corporate criminal conduct and the use of DPAs/NPAs. While one role of the DOJ is to prosecute law breakers; I believe that another role of the DOJ is to increase and encourage compliance with laws. The DPA/NPA debate does not stand in a vacuum. I believe that by offering incentives for companies to self-disclose and cooperate, the DOJ is increasing compliance with the FCPA. If there is no incentive to cooperate, there will be none. Period. If a company will face a criminal indictment or charge if it investigates a matter and self-discloses to the DOJ, how many companies will do so? McInerney was quoted as saying, “You are disincentivizing companies in terms of doing the right thing. You are not crediting companies for doing the right thing.”
Now let me take the flip side; Arthur Anderson. For all the howls that there is no empirical evidence that indicting and convicting companies puts them out of business; I am certainly not persuaded. I saw it happen, here in Houston. Was it in the interest of the US government to put Arthur Anderson out of business? Did it further the policies of this country to go from the Big Four to the Big Three? What about all the Arthur Anderson employees who did not work on the Enron account, what policy did it further to have them lose everything they invested in their professional life? If DPAs/NPAs are less draconian in their effect than destruction of a corporation’s existence, does that make them somehow less useful? If the DOJ wants to put such a factor into their decision making, I find that to be an appropriate calculus.
As to the charge that the FCPA Bar/FCPA Inc. used DPAs/NPAs to expand their market for work? [Full disclosure - I am a member of the FCPA Bar and ergo, FCPA Inc.] I think that it is the job of a lawyer to advise his or her clients on their legal obligations and to assist in fulfilling those obligations. Is it in my own myopic self-interest to advocate compliance with the FCPA? Or am I a part of the FCPA Bar and Inc. which assists companies to comply with a now 35 year old law? Whichever answer you prefer, I believe that there is more compliance now and that the use of DPAs/NPAs is a contributing factor to this increased compliance.
Another panelist, Anthony Barkow posited yet another angle. He said “one the primary policy justifications — or certainly a significant policy justification — is — getting DPAs and NPAs is easy. “It’s a lot easier than charging a company,”” Barkow said. “And it’s a lot easier than charging it and to try to get a plea.” While I do not pretend to know the intricacies of obtaining an indictment or going before a grand jury, it is always easier to settle something rather than try a case. But that does not mean any less work goes on, either from the corporate side or especially from the government side. FCPA enforcement actions are huge, document intensive cases and from what little I know of the process, the DOJ works quite hard to craft an appropriate resolution for each case. Further, there are multiple levels of review in the DOJ so many sets of eyes look at these matters. So while it may be easier to reach a resolution rather than charging and criminally trying a corporation, that does not mean in any way, shape or form that this work is easy. The work is hard, time intensive and takes literally thousands of man-hours by all parties involved to reach any resolution. Simply because a new enforcement tool is available, which is short of a criminal indictment and trial, does not mean that it is not a useful tool and should not be used.
Mike Volkov ended his post with the following, “The debate will continue – I have no doubt of that.” I would certainly second that notion. But from where I sit the use of DPAs/NPAs has improved compliance with the FCPA because their use has given corporations a real incentive to thoroughly investigate allegations of bribery and corruption and then work with the government to appropriately remediate the situation.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2013