Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The FCPA's Murky "Knowledge" Element

Knowledge is one of the more difficult concepts to distill in criminal law.

The FCPA is no exception, particularly when it comes to the FCPA's "while knowing" standard set forth in the FCPA's third party payment provisions which generally prohibit otherwise improper payments to “any person, while knowing that all or a portion of such money or thing of value will be offered, given, or promised, directly or indirectly” to a foreign official. (see 78dd-1(a)(3)).

The third party payment provisions have not always included this "while knowing" standard. When first enacted in 1977 and up until 1988 (when the FCPA was amended), the third party payment provisions had a broader standard and applied if a defendant engaged in the prohibited conduct “while knowing or having reason to know” that all or a portion of such money or thing of value would be offered, given, or promised, directly or indirectly to a foreign official.

In a superb new piece titled, "The 'Knowledge' Requirement of the FCPA Anti-Bribery Provisions: Effectuating Or Frustrating Congressional Intent?," - Kenneth Winer and Gregory Husisian of Foley & Lardner (the “Authors”) conclude that "[t]he DOJ and SEC ... now interpret the knowledge requirement so broadly that they have effectively eviscerated the 1988 statutory changes thereby raising an important question: Are the DOJ and SEC frustrating the intent of Congress by ignoring the reason that Congress amended the FCPA?" (see here).

These are the type of questions we like to posed here at the FCPA Professor blog and, for the record, I am glad to see that I am not alone in questioning whether certain aspects of current FCPA enforcement frustrate or contradict Congressional intent in enacting or amending the FCPA.

The authors do a fine job of walking the reader through a concise overview of the “knowledge” element’s legislative history, particularly the 1988 House and Senate bills which sought to amend the "knowledge" element. Reviewing case law cited in the compromise conference report, the Authors conclude that the "intent of the 1988 amendments" was to "address concerns that FCPA intermediary violations could be found where there was no actual knowledge" and that even though "Congress adopted language to cover situations beyond actual knowledge, it did so in a very circumscribed fashion."

That fashion, according to the Authors, - "[o]nly in the limited circumstances where the party had something very close to actual knowledge - that is, both awareness of a 'high probability' that a corrupt payment would be made and a 'deliberate' decision to avoid gaining information in a conscious effort to avoid learning the truth - is the knowledge requirement satisfied."

According to the Authors, the DOJ and SEC, and most FCPA commentators, talk about "willful blindness" or "head in the sand" language, provide a list of red flags, and then state that "failure to follow up on red flags will be treated as knowledge, regardless of the reason why the person did not inquire."

Suppose a company is aware of a "high probability" that a corrupt payment is being made on its behalf, but that the company, perhaps because of "cost, delay, disruption or likely futility involved" in attempting to conduct an investigation, does not further. Under the "common view," such a failure to investigate is a form of culpable knowledge.

Nonsense says Winer and Husisian. They note that "[o]f course, failing to conduct sufficient due diligence or ignoring red flags can, in many circumstances, be foolish in the extreme," but that, as noted in the FCPA's legislative history and cases cited therein, such "foolishness, in and of itself, cannot constitute a finding that knowledge is present."

According to the Authors, the "net effect of this attitude is to bring the FCPA back to its original 'reason to know' standard" and the current enforcement approach utilizing this standard is nothing more than "implementing an approach that Congress specifically rejected."

Winer and Husisian close by saying:

"The SEC, DOJ, and many commentators might think it would be best if the knowledge requirement was satisfied by failure to conduct adequate due diligence or the failure to follow up on red flags (even if the defendant was not motivated by a purpose of avoiding knowledge of the corrupt payment). But that is not the policy balance that Congress struck in the 1988 amendments. The agencies should rethink their interpretation of the FCPA and enforce the knowledge requirement as Congress intended."


Curious as to the Author’s take on the knowledge jury instructions from the Bourke and Green trials this summer? The Bourke jury instructions - thumbs up; the Green jury instructions - thumbs down.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting explanation. Look forward to reading the Author's article.