Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Facilitating Payments or Bribes?

In Greece, it's the "little envelopes" that affect everyone from "hospital patients to fishmongers." (see here for the Wall Street Journal story).

In India, it's needing to "string up some wire and get licenses from the government" to start a "tiny business delivering telephone and Internet service" but "getting those things done without hassles require[s] a bribe." (see here for the story from National Public Radio).

In July 2009, Nature's Sunshine Products found out that it's about payments to Brazilian customs agents to import certain unregistered products into Brazil (see here).

Also in July 2009, Helmerich & Payne found out that it's about payments to various officials and representatives of the Argentine and Venezuelan customs services in connection with importation and exportation of goods and equipment (see here).

Numerous other examples abound.

Facilitating payments or bribes?

The FCPA has a specific exception for "facilitating or expediting payment[s] to a foreign official ... the purpose of which is to expedite or to secure the performance of a routine governmental action by a foreign official."

Where a facilitating payment ends and where a payment to "obtain or retain business" begins is a difficult question.

U.S. v. Kay, 359 F.3d 738 (5th Cir. 2004) is commonly viewed as answering that question.

However, Kay merely holds that Congress intended for the FCPA to apply broadly to payments intended to assist the payor, directly or indirectly, in obtaining or retaining business and that payments to a “foreign official” to reduce custom and tax liabilities can, under appropriate circumstances, fall within the statute. The Kay court empathically stated that not all such payments to a “foreign official” outside the context of directly securing a foreign government contract violate the FCPA; it merely held that such payments “could” violate the FCPA. The key question, according to Kay, is whether the payments at issue were intended to lower the company's costs of doing business enough to assist the company in obtaining or retaining business. The Kay court recognized that “there are bound to be circumstances” in which such attenuated payments merely increase the profitability of an existing profitable company and thus, presumably, do not assist the payer in obtaining or retaining business. In fact, the court specifically stated: “…if the government is correct that anytime operating costs are reduced the beneficiary of such advantage is assisted in getting or keeping business, the FCPA’s language that expresses the necessary element of assisting in obtaining or retaining business would be unnecessary, and thus surplusage – a conclusion that we are forbidden to reach.”

Post-Kay none of the above seems to matter much.

Because the Nature's Sunshine Products and Helmerich & Payne enforcement actions (as well as numerous other similar enforcement actions) were not challenged, it remains an open question whether the payments at issue in these cases, if subjected to judicial scrutiny, would satisfy the “obtain or retain business” element as interpreted in Kay or would be excepted as facilitating payments.

Many of these payments would appear attenuated to any specific cause-and-effect business nexus or otherwise would appear to have merely increased the profitability of an existing profitable business and, per the Kay holding, would presumably not satisfy this key FCPA antibribery element.

While some find facilitating payments to be a corrupt payment under a different name, the fact remains that the FCPA passed by Congress and signed by the President contains an express exception for facilitating payments.

It is this statute that the enforcement agencies are obligated to enforce and this express exception would certainly appear relevant to the above-described actions. Because these enforcement actions were not challenged, this obviously relevant defense was not explored in these cases and these post-Kay cases stand as de facto FCPA case law, notwithstanding the fact that the alleged conduct in these cases may have been excused because of the FCPA’s facilitating payment exception.

It's a complex world.

Congress recognized that when it passed the FCPA, including the facilitating payment exception.

The Kay court recognized that when concluding that not all such attenuated payments violate the FCPA.

1 comment:

  1. For UK companies and multinationals doing business in the UK, this distinction will lose its importance when the Bribery Act of 2010 is fully implemented. Because there is no exemption for grease payments, such payments will be considered bribes to foreign public officials. Prudent companies will revise their compliance programs to prohibit such payments altogether.