Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Is ICE A Victim? And An Open Question!

“Bribery is not a victimless crime."

It is a common sentence in DOJ FCPA talking points (see here for instance).

If bribery is not a victimless crime, then why do FCPA fines and penalties simply go directly into the U.S. Treasury? Why are there no efforts to identify the victims of FCPA violations and to compensate those victims? Bigger picture, who are the victims when FCPA violations occur?

Alexandra Wrage, President of Trace, observed in this piece that "compensating the victims of corruption is a hot new topic" and that "restitution to victims is hard not to like." However, as Wrage noted, "the U.S. Department of Justice does not attempt to compensate victims of bribery."

The topic has never been hotter.

Instituto Constarricense de Electricidad ("ICE") of Costa Rica recently petitioned a Court (see here and here) "for protection of its rights as a victim" of Alcatel-Lucent's bribey scheme.

In December 2010, it was announced that Alcatel-Lucent and certain subsidiaries agreed to resolve a wide-ranging FCPA enforcement action involving both a DOJ and SEC component. Total settlement amount was approximately $137.4 million ($92 million criminal fine via DOJ plea agreements and a deferred prosecution agreement; $45.4 million in disgorgement via a SEC settled complaint). (See here for the prior post). In addition to Costa Rica, the conduct at issue also involved conduct in at least eight other countries.

ICE also objected to the plea agreements and deferred prosecution agreement agreed to between the DOJ and Alcatel-Lucent to resolve the enforcement action. Among other things, ICE argued that the agreements "are inconsistent with the interests of justice, with the public's interests, and with public policy."

This post summarizes ICE's arguments, as well as the arguments of the DOJ and Alcatel-Lucent in opposition filings earlier this week.

Finally, this post identifies an open question (as least as to the Costa Rica conduct at issue in the enforcement action) that ought to give Judge Marcia Cooke (Southern District of Florida) pause during the June 1st hearing.

ICE is petitioning the Court "for protection of its rights as a victim of the Alcatel-Lucent Defendants and for appropriate sanctions resulting from the [DOJ's] failure to protect those rights...".

Even though ICE acknowledges that "three disloyal and corrupt Directors and two disloyal and corrupt employees" were the recipients of Alcatel-Lucent's bribe payments, ICE nevertheless claims it is a victim because the "corrupt activities" of Alcatel-Lucent has caused the company "massive losses" and caused "ICE catastrophic harm."

ICE argued that "it is universally recognized, in a scheme for bribery, that an entity whose employees accept improper benefits to affect corporate decisions is a victim." ICE states that "the notion that acceptance of bribes by five of ICE's more than 16,500 employees, managers, and directors necessarily renders ICE an active participant in Alcatel's admitted bribery scheme is nonsense."

As noted in this media report, Judge Cooke allowed ICE to argue that it should be considered a corruption victim and thus receive restitution. However, Judge Cooke reportedly stated that ICE "would not be at the top of the hit parade."

Earlier this week, both the DOJ and Alcatel filed opposition briefs to ICE's request for victim status and restitution.

In its response (here), the DOJ argued that "under the facts and circumstances in the instant matter, which reflect profound and pervasive corruption at the highest levels of ICE, the government does not believe it is appropriate to consider ICE a victim in these cases."

Elsewhere, the DOJ stated that "it does not follow tht the state-owned entity at which corruption was so pervasive in the tender process should now be permitted status as a victim or awarded restitution under the facts and circumstances in these cases."

The DOJ then reviewed "facts and circumstances" that has "led the government to conclude that not just the corrupt ICE officials are to blame for the corruption that existed at ICE, but ICE itself as an organization is also responsible." (emphasis in original).

The DOJ stated as follows. "In short, ICE as an organization appears to have had a deeply ingrained culture of corruption. First, it appears clear that corruption at ICE existed for many years - if not decades - according to [a DOJ cooperator who previously plead guilty]. Second, this corrupt conduct did not just involve some low-level employees. Here, nearly half of the Board of Directors of ICE received bribes in just this case alone. It is hard to conceive of a component of a business organization more in control of and responsible for an organization than the board of directors, which in this case appears to have been profoundly corrupt. Third, the corruption at ICE as an organization was pervasive in the tender process." (emphasis in original).

In a separate section of its brief, the DOJ argued that "while the government does not believe ICE is a victim under the facts and circumstances present here, the Court need not decide this issue to dispose of this matter" because "regardless of whether ICE is a victim, this Court, the U.S. Probation Office, and the government have afforded ICE the rights of a crime victim contained in the Crime Victims' Rights Act."

The DOJ's brief was authored by Charles Duross (DOJ FCPA Unit Chief) and Andrew Gentin (Fraud Section Trial Attorney from D.C.).

In a separate DOJ brief (here) filed in support of the proposed plea agreements and DPA, the DOJ argued that the resolutions "reflect the seriousness of the conduct, promotes respect for the law, and provides for just punishment for the offenses committed." The DOJ argued that even if ICE is considered a victim, it does not have "veto power over prosecutorial decisions, strategies, or tactics" and that "it is unclear what standing, if any, ICE has to object to the DPA."

In its response brief (here) the Alcatel entities [represented by Martin Weinstein and Robert Meyer of Willkie Farr & Gallagher - see here and here - and Jon Sale of Sale & Weintraub] argued as follows. "ICE's Motion for restitution should be denied for two independent reasons. First, ICE is not entitled to restitution because it was a participant in the conduct underlying the offense to which Defendants will be pleading guilty. [...] Second, the Court should reject ICE's Motion because a determination of restitution would unduly complicate and prolong the sentencing process. [Note - although not separately highlighted above, a similar argument was made by the DOJ in its brief]. Alcatel argued that "just as Alcatel is responsible, ICE itself is responsible for the ICE-Alcatel bribery scheme because its top management, including several members of its board of directors and senior officers, actively participated in the bribery."

Compensating the victims of bribery is a valid and legitimate issue, even if the ICE petition presents an unusual situation in that bribe recipients were officers, directors, or employees of the entity claiming victim status. I am not sure where criminal fines should go when a French company bribes Costa Rican "foreign officials," but I am pretty sure than the answer should not be 100% to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Cooke will hold a hearing on the issue on June 1st.


But wait, were those even Costa Rican "foreign officials" Alcatel-Lucent bribed?
And now to the open question and an issue Judge Cooke ought to probe closely during the June 1st hearing.

According to the applicable DOJ plea agreement (here) "Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad S.A. ("ICE") was a wholly state-owned telecommunications authority in Costa Rica responsible for awarding and administering public tenders for telecommunications contracts. ICE was governed by a seven-member board of directors that evaluated and approved, on behalf of the government of Costa Rica, all bid proposals submitted by telecommunications companies. The Board of Directors was led by an Executive President, who was appointed by the President of Costa Rica. The other members of the Board of Directors were appointed by the President of Costa Rica and the Costa Rican governing cabinet. Accordingly, officers, directors and employees of ICE were 'foreign officials' within the meaning of the FCPA ...".

Nonsense says ICE.

In its brief, under a heading titled "ICE is an autonomous entity with an independent board of directors and management", ICE stated as follows. "ICE is an autonomous legal entity responsible for providing electrical power and telecommunications services in Costa Rica. The organizational statute and subsequent decrees provides for the absolute autonomy of ICE. This includes a seven-member, independent Board of Directors appointed by the Costa Rican Government who serve six-year terms. They cannot be removed absent malfeasance. These Directors include engineers, accountants, and lawyers with distinct areas of expertise. None of the Directors are affiliated with the Costa Rican Government. The Board of Directors appoints and oversees the management and operation of ICE in a manner similar to other large corporations."

Based on ICE's self-description, it would not seem to be a FCPA victim because a crime never took place because the elements of an FCPA violation - namely the existence of a "foreign official" was absent. [Note - Alcatel-Lucent was not charged with FCPA anti-bribery violations, yet the relevant subsidiary was charged with conspiracy to violate the FCPA's anti-bribery provisions and a conspiracy charge requires the existence of a "foreign official"].

As the DOJ has stated in the recent "foreign official" challenges, "for a court to accept a plea of guilty a district court must have a basis to believe that a crime has been committed."

Judge Cooke ought to do just that on June 1st given that stark differences in DOJ's description of ICE and ICE's description of itself.

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