Ed. Note-today I continue my series of interviews with people prominent in the FCPA space. Today is James Koukios, formerly a Manager in the DOJ’s FCPA unit, who recently went into private practice at Morrison & Foerster
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Where did you go to college, what did you study and how did it influence your career going forward?
I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1996. Like a lot of people who end up at law school, I was a political science major. Studying poli sci influenced my career in at least two ways. First, my interest in the political process is what initially brought me to Washington, as a summer intern in 1995. That was my first time living outside the state of Michigan, and, although I later went to law school in Boston and spent my law school summers in New York and Chicago, my positive experience that summer eventually led me back to Washington, where I have spent the majority of my legal career. Second, during my summer internship, at the Atlantic Council of the United States, I was assigned a project researching corruption in Asia. One of the questions I was asked to address was why corruption in Asia should matter to the United States, and it was in answering that question that I first encountered the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. I found the topic fascinating, but little did I know how important it would eventually become to my career.
What were the highlights of your clerkship with Judge Clement?
During law school, I realized that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. So, when I started looking for clerkships, I applied only to federal district court judges (Judge Clement was later elevated to the Fifth Circuit, but at the time, she sat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana). My clerkship did not disappoint. Among the many trials that I worked on, the highlight was the criminal prosecution of Edwin Edwards, the former four-term governor of Louisiana, and Jim Brown, Louisiana’s then-sitting Insurance Commissioner, for an allegedly corrupt scheme to bail out a failed insurance company. The trial was full of colorful characters, complex legal issues, and superb lawyering.
Two other highlights were Judge Clement herself and the city of New Orleans. Judge Clement has been a mentor to me throughout my legal career, and I attribute much of my success not only to what I learned while clerking for her but also to the continuous support she has always given me. As for New Orleans, what a terrific city. Food, music, and culture unlike any other in the United States. It is a special place.
What was your early DOJ career like in Miami and how did you get to Main Justice?
Being an AUSA in Miami was a dream come true for an aspiring trial lawyer. Miami has one of, if not the, heaviest criminal dockets in the country, and a large portion of those cases go to trial, often very quickly after indictment. I tried over 15 felony jury cases in my first three years alone and was in court every day. Early on, I focused on all manner of reactive crimes, violent crimes, and arms trafficking cases. During my last two years, I started focusing on more complex and time-consuming cases – including a narcotics wiretap case that revealed police corruption and a high-profile defense procurement fraud case, United States v. AEY, Inc., that garnered national attention.
Around the end of 2008, I was thinking of transitioning full time to prosecuting economic crimes, and my wife and I also started talking about moving back to Washington. Out of the blue, Chuck Duross, who had moved from the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office to the Fraud Section in 2007 (and who would later become Deputy Chief of the FCPA Unit), called to tell me that the Fraud Section was looking to bring in experienced AUSAs to prosecute FCPA cases and asked whether I would be interested. Needless to say, I was, and about six months later, I was fortunate enough to transfer to the Fraud Section.
What were some of your highlights from your time in the FCPA Unit?
Definitely the Esquenazi and Duperval trials. Both came at a time when the Fraud Section’s ability to win an FCPA case at trial was being heavily questioned, and, going back to that first conversation I had with Chuck Duross in 2008, I felt I had been brought to the Fraud Section for precisely this reason. As an added bonus, I was able to return to Miami, where I learned how to be a prosecutor, to try these cases. I joined the Esquenazi trial team one month before trial (I had been on detail as Special Counsel to FBI Director Robert Mueller for the previous year and came back to Fraud to try the case) and was immediately impressed by the thorough investigation that my colleagues had done—the evidence was truly overwhelming. Over the next month, we focused on how best to present that evidence, and I was extremely proud of the finished product. It was also rewarding when the Eleventh Circuit agreed with our position that the Haitian state-owned telecommunications company, Haiti Teleco, was an “instrumentality” of the Haitian government and, therefore, that its officers and employees were “foreign officials” under the FCPA. Much like our trial victories, the appellate ruling helped validate a crucial aspect of our enforcement program.
Becoming a manager in the FCPA Unit was also a highlight. In a bit of a surprise, I discovered that I enjoyed supervising cases as much as I enjoyed trying them. Given my experience, I was able to mentor new prosecutors and help them improve their investigations and cases. But the learning was not a one-way street. Several of the attorneys I supervised had recently left large law firms and brought with them insights into corporate governance, internal investigations, data privacy, and a host of other issues that are critically important to the work of the FCPA Unit but do not necessarily come into play in other types of criminal prosecutions. By combining experienced AUSAs with experienced corporate litigators, we assembled a tremendously talented and well-rounded team in the FCPA Unit, from which we all benefitted.
Finally, becoming more involved in the policy process as a manager was also very rewarding. Because the Fraud Section has the exclusive mandate for FCPA prosecutions, we were able to formulate—and execute—policy decisions in a manner that, I believe, had a significant impact on corporate compliance programs and the global anti-corruption movement.
You recently moved over to Morrison & Foerster. In which areas do you intend to focus and what are you looking forward to in private practice?
I am a partner in MoFo’s Securities Litigation, Enforcement and White-Collar Defense practice group. Generally speaking, I intend to focus on all aspects of that group’s work, from compliance counseling, to internal investigations, to representing corporations and individuals before government regulators and at trial. Given my extensive FCPA background, much of my work will be focused in the anti-corruption sphere. In that regard, I am particularly excited about being reunited with two of my former FCPA Unit colleagues and friends, Chuck Duross and Amanda Aikman, at MoFo. But I also intend to work in other areas in which I have experience, including health care fraud, defense procurement fraud, and export violations, in both the civil and criminal contexts. And, as someone who still enjoys trial work, I intend to work on any type of trial when there is a need, whether that trial falls within my practice group or another practice area.
Overall, I am looking forward to bringing to bear the experiences and insights I gained during my decade as a federal prosecutor, including my six years as an FCPA prosecutor and supervisor, to help our clients navigate complex issues and to mitigate and avoid problems. And I’m looking forward to doing all this with my new team. MoFo has a well-earned reputation for collegiality and for working as one team across all of our offices worldwide to best serve our clients’ needs. The sense of collegiality and of working together for a common purpose were two of the aspects of government service that I most enjoyed, and I am fortunate to have found a law firm that shares those values.
James Koukios can be reached at JKoukios@mofo.com
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015