In 2016, one of the most interesting non-international focused FCPA enforcement actions was announced by the SEC. It involved a clear quid pro quo benefit paid out by United Airlines, Inc. to David Samson, the former chairman of the Board of Directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the public government entity which has authority over, among other things, United’s operations at the company’s huge east coast hub at Newark, New Jersey.

The reason that it is so interesting from an enforcement prospective is that it is not foreign corruption but domestic corruption, therefore not subject to the foreign government official requirement of the FCPA. However, the actions of United’s former CEO, Jeff Smisek, in personally approving the benefit granted to favor Samson violated the company’s internal controls around gifts to government officials. That sounds suspiciously like a books and records violation of the FCPA. The $2.4 million civil penalty levied on United was in addition to its NPA settlement with the DOJ, which resulted in a penalty of $2.25 million. Former Chairman Samson also pled guilty for putting pressure on United to reinstitute a flight service which was near his weekend residence.

At the time, United’s Code of Conduct prohibited “United employees from directly or indirectly making bribes, kickbacks or other improper payments to government officials, civil servants or anyone else to influence their acts or decisions” and that “[n]o gift may be offered or accepted if it will create a feeling of obligation, compromise judgment or appear to improperly influence the recipient.” Only the United Board of Director’s could grant a waiver to the code and none was sought or obtained by Smisek. The Order concluded, “The [Chairman’s] Route was initiated in violation of United’s policies.”

Three key takeaways:

  1. It is very unusual for the FCPA to form the basis of a domestic bribery violation.
  2. A Code of Conduct can be an internal control.
  3. Even a CEO must follow internal controls.