A colleague recently posed that question to me. I thought it was an interesting one and although at first blush the response to me might appear self-evident, the fact that it was posed means that my view may not be universal. The more I thought about how to respond to my friend’s query, the longer my response became. So today, I begin a three-part series on why Americans should care about the Department of Justice (DOJ) bringing their indictments against the 14 named defendants who were all associated with the governing body of international soccer, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
Over the weekend, I went to England to attend the wedding of my sister-in-law. My wife has numerous aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins and they all attend such family events. One of the more interesting comments I heard was from one of my wife’s cousins who said, “only America was big enough to take on FIFA” and that “you can say what you want about Americans but they get things done.” I realize the sample size may have been small to fully validate these perceptions but consider the headline from the lead editorial in the Sunday Times today which read “JUSTICE 1, FIFA O” where the Times discussed the revelations that Sepp Blatter himself is now under investigation by the US DOJ for direct involvement of the $10MM bribe paid to Jack Warner to swing his vote to award South Africa the 2010 World Cup.
The statement by my cousin-in-law presages something that is not discussed consistently about prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA); that is the US government is the undisputed worldwide leader in the global fight against corruption and bribery. For all the discussion about whether it is fair or right to prosecute companies with headquarters outside the US for FCPA violations, the bottom line is if the US government did not engage in such prosecutions, no one else would do so. But these are not companies that lie outside the jurisdiction limit of US justice; these are companies that have voluntarily subjected themselves to US jurisdiction. Remember TOTAL, who howled about how unfair it was that the US government was prosecuting them? It turned out that they wired part of their bribes through the US banking system. Alstom was another company that fought the DOJ over jurisdiction. Yet it has listed securities on certain US exchanges which invoked FCPA jurisdiction, engaged in illegal conduct in the US and involved US citizens in the bribery and corruption allegations against it.
This fact of US leadership in the global fight against corruption and bribery was driven home even more so with the FIFA indictments. The Sunday Times had been investigating FIFA through investigative journalism for years. As far back as 2010, the Sunday Times published evidence that votes of FIFA executives could be purchased for votes to secure World Cup tournaments. The Sunday Times handed over wire tapes, videotapes and transcripts confirming these allegations to FIFA officials. FIFA’s response was to discipline those who had talked with reporters from the Sunday Times. Most amazingly, in May 2011 the Sunday Times provided this evidence to a British Parliamentary commission.
Did anything come about from this evidence being handed over to the UK government? A generous response might be not that we know of, as yet. This is in the face that the UK has arguably the strongest anti-corruption law on the books, the UK Bribery Act, which makes illegal the paying and receiving of bribes in both the public and private sector. So the laws are in the books in the UK, if the UK government wanted to enforce them.
The DOJ has made clear they will use all tools available to them in the fight against international corruption and bribery. For US companies or others subject to the FCPA, that means using a supply-side law, which criminalizes the conduct of the bribe payor. But there are numerous other laws that criminalize the conduct of the bribe receiver. We saw a couple of those at play with the FIFA indictments. These include money laundering and tax evasion, with tax evasion first. Ever since the conviction of Al Capone, the government has made use of laws against evading taxes on monies you are paid for criminal activity. Under FCPA cases, the companies seem to report the income from their ill-gotten gain accurately so we have not seen that tool used in FCPA prosecutions. However individuals who receive bribe payments generally do not report the income because they cannot account for receiving it for any honest or legal services. Since they do not report it, they do not pay taxes on it.
Anti-money laundering (AML) laws are an important tool in the fight against international bribery and corruption. My colleague Mike Brown, no doubt channeling his inner Woodward and Bernstein, often says that when it comes to bribery and corruption, you should “follow the money”. This is the basic truth about money laundering and why it is such an important tool in the fight against corruption. We have seen it used occasionally as an adjunct to FCPA prosecutions. Most recently was the money laundering charge against María de los Ángeles González de Hernandez, the official at a state-owned Venezuelan bank, Banco de Desarrollo Económico y Social de Venezuela (BANDES) who was paid upward of $5MM in bribes to win bond trading work. She was extradited to the US and pled guilty.
The bottom line is that only the US government has the wherewithal to engage in such a worldwide investigation and coordinate the actions of numerous of countries in providing assistance. Do you think the Swiss police would have been so involved if it was not for the US government lead in this investigation? From President Obama on down, the US government has made clear that it will lead the international fight against bribery and corruption. The FIFA indictments are yet one more indication that they will continue to do so.
But the US is no longer alone in this fight. Witness the large numbers of countries that have passed domestically and internationally focused laws against bribery and corruption. Whatever the motives behind the Chinese government prosecution of GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) in China, the fact of the prosecution sent shock waves through western companies doing business in China that the old ways of bribing officials was no longer acceptable. The effect was that western companies doing business in China beefed up their compliance function and oversight of compliance. The same has been true from the burgeoning Petrobras corruption scandal in Brazil. Brazil itself has only recently enacted domestic anti-corruption legislation and it may have been the political fallout from the Petrobras corruption scandal that finally led the President of the country to accede to having the law made effective.
FIFA is the biggest sports empire in the world. The National Football League (NFL) is downright paltry when it comes to the monies, numbers and passions around international soccer. However the US government became aware of the inherent corruption at FIFA; whether through the investigative work of The Sunday Times, a whistleblower, an unrelated investigation into other criminal activities or some other means, Americans should care about the FIFA indictments because it shows the US government continues to lead the world’s fight against bribery and corruption.
Why should Americans care about the FIFA indictments? First as a measure of national pride, we have a Justice Department that has the wherewithal to take on the world’s largest sports organization, particularly one which thought itself above the law. While the US certainly did not bring the indictments against FIFA alone, it clearly was the leader in this effort to continue the fight against global corruption and bribery. For if America does not lead, others will not follow in this fight so Americans should care greatly that the DOJ is continuing to lead this fight with the laws available to it.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015