U.S. Prosecutors and Foreign Corporations

January 9th, 2020 by Phil Mattera

Federal prosecutors recently announced that telecommunications giant Ericsson will pay more than $1 billion to resolve allegations that it conspired to make illegal payments to win contracts in five countries. The settlement included a $520 million criminal penalty imposed by the Justice Department and a $540 million civil payment to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This was the latest in a long series of cases brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the 1977 law that emerged out of the Watergate-era revelations about improper overseas payments by U.S. corporations. But what the case against Sweden’s Ericsson highlights is the extent to which the law is being applied to foreign corporations as well as domestic ones.

In fact, companies based outside the United States increasingly appear to be the primary targets of prosecutors. In the period since the Trump Administration took office, foreign corporations have paid about $4 billion in FCPA penalties to DOJ and the SEC—more than seven times the sum paid by domestic firms. Apart from the Ericsson settlement, the largest combined penalties have been paid by a Russian company ($831 million by Mobile TeleSystems PJSC) and another Swedish one ($731 million by Telia).

By contrast, U.S.-based firms have gotten off with much lighter financial punishment. The only domestic company paying more than $100 million was Walmart, though its long-delayed $281 million penalty was well below what had been expected.

The tougher treatment of foreign companies can also be seen in the prosecution of price-fixing. Violation Tracker shows that during the Trump Administration foreign companies have paid more than $723 million to DOJ in criminal penalties, whereas domestic firms have been penalized only $44 million. There were seven fines of $50 million or more among the foreign companies; none among those based in the United States.

This tendency toward imposing heavier penalties on foreign companies is not unique to the Trump years. During the Obama Administration, seven of the ten largest FCPA settlements involved foreign corporations, as did nine of the ten largest price-fixing cases.

There is no evidence to suggest that foreign companies are more prone to law-breaking and thus account for more of the penalties. When it comes to offenses that are more purely domestic in nature – such as environmental, consumer protection and employment violations – U.S.-based companies more than hold their own.

The question is whether the federal government is using those portions of its enforcement powers that impact more heavily on international trade to put an added burden on the foreign competitors of U.S. companies. Perhaps this is an indirect form of protectionism.

Personally, I have no problem with the prosecution of foreign corporations that are engaged in misconduct, as long as domestic companies doing the same thing are not being let off the hook.

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