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Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole Speaks at the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Conference


Fort Washington, MD
United States

Thank you.  It is an honor to be with you here today.

As many of you know, I began my career as a Justice Department lawyer right out of law school, and I had the honor of serving in the Public Integrity Section.  It was there that I learned to be a prosecutor and also where I saw directly the corrosive impact that corruption can have on our system of government.  In the course of my years there I prosecuted a federal judge, a Member of Congress, and even another federal prosecutor.  The American people deserve more, and should expect better, from their public officials, and I am proud of the work that our prosecutors and law enforcement agents did then, and continue to do now, to combat domestic corruption.

But corruption is no less harmful when it is perpetrated abroad.  In many ways, the consequences of public corruption can be even more severe in developing countries.  In the U.S., we have a long history of democratic and economic stability.  In nascent democracies, however, public corruption can undermine the very existence of the types of democratic institutions that we take for granted.  The fruits of corruption can help prop up autocratic and oppressive rulers.  In emerging economies, corruption can stifle the economic development that would lift people out of poverty, improve infrastructure, and better people’s lives.  And as the beneficiaries of the blessings of a stable democracy and a robust economy, we, as Americans, have an obligation to ensure that our corporations – and their officers, directors, and employees – are not undermining the promise of democracy and economic development in other parts of the world by paying bribes.

But make no mistake, fighting public corruption abroad is also good for the U.S. at home.  Just because we do not feel the repercussions of foreign corruption – the hospitals left unbuilt, the roads still unpaved, the medicine undelivered – as personally or as immediately as the citizens of those countries, it does not mean that corruption abroad does not affect us in real and tangible ways.  In today’s global economy, the negative effects of corruption inevitably flow back to the United States.  Corruption contributes to economic crises that destabilize the global financial system, opens borders for terrorists to cross, it raises the price of the goods we buy, and costs American jobs because American companies are denied the ability to compete in an open and fair marketplace.  We all eventually suffer the negative impact of transnational corruption.

Given that the stakes are so high, it should be no surprise that the Department of Justice is every bit as committed to fighting corruption abroad as it is to fighting corruption at home.  And we do so by using a broad array of tools.  First, working with the State Department, we place DOJ attorneys in foreign nations to help build and strengthen their government institutions so that they can more effectively resist the corrosive effects of corruption.  Second, through our Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, DOJ attorneys identify and repatriate the assets stolen by corrupt foreign officials.   And third, the reason for today’s event:  using the FCPA, the Department helps ensure that U.S. companies and individuals, as well as foreign companies and individuals where appropriate, are held accountable when they pay bribes to foreign government officials in order to get business.

In this context, let us take a moment to consider the origins of the FCPA.  The FCPA has its roots in one of the most notorious domestic corruption events in recent times: the Watergate scandal.  Obviously, Watergate had a tremendous impact on our domestic politics and governmental institutions.  But Congress realized that the problems uncovered during the Watergate investigation did not stop at our borders.  Indeed, in the aftermath of Watergate, our colleagues at the SEC discovered that more than 400 U.S. companies had paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to foreign government officials to secure business overseas. 

In enacting the FCPA, Congress recognized the harm that foreign bribery causes to both our domestic interests and foreign interests.  Congress recognized that foreign bribery had tarnished the image of U.S. businesses, impaired public confidence in the financial integrity of U.S. companies, and had hampered the functioning of markets, resulting in market inefficiencies, market instability, sub-standard products and services, and an unfair playing field.

Clearly, outlawing foreign bribery was the right thing to do.  But that does not mean it was the easy thing to do.  From the beginning, there was a vocal chorus of critics who claimed that taking a stand against foreign bribery would harm American businesses, put U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage, and cost American jobs, because foreign bribery was “just how business is done overseas.”  But that didn’t make paying bribes right, and it didn’t mean that we should tolerate it. 

As Americans, we have a long history of taking the right path, not the expedient one.  And we expect more from ourselves and our institutions – than pursuing the path of least resistance.  And, frankly, throughout our history, that philosophy has proven to be right.

In the nearly 36 years since the passage of the FCPA, the modern world has begun to embrace our fight against foreign bribery and to follow our lead.  From the 1999 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention to the 2005 UN Convention Against Corruption, from the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, a common legal standard has emerged over the last 36 years that rejects the notion that bribery in international business transactions is lawful, much less inevitable.  It is true that this common standard has emerged slowly, and that at times it has faced challenges, but the tide of history has turned and is now on our side. 

The emergence of the global anti-bribery trend is often reflected in striking ways.  For example, in France and Germany, as late as the 1990s, bribes were not only legal, but they were also tax deductible.  Yet, in the past 10 years, both of those nations have changed their laws and joined us in the fight against transnational corruption.  Most of you are familiar with the Siemens resolution in 2008, which was the product of our cooperation with German authorities.  And in just the past 6 months, we announced the first coordinated action by French and U.S. law enforcement in a major foreign bribery case, the Total investigation. 

Germany and France are just two of the countries that have joined us in our fight against transnational bribery.  Earlier this year, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, the KPK, assisted us in securing guilty pleas from several employees of a global power and transportation company for their role in bribing Indonesian officials in order to win a lucrative contract to build a power plant in that country.  These examples and many more should send a clear message to the market:  with increasing frequency, countries around the world are saying “no” to transnational bribery.  And if the U.S. doesn’t catch you, there is a good chance that one of our allies in the fight against global corruption will and will  hold you accountable.

I am proud to say that the United States, and DOJ in particular, has played a leadership role in this global effort to combat transnational bribery.  I have seen this firsthand in my nearly three years as Deputy Attorney General.  Since I took office in January 2011, the Department has reached 27 corporate resolutions and publicly announced that 28 individuals have been charged with FCPA and FCPA-related violations.  This is a remarkable record.  Those corporate cases resulted in penalties of $785 million and there is more to come. 

These results are the product of the skill, hard work, and determination of our talented prosecutors in the Criminal Division’s FCPA Unit, working in tandem with federal prosecutors across the country at many of the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices.  Working with our partners like the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce, the SEC, and IRS-Criminal Investigations, we have made enforcement of the FCPA a priority.  Together, we are pursuing more cases than ever before, and we are using all of the investigative tools available to us from subpoenas to search warrants, from body wires to wiretaps. 

We are also sharing our experience and knowledge with our foreign counterparts.  This past February, I was privileged to address an audience of 130 judges, prosecutors, investigators, and regulators from more than 30 countries, multi-development banks, and international organizations.  This group, who came here from around the world, was attending a training course co-hosted by the SEC, FBI, and the Department to exchange ideas and best practices on combating foreign corruption.  E ven a decade ago , no one would have imagined that such a broad coalition of law enforcement would be gathered in Washington, D.C., to exchange best practices in conducting foreign bribery investigations.  And we are continuing these types of exchanges.  Just last month, the head of our FCPA Unit helped lead a training session of prosecutors in Mexico City, and this week we are participating in another training session in Brazil.  In the words of the Attorney General, when it comes to foreign bribery investigations and prosecutions “partnership is not a luxury; it is a necessity.”

Now, despite this impressive enforcement record, there is always room for improvement. Many thoughtful people -- from the OECD lead examiners who conducted our Phase 3 examination, to the media, to many of you in this room -- have provided valuable feedback on our efforts.  Based on that feedback, we have made adjustments and come up with some new innovations. 

For example, at this very conference one year ago, we announced the publication of the Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act .  The Guide had its origins in suggestions made during the OECD Phase 3 examination.  The lead examiners determined that the U.S. could do a better job in explaining the way that we understood the FCPA and our enforcement policies, and we, along with our SEC colleagues, committed to doing that.  Along the way, we made sure to listen to and take into account your comments and concerns.  We reached out to the business community, to civil society, to compliance professionals, and to the legal community.  We heard your concerns, took to heart your suggestions, and incorporated many of them into the Guide .  And, if the public reaction to the Guide is any indication, I think we did so fairly successfully.

But the Guide was not the end.  We continue to engage with the business and legal communities, and  continue to find ways to communicate with them about how we interpret the FCPA, what they can do to prevent violations, and what they should do if they discover that a violation has occurred. Believe me when I say that FCPA enforcement is not a game of “gotcha.”  We prefer prevention to prosecution and we want companies to successfully recognize and resist demands for bribes and to comply with the law.

But we understand that even the best compliance program will not prevent every violation of the FCPA.  So when a violation does occur, we frankly expect you to tell us about it and cooperate in investigating it.  And one of the questions we’ve repeatedly heard over the years is:  “What is the benefit of voluntary disclosure and cooperation?”  We fully understand that companies will act in their own best interest.  So we have sought to incentivize companies with tangible benefits for their voluntary disclosure and cooperation – beyond the reductions already built into the Sentencing Guidelines.  Such benefits have taken the form of declinations like that in the Morgan Stanley case, resolutions short of a guilty plea like deferred prosecution agreements and non-prosecution agreements, and allowing companies to self-report their remediation efforts instead of being subject to the oversight of a corporate monitor.  We have also, in appropriate cases, supported reduced penalties below those suggested by the Sentencing Guidelines. 

Because your role in the enforcement of the FCPA is vital to its success, I want to assure you that we are committed to demonstrating the benefits of your working cooperatively with us.  But, this does not mean that we will blindly accept the conclusions of internal investigations.  To the contrary, we will continue to actively pursue our own investigations in order to pressure test the results of your internal investigations and be able to identify those companies that are truly cooperating.  It also does not mean that companies that claim to be cooperating, but that are, in fact, engaging in gamesmanship, will reap such benefits.  Indeed, just as it is important to reward true voluntary disclosures and actual cooperation, it is critical that we hold companies accountable when they choose to conceal misconduct, obstruct investigations, and attempt to mislead investigators.  For those companies, there will be serious consequences. 

Put simply, we want to work with you, and we will continue our efforts to provide tangible benefits to reward you for doing so.  But we will also be unrelenting in holding you accountable if you choose not to do so.  This is a two-way street, and you can be sure that your choices regarding cooperation, either way, will have real consequences.

As President Obama has said, combating corruption is “one of the greatest struggles of our time.”  He is right.  From my earliest days a prosecutor in the Public Integrity Section to the Office I am now privileged to hold, I have shared this view.  We at the Department are fully committed, both domestically and internationally, to engaging in that battle.  With your help, it is my hope that we will continue to make progress in this all important struggle.

Thank you. 

Updated September 17, 2014