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DOJ’s New Corporate Enforcement Policy for the Criminal Division and its Impact on Cases handled by other Divisions

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In this blog post, we provide an overview of the updates to the Criminal Division’s Corporate Enforcement Policy (CEP) and discuss the impact of these changes on the corporate enforcement policies for criminal violations of sanctions and export controls, criminal violations of antitrust laws, and civil violations of the False Claim Act.

On January 17, 2023, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. announced changes to the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Corporate Enforcement Policy (“CEP”), including applying the most recent FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy to all corporate criminal cases handled by the DOJ’s Criminal Division. The FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy, codified in § 9-47.120 of the Justice Manual, provides that if a company voluntarily self-discloses, fully cooperates, and timely and appropriately remediates, there is a presumption of declination absent certain “aggravating circumstances involving the seriousness of the offense or the nature of the offender.” The clear goal of this and other recent pronouncements from senior DOJ leadership is to tip the scales in favor of early disclosure by setting forth concrete incentives for corporations that discover potential criminal violations. 

Importantly, the CEP now explicitly states that a company presenting “aggravating circumstances,”[1] while not eligible for a presumption of declination, may still obtain a declination if (1) the company had an effective compliance program and system of internal accounting controls at the time of the alleged misconduct, (2) the voluntary self-disclosure was made “immediately” upon the company becoming aware of the allegation of misconduct, and (3) the company provided “extraordinary cooperation” to DOJ investigators. For companies that do not receive a declination but do receive credit, the CEP also increases the available discounts from fines under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”), both for companies that voluntarily self-disclose and those that do not.

Although the updated CEP heavily emphasizes the benefits of voluntary self-disclosure and cooperation, its implications for companies will largely depend upon the Criminal Division’s application of the policy, including through DOJ prosecutors’ interpretation of important, undefined terms such as “immediate” disclosure and “extraordinary” cooperation.

Moreover, although the CEP applies to the entire Criminal Division, it could potentially have ripple effects on the corporate enforcement policies in place in other DOJ components. For example, the CEP does not revoke or alter the DOJ National Security Division’s (“NSD”) Export Control and Sanctions Enforcement Policy for Business Organizations (the “Export Control and Sanctions Enforcement Policy”). That NSD policy is generally consistent with the CEP, but it does not spell out affirmatively, as the new Criminal Division policy does, the circumstances that a company must demonstrate to be considered for a non-prosecution agreement (“NPA”) rather than a criminal resolution in the face of aggravating factors. Similarly, the Antitrust Division and Civil Division have their own corporate enforcement policies in place, each of which has aspects uniquely tailored to those respective regimes. It therefore remains to be seen whether these other Divisions within DOJ will adjust their corporate enforcement policies to align more precisely with the CEP.  

Declinations when Aggravating Circumstances are Present

Under the prior version of the CEP, companies could qualify for a presumption of declination if there was an absence of aggravating factors and if they: voluntarily disclosed; provided full cooperation; and timely and appropriately remediated. The revised CEP clarifies that companies may still qualify for a declination even where aggravating circumstances are present, but only under very specific and stringent requirements to qualify for such a result. Those requirements are: 

  • The voluntary self-disclosure was made immediately upon the company becoming aware of the allegation of misconduct;
  • At the time of the misconduct and disclosure, the company had an effective compliance program and system of internal accounting controls, which enabled the identification of the misconduct and led to the company’s voluntary self-disclosure; and
  • The company provided extraordinary cooperation with the Department’s investigation and undertook extraordinary remediation that exceeds the respective factors listed in the CEP.

The impact of the updated policy will largely depend upon how prosecutors apply these standards in practice. 

First, it will be important to evaluate how DOJ prosecutors in practice apply the standard of voluntary self-disclosure “made immediately upon the company becoming aware of the allegation of misconduct.” As currently articulated, the standard of immediate self-disclosure of a mere allegation is arguably unrealistic and does not appear to afford companies the opportunity to meaningfully investigate potential misconduct to determine whether there is even any potential misconduct (as opposed to a mere allegation) to disclose. 

Second, the requirement to demonstrate an effective compliance program goes beyond the FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy’s prior requirement of demonstrating effective remediation. Although the definition of an “effective compliance program” at the time of misconduct likely comports with the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs guidance, the new requirement and the way that it is articulated will mean that companies will have to affirmatively demonstrate the effectiveness of the compliance program both previously and at the time of the disclosure. This will mean that companies will have to devote even more money and resources (i.e., internal as well as external counsel) to making that case to the Department of Justice.

Third, while the concept of “extraordinary cooperation” has been referenced in a number of corporate settlements in recent years, that standard remains ill-defined, and DOJ enjoys substantial discretion in applying it. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite emphasized that providing information that DOJ might not otherwise be able to obtain is part of the assessment, but that ultimately “we know ‘extraordinary cooperation’ when we see it, and the differences between ‘full’ and ‘extraordinary’ cooperation are perhaps more in degree than kind.” This leaves companies and their counsel with significant uncertainty as to what will be considered sufficient in any given matter.

USSG Discounts

The discounts available for companies that do not receive a declination but do receive credit are now greater, both for those that voluntarily disclose and those that do not. While the FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy (and its later extension to the Criminal Division more broadly) provided for a maximum “50% reduction off of the low end” of the USSG fine range for non-recidivist companies that voluntarily self-disclose, fully cooperate, and appropriately remediate, the updated CEP provides for “at least 50% and up to 75% reduction off of the low end” of the USSG fine range for companies that meet those standards, except in the case of recidivists. Under the CEP, the Criminal Division will recommend up to a 50% reduction off of the low end of the USSG fine range for companies that do not voluntarily disclose but still fully cooperate and appropriately and timely remediate.

Furthermore, while this was always the case, it is notable that the revised policy expressly stresses the discretion that prosecutors have to recommend the specific percentage reduction and starting point in the fine range based on the particular facts and circumstances. It will be important to watch how prosecutors utilize this discretion in practice, and companies and their counsel will want to analogize (or distinguish) their cases from resolutions reached under the revised CEP going forward.

The CEP’s Potential Impacts on Corporate Enforcement Policies in Specific Areas

Export Control and Sanctions Violations

By comparison, as described above, when a company voluntarily self-discloses potentially willful violations of US export controls and sanctions laws to the NSD’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section (“CES”), fully cooperates, and timely and appropriately remediates, there is a presumption of an NPA and no fine, absent aggravating circumstances. While the Export Control and Sanctions Enforcement Policy’s standards for receiving credit for voluntary self-disclosure, full cooperation, and timely and appropriate remediation are identical to those set forth in the prior FCPA Corporate Enforcement Policy, the NSD’s guidelines set forth specific aggravating factors that apply to criminal violations of US sanctions and export control laws by companies.[2]

If, due to aggravating factors, a different criminal resolution – i.e., a deferred prosecution agreement or guilty plea – is warranted for a company that has voluntarily self-disclosed, fully cooperated, and timely and appropriately remediated its export control or sanctions violations, the DOJ will accord, or recommend to a sentencing court, a fine that is, at least, 50% less than the amount that otherwise would be available. Unlike violations of the FCPA, criminal violations of sanctions and export control laws, which are typically charged as violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”), do not rely on the USSG in determining criminal fines. Rather, prosecutors charging IEEPA violations rely upon the alternative fine provision in 18 USC § 3571(d) and on forfeiture authority. Under 18 USC § 3571(d), the fine would ordinarily be capped at an amount equal to twice the gross gain or gross loss. Per NSD’s policy, however, when a company voluntarily self-discloses, fully cooperates, and timely and appropriately remediates, DOJ will cap the recommended fine at an amount equal only to the gross gain or gross loss (i.e., 50 percent of the statutory maximum), and the company would also be required to pay all disgorgement, forfeiture, and/or restitution resulting from the misconduct at issue. 

Importantly, the Export Control and Sanctions Enforcement Policy’s guidelines do not apply to administrative fines, penalties, and forfeitures commonly imposed by the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (“DDTC”), the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”), and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) for export control and sanctions violations, all of which have their own guidelines. However, per § 1-12.100 of the Justice Manual, attorneys prosecuting these cases are expected to coordinate with other enforcement authorities and consider the total amount of fines, penalties, and forfeiture paid to DDTC, BIS, and/or OFAC in determining the criminal penalty.

Criminal Antitrust

Unlike other areas of corporate criminal enforcement under the DOJ umbrella, the Antitrust Division has had its own long-standing Leniency Program in place that provides broad protections to companies who participate in the Program. Under the Leniency Program, codified in § 7-3.000 of the Justice Manual, corporations who are the first in a conspiracy to report their cartel activity to the Antitrust Division and cooperate in the investigation can completely avoid criminal conviction, fines, and prison sentences.

Although broader DOJ enforcement policy changes typically try to avoid – and often expressly carve out – any interference with the Antitrust Division’s Leniency Program, the Antitrust Division often follows significant enforcement policy changes with its own issuance of enforcement guidance that is more precisely tailored to the contours of the Leniency Program. In this case, however, the Antitrust Division acted first (albeit after Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco’s issuance of her eponymous memo in October 2021). Last April, with the professed goal of making the program more straightforward and accessible, the Antitrust Division implemented updates to the Leniency Program, and these changes, as well as some of the prior aspects of the Leniency Program, emphasize the same requirements put forth in the CEP. Namely, these revisions require, as a condition of non-prosecution, that a company promptly reports potential misconduct, has an effective compliance program in place, addresses any compliance shortcomings that contributed to the misconduct, provides significant cooperation to the DOJ’s investigation, and undertakes remediation efforts that will address the root causes of the conduct.  

While the Antitrust Division’s prompt reporting requirement for complete non-prosecution has some of the same ambiguity as the CEP’s similar requirement, the Antitrust Division’s Guidance allows for companies seeking non-prosecution to conduct a timely, preliminary internal investigation to confirm the violation occurred before reporting the violation to the Antitrust Division. This appears to be significantly different from the CEP’s prerequisite to declination, where aggravating circumstances are present, of “immediate” reporting of a mere “allegation.” Moreover, the Leniency Program, unlike the CEP, does not create stricter requirements for those “first in” companies seeking declination that present aggravating circumstances, except that the Antitrust Division will carefully review the culpability of a company that served as the ringleader of the conspiracy before granting the company leniency.  

Overall, and likely based on the number of years the Antitrust Division’s program has been in place, the Antitrust Division has a more robust set of guidance to assist companies going through this process than the CEP provides. Last year, the Antitrust Division released 35 pages of FAQs covering all aspects of the program. While much of the implementation of the Leniency Program will depend on the facts and circumstances of the case as well as the viewpoints of the prosecutors involved, these FAQs will resolve some of the ambiguity that will arise from the CEP’s more limited guidance, but also, at times, may put more onerous burdens on companies. In addition, the Antitrust Division has numerous examples of successful and unsuccessful leniency applications over decades of implementation to use as further guidance. While we expect the Antitrust Division to review its program in comparison to the CEP, including whether to follow CEP’s suit in quantifying the amount of credit given under certain cooperation/aggravating factor scenarios, we also expect that prosecutors may look towards the voluminous guidance from the Antitrust Division as they implement the CEP.

False Claims Act

DOJ’s Civil Division most recently issued corporate enforcement guidance applicable to civil violations of the False Claims Act in May 2019, now codified in § 4-4.112 of the Justice Manual. That guidance follows the typical framework for cooperation credit set forth in the CEP – timely voluntary disclosure, prompt cooperation, and appropriate remediation – but lacks the more precise quantifications of cooperation credit available that the CEP now puts in place for corporate criminal resolutions. Although it is likely that the Civil Division will revisit this guidance in light of the issuance of the CEP, the nature of civil FCA violations may not lend itself to perfect or even near-perfect alignment with the CEP. For example, there is no applicable sentencing fine range to use as a baseline for granting civil FCA defendants cooperation credit in the form of percentage discounts, and the amount covered by corporate resolutions is driven largely by the loss to the government, which will almost certainly not be the subject of any cooperation credit-driven discount. However, given the CEP’s clear goal of providing transparency as to the extent of cooperation credit available, and the benefits of doing so in the civil FCA context, we may see a revision to this guidance that provides precision on what multiplier might apply to the amount of damages under certain cooperation/aggravating factor scenarios (the FCA provides for the imposition of up to treble the amount of damages to the government), and/or what per-claim civil penalty within the statutory range might apply (in addition to treble damages, the imposition of civil penalties ranging from $12,537 to $25,076 per claim can also be imposed).  

Conclusion

While the CEP acknowledges that voluntary self-disclosure is just that – voluntary, not mandatory, except where required by specific regulatory regimes – the overall tenor is a heavy emphasis on voluntary self-disclosure in corporate matters handled by the Criminal Division. As companies wait to see how the Criminal Division enforces the CEP, and whether the NSD, the Antitrust Division, or the Civil Division updates their respective enforcement policies to align with the CEP, it is prudent for companies to proactively invest in risk-based compliance programs and carefully weigh the potential costs and benefits of voluntary self-disclosure. 

For further information, please contact a member of Steptoe’s Investigations & White Collar Defense or Export Controls and Sanctions Practice.


[1] Aggravating circumstances include the involvement of executive management of the company in the misconduct; a significant profit to the company from the misconduct; egregiousness or pervasiveness of the misconduct within the company; or criminal recidivism.

[2] Aggravating factors include exports of items controlled for nuclear nonproliferation or missile technology reasons to a proliferator country; exports of items known to be used in the construction of weapons of mass destruction; exports to a Foreign Terrorist Organization or Specially Designated Global Terrorist; exports of military items to a hostile foreign power; repeated violations, including similar administrative or criminal violations in the past; and knowing involvement of upper management in the criminal conduct.

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