Question: I’m seeing a lot of headlines about OFAC sanctions in the global trade news lately. Why has developing a corporate OFAC compliance program suddenly become so important?
Over the past few years, the U.S. Government has increasingly looked to trade embargoes and economic sanctions programs, which OFAC administers, to help achieve its foreign policy and national security objectives. Sanctions have also served as an integral component of America’s counter-terrorism strategy and campaign to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction. More recently, they are being employed in innovative ways to combat malicious cyber activity and transnational organized crime.
Not surprisingly, given that America’s economy and capital markets are still the largest in the world, U.S. sanctions have had a dramatic impact on international trade; in multiple instances, they appear to have been effective in influencing the behavior of countries that the government viewed as national security threats. Because of the proven effectiveness of these measures, and probably also because of the nation’s current economic state and a generally war-weary public, sanctions have become a tool of first resort for U.S. foreign policy. Consequently, we have seen OFAC (with help from the Department of Justice) ramping up their sanctions enforcement and aggressively pursuing potential violators throughout the world.
Major prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act have made the headlines several times this past year. Economic sanctions enforcement seems poised to be the next big focus for government regulators. U.S. businesses that operate, or intend to operate, in the global marketplace urgently need to take a close look at their corporate export compliance programs and develop strategies for complying with rapidly changing regulations and enforcement policies in this area.
(1) Proactive is always better than reactive.
More and more large U.S. and multi-national corporations, especially those who are prime U.S. Government contractors, are now addressing the OFAC compliance challenge and requiring all those with whom they do business—subcontractors, vendors, suppliers, partners—to demonstrate a similar diligence. Addressing the OFAC compliance challenge on your own timeline, rather than waiting until you are obligated by a contract or business transaction to do so, will allow you to choose compliance options that are cost-effective for your company’s business model, circumstances, and goals.
(2) The recent Yates Memo has sounded a new warning note and made enforcement more personal.
The policy memorandum issued on September 15, 2015 by Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates appears to signal a more aggressive approach by the U.S. Government that prioritizes the prosecution of individual corporate executives in cases of corporate wrongdoing, including sanctions violations. While the insistence on individual accountability for corporate misdeeds is not new, the policy outlined in the Yates Memorandum places a greater emphasis than before on requiring the corporation’s internal investigation to identify the individual decision-makers who were involved in, or were responsible for, the regulatory noncompliance. Essentially, companies that want any “cooperation credit” from the U.S. Government (i.e., mitigation of penalties) will first need to fully disclose to the prosecutors the results of their internal investigation concerning the employees and senior executives involved.
Although the significance and implications of the Yates Memo are not yet entirely clear, the trend in regulatory enforcement that it represents underscores the need for companies to have more effective export compliance policies and procedures in place. You may want to consider including policies that spotlight individual accountability and processes that facilitate the rapid triage of incident reports and immediate and thorough investigations when appropriate.
Question: In what ways is achieving and maintaining OFAC compliance a greater challenge for a company than ITAR and EAR compliance?
(1) OFAC sanctions are continually evolving. U.S. trade embargoes and economic sanctions, and the names of entities on the SDN List, can and do change very quickly—even overnight. For that reason, keeping abreast of new and evolving programs and ensuring compliance with recordkeeping, reporting, licensing, and other OFAC requirements can be extraordinarily difficult.
The Treasury Department’s SDN List contains several thousand names, and people or organizations can be removed from it, or added to it, at any time. Several foreign jurisdictions, including the European Union, Canada, and Mexico, also maintain “blocking statutes” that may address the U.S. trade embargoes and sanctions concerns, and a wide range of other restrictive measures as well, so your company’s transactions may need to be screened against multiple lists. What is more, some of these restrictive measures may conflict with U.S. regulations. Due diligence requires continuous, real-time, comprehensive monitoring to ensure that your dealings and transactions with foreign countries and individuals are not in violation of OFAC prohibitions.
(2) OFAC sanctions are extraordinarily comprehensive. In addition to prohibiting certain transactions, OFAC regulations prohibit U.S. persons from “facilitating” (i.e., assisting, supporting, directing, or approving) a transaction by, or with, a sanctioned entity. The regulatory definition of “facilitation” is quite general, and its concrete interpretation has not been clear, since enforcement actions against companies for “facilitation” violations have been fairly infrequent. That situation has now changed dramatically. In the past few years, the U.S. Government has begun aggressively pursuing criminal actions against individuals and firms that “willfully facilitate” sanctions violations. Referring prohibited business to a foreign party, providing guidance or advice on a prohibited activity, financing or insuring or guaranteeing a prohibited transaction, providing merchandise or services in connection with a prohibited activity—any or all of these may constitute facilitation, and thus violate the OFAC regulations.
Most OFAC Sanctions Programs apply to ‘‘U.S. persons,’’ a term embracing U.S. citizens, permanent resident aliens, entities organized under the laws of the U.S. or any jurisdiction within the U.S. (including foreign branches of U.S. corporations), and any persons in the U.S. However, some sanctions programs state a wider jurisdiction. The Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), 31 C.F.R. Part 515, use a more broadly defined term, ‘‘Persons subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S.,’’ which includes foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies (see 31 C.F.R §515.329 and §515.330).
(3) OFAC violations can carry staggering penalties.
Violations of the OFAC regulations may incur either civil or criminal penalties, or both. We have seen a very aggressive enforcement trend over the past few years. Increasingly, the U.S. Government has chosen to pursue criminal charges against violators (or has settled cases using criminal allegations), and a series of record-setting penalties have been imposed for OFAC sanctions violations. Examples within the last year include the almost $1 billion in fines handed down to BNP Paribas, and more recently Commerzbank’s agreement to pay $258 million in fines for falsifying business records for sanctioned countries. Nor is it only banks that have been prosecuted for sanctions violations. The Department of Justice recently agreed to a fine of $232 million to settle criminal charges with Schlumberger Oilfield Holdings Ltd for violating U.S. sanctions. That action and a few others are indications that regulators may soon be turning their attention to U.S. manufacturing companies as well.
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A serious OFAC compliance program demonstrates that your company is aware of the SDN List and sanctions regulations, understands the risks, and is actively trying to prevent OFAC violations. If a violation does occur, it will be a strong mitigating factor against severe penalties. In some recent criminal prosecutions, the U.S. Government has contended—and the Courts have agreed—that failing to have an adequate compliance program in place was an indication of “reckless disregard” and therefore supported prosecution of the company and individual employees for willful, criminal violations of regulations. Depending on the sanctions program, criminal penalties for willful violations can include fines of up to $20 million and imprisonment of up to 30 years. Even worse, a single transaction can produce multiple violations, placing a company at risk of significant liability.
In addition to avoiding draconian penalties, another good reason for making OFAC compliance (and EAR/ITAR compliance) a high priority is minimizing costly and time-consuming investigations. Even if the finding is that no violation has occurred, or if civil penalties are eventually waived due to mitigating factors, responding to U.S. Government queries regarding potential violations and conducting comprehensive internal investigations can place a heavy and damaging burden on corporate resources.
Given those risks, it’s hardly surprising that more and more company boards and senior executives are moving enhanced OFAC compliance measures to the top of their agendas.
Catch next week’s post “The Key Elements of an Effective OFAC Compliance Program” for advice on how to set up and maintain a successful OFAC compliance program.
(None of the information is intended to be authoritative official or professional legal advice. Consult your own legal counsel or compliance specialists before taking actions based upon this blog or other unofficial sources.)