The Magnitsky Act: what every general counsel needs to know

Contributed by Emil R. Infante and Brian F. McEvoy, Polsinelli

Though not exactly a household name, Sergei Magnitsky has come to symbolize the American and Western efforts to combat foreign corruption and money laundering across the globe. Understanding these recent efforts is critical for general counsel operating in international markets.

Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian tax accountant who worked closely with one of Russia’s largest foreign investment firms. Magnitsky eventually uncovered a highly complex $230m fraud, whereby Russian officials used forged documents to claim ownership in the foreign fund and then sued the Russian government for millions in ‘overpaid taxes’, upon which the Russian courts speedily agreed and ‘repaid’. Magnitsky sued the Russian state and paid dearly: he was arrested at home in front of his children, imprisoned, contracted gall stones and pancreatitis, and was eventually beaten to death. What followed was an aggressive series of anti-corruption measures by the United States, the first of which included the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. Commonly referred to as the Magnitsky Act, the law imposed economic sanctions on Russian officials thought to be responsible for his assassination.

So why is this so important for general counsel?  First, the scope. The original iteration of the Magnitsky Act froze Western assets of specific Russian oligarchs and officials, including finances and real estate, and also barred entry into the United States. But the Magnitsky Act has since evolved far beyond the borders of Russia. On 23 December 2016, the United States passed the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (Global Magnitsky Act), which authorizes the president to impose economic sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt government officials anywhere in the world.

Second, the Magnitsky Act and its global successor are about money, which is enforced on the international stage through economic sanctions. Economic sanctions are used by the United States to accomplish foreign policy and national security goals. The administration and enforcement of these sanctions are delegated to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a financial intelligence agency that operates under the US Department of the Treasury. Basically, economic sanctions are imposed on countries, governments or individuals that are hostile to US interests. The Cuban embargo and the Iran nuclear-related sanctions are probably the most famous examples of these sanctions. OFAC regulates activity within the Global Magnitsky Act and Magnitsky Act under 31 C.F.R. Parts 583 and 584, respectively.

General Counsel must therefore maintain a basic understanding as to how these laws operate in practice. An individual or entity sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act or the Global Magnitsky Act is summarily included in the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, a ‘blacklist’ maintained by OFAC. This occurs after an administrative investigatory process where the subject individual or entity has very limited opportunities, if any, to intervene in order to avoid being sanctioned.

Once an individual or entity is blacklisted by OFAC, all of its assets in the United States, or in possession or control of US persons, are blocked and cannot be dealt with in any way. A Magnitsky sanction is the equivalent of a blanket prohibition to engage in any transactions with the sanctioned individual or entity. These sanctions can be seen already, for example, in Latin America. In 2018, the United States used these sanctions to target government officials in Latin America, most recently against Nicaraguan officials of the Ortega regime (including Ortega’s wife, Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo) accused of committing serious human rights violations during the recent anti-government protests where hundreds of Nicaraguans where killed. And in 2017, the parent company for famed jeweler Cartier reached a $334,800 civil settlement with the United States after it shipped jewelry to Shuen Wai Holding Limited, an entity in Hong Kong that had been added to the SDN list in 2008. In 2018, OFAC added 17 Saudis to the SDN list following the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Companies are strictly liable for violating these sanctions. ‘We did not know’ no matter how sincere, is not a defense.”

In light of these enforcement frameworks, here are some of the things that general counsel for companies involved in international business need to be aware of:

Companies engaged in international transactions must exercise great care to refrain from doing business with any individual or entity subject to Magnitsky sanctions. To complicate things further, OFAC has said that, pursuant to its so-called ‘50 Percent Rule’, the sanctions are also applicable to any entities directly or indirectly owned 50% or more in the aggregate by a sanctioned individual or entity. Even if the blacklisted individual or entity does not have an ownership interest in another entity, OFAC has warned that the mere fact that a sanctioned person is representing a non-sanctioned entity (albeit in a non-personal capacity) may lead to a violation.

Companies are strictly liable for violating these sanctions. ‘We did not know’ no matter how sincere, is not a defense. The penalties could be very harsh, including significant fines and imprisonment. Civil penalties of $295,141 or twice the amount of the transaction could be imposed under the Magnitsky Act. The Global Magnitsky Act proscribes penalties of up to 20 years in prison and a $1m fine. The Magnitsky sanctions make for risky business in many areas of the world.

Particular industries could be more susceptible to being identified under the Global Magnitsky Act. One general rule of thumb for identifying at-risk industries is FCPA compliance. Industries susceptible to Global Magnitsky Act violations often mirror those FCPA violations, such as energy, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications.

Countries with a history of public corruption and human rights abuses warrant heightened scrutiny.

Strong compliance measures ensure adequate prevention and a swift reaction when a violation occurs. Like FCPA compliance, GCs should oversee a risk-based approach tailored to the business operations. And strong compliance begins with comprehensive screening.

Use experienced third-parties. Commercially available screening tools can aid effective screening. Some entities, particularly those owned or represented by a sanctioned individual or entity, can be harder to trace, because their names may not be included in OFAC’s SDN List.

These laws leave little room for error (and zero excuses). Significant investments in a robust compliance program that can conduct the most comprehensive due diligence available, while timely and expensive, will often pale in comparison to the price of violations that could have been avoided. 

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