The Giffen strategy: Waiting out the CIA, hoping prosecutors lose heart or interest

Mike Koehler, a former federal prosecutor who blogs as The FCPA Professor, asked me to write a guest post on James Giffen. The following item appears on Koehler’s blog this morning. Next week, James Giffen — the former chief oil adviser to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev — returns to court in New York for the ...

Mike Koehler, a former federal prosecutor who blogs as The FCPA Professor, asked me to write a guest post on James Giffen. The following item appears on Koehler's blog this morning.

Next week, James Giffen -- the former chief oil adviser to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- returns to court in New York for the longest-running U.S. foreign bribery case in history. His strategy -- to gum up the works in the hope of getting all or most of the charges dropped -- has thus far appeared ingenious: Seven years after being led away in handcuffs from JFK Airport, Giffen appears none-too-close to trial. But will it ultimately pay off?

If the strategy does prevail, the Giffen case could send an important signal to bribers with financial wherewithal -- you can wait out the Department of Justice.

Mike Koehler, a former federal prosecutor who blogs as The FCPA Professor, asked me to write a guest post on James Giffen. The following item appears on Koehler’s blog this morning.

Next week, James Giffen — the former chief oil adviser to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev — returns to court in New York for the longest-running U.S. foreign bribery case in history. His strategy — to gum up the works in the hope of getting all or most of the charges dropped — has thus far appeared ingenious: Seven years after being led away in handcuffs from JFK Airport, Giffen appears none-too-close to trial. But will it ultimately pay off?

If the strategy does prevail, the Giffen case could send an important signal to bribers with financial wherewithal — you can wait out the Department of Justice.

A key question at the moment is whether Giffen’s lawyers — in the vein of their already-bold, go-for-broke approach — can plausibly, and as early as next Monday, successfully motion for dismissal of the charges on the basis of his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.

William Schwartz, Giffen’s chief lawyer and a former assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District where Giffen’s case is being heard, declined to comment on the question of a Sixth Amendment motion when I emailed him. But I rang up lawyers specializing in the Foreign Corrrupt Practices Act — the law applied to foreign bribery cases — and they made the across-the-board observation that Giffen’s strategy may not be strong enough to achieve such a straight-forward victory.

In his defense, Giffen asserts that the Central Intelligence Agency either knew or should have known all along that he was diverting millions of dollars from U.S. oil companies — a total of some $80 million — to Nazarbayev and other powerful Kazakhs. When he advanced the strategy, it was exquisitely timed — in among the strongest periods of the George W. Bush Administration, with its hyper-sensitivity about the release of even unclassified documents — under the premise that the CIA was unlikely to disgorge cables and what-not that would validate Giffen’s claims. And if the CIA did refuse to so cooperate, Giffen could claim compellingly that he couldn’t receive a fair trial.

Up to this point, Giffen has proven correct — the CIA has been as slow as molassas, and has consequently tested the patience of federal Judge William Pauley. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily add up to a successful Sixth Amendment motion, experts tell me. To win, Giffen would have to show an outside reason why the long delay has occurred, and that he is being harmed by it. But as a former U.S. prosecutor who didn’t want to be identified told me, "When much of the litigation is instigated by the defendant, the defense would be hard-pressed to claim that it’s been denied a speedy trial." As for hardship or harm, Giffen hasn’t been sitting in jail, but rather whiling away his time at home in Westchester County near the Winged Foot Golf Club.

Schwartz, in other words, probably can’t abbreviate the current snail’s-pace pre-trial process: Judge Pauley is unlikely to grant a Sixth Amendment motion.

Even so, said Richard N. Dean, a Washington-based FCPA lawyer with long experience in the former Soviet Union, that doesn’t mean that Giffen won’t prevail. He sees a more fundamental issue at stake — "I just don’t know if [the prosecution] has a case or not," says Dean, who is a partner at Baker & McKenzie.

That is, it’s true that the CIA has dragged its heels, but so has the prosecution itself — it hasn’t seemed at all in a rush to bring the case to trial. That makes Dean wonder "how strong they think their case is, whether they believe they can overcome the defense’s assertion" of the CIA defense.

There’s always the chance that government prosecutors will demonstrate renewed spine in Monday’s hearing, and make it plain that they intend to go to trial soon — the Justice Department certainly doesn’t wish to give bribe-givers or their lawyers the idea that they can use delaying tactics to wiggle out of an FCPA case. In that event, Schwartz would need to prepare for a knock-down, drag-out jury trial that would reveal embarrassing details about his client’s luxurious, heavy-partying life abroad.

Yet, given the case thus far, one gets the impression that one or both sides wish the case would simply go away. If this is in Schwartz’s thinking, he must patiently hope that the prosecution elects to save face by dropping at least some of the more onerous charges, and perhaps then persuade Giffen to plead to lesser violations of the law.

Update: The Giffen hearing has been postponed until June 29. Look for coverage in this space.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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