Robbins & Myers Belgium, a Belgian subsidiary of Robbins & Myers, Inc., which was recently acquired by National Oilwell Varco, pleaded guilty last week to charges that it violated U.S. sanctions on Syria when it exported stators that it manufactured in Belgium to Syria. According to the Bureau of Industry and Security (“BIS”) press release, the Belgian company was charged with violating U.S. criminal law because of the following:

The guilty plea stemmed from actions by Robbins & Myers Belgium that, in 2006, caused four illegal exports, reexports and/or transshipments of stators—important components of oil extraction equipment—that had made [sic] from steel that had been milled in the United States to a customer operating oil fields in Syria.

Say what? Is it really criminal for a foreign company to export an item just because it has some U.S. content in it? What happened to the de minimis rule? How hard would it be to say that the item consisted of more than 10 percent U.S.-origin steel to avoid suggesting that the export was illegal if there was any U.S. content?  Even though BIS used up three paragraphs in the press release patting itself on the back, it could not manage to add a sentence somewhere, anywhere, to correct this misstatement of the law?

The factual proffer that served as a basis for the guilty plea, which is supposed to contain facts sufficient to support the plea, is no better on this issue.

At all times pertinent to this case, the stators shipped by RMB to Company A in Syria were made from steel tube that Company B had milled in the United States.

Nope, being “made from steel tube … milled in the United States” is not enough to support the plea. Section 746.9(a) of the BIS rules forbids exports to Syria of items “subject to the EAR.” And section 734.3(c)(1), otherwise known as the de minimis rule, states that foreign-made items destined for Syria are not “subject to the EAR” if they contain “controlled U.S.-origin commodities … valued at 10% or less of the total value of the foreign-made commodity.” Although the rule is not clear, BIS takes the position that “controlled” here means “controlled for Syria” under section 746.9 and therefore includes any EAR99 item other than food or medicine.  Under that reading the EAR99 steel tubes would be controlled U.S.-origin commodities for purposes of the de minimis rule. We just don’t know if the tubes were more than 10 percent of the value of the foreign-made stators. And we don’t know this because the supposedly completely proffer leaves out this crucial element of the crime.

I do not doubt that in fact the U.S.-origin content here was in excess of de minimis as required by the rule for foreign-made products. My point is, however, that the BIS press release and the proffer incorrectly and misleadingly state that a criminal violation occurred because the stators contained any amount of U.S. origin goods. That is simply not a correct statement of the law, and those charged with enforcing the law should also correctly state it.