Yesterday the Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) announced that it was fining ExxonMobil $2 million in connection with contracts signed by ExxonMobil with Rosneft in violation of the Ukraine Related Sanctions Regulations. The basis for the fine was not dealing with Rosneft itself; rather, OFAC premised the fine on the fact that Igor Sechin, an individual designated under Executive Order 13661 and the Ukraine Sanctions, signed the contracts. Simultaneously with the OFAC announcement, ExxonMobil filed suit in federal court in Texas seeking to overturn the penalty.

The OFAC announcement is unusual in that rather than simply announcing the fine and going through its usual analysis of how it calculated the penalty, OFAC responds to arguments made by ExxonMobil that it did not violate the sanctions.  ExxonMobil argued that OFAC had designated Sechin in his private capacity and not in his capacity as an official of Rosneft. OFAC harrumphs, as if it were completely obvious, that there is no private/official distinction in designations. According to OFAC, it is completely clear that there will be a problem if the blocked officer signs any agreement with a U.S person. It supports this with a Burma FAQ that deals with a different situation, that was contained in a section dealing with the Burma regulations and that OFAC has removed from its website.

OFAC’s glib rejection of a public/private distinction is not founded in any analysis of the regulations at issue. In fact, as everyone has known for quite some time, the rules do not clearly address situations where an officer of a company is designated and blocked by OFAC but the company itself is not. The Ukraine regulations refer to Executive Order 13661 as defining what activities are illegal. That relevant part of the order is Section 4 which prohibits

the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order

It also prohibits the “receipt … of funds, goods, or services” from any such blocked person.

So how does Sechin’s signature of the Rosneft deals step over a line? Certainly ExxonMobil wasn’t providing any funds, goods or services for his benefit. The contracts were for the benefit of Rosneft. Nor did ExxonMobil receive any “funds, goods, or services” from Sechin in the contract. Unless perhaps OFAC thinks that Sechin provided a service to ExxonMobil when he whipped out his pen and spent three seconds spreading ink over the signature line.

If that is the illegal service that was being provided, and it seems that it is because OFAC is drawing a line at the signature line, it’s not very defensible. Let’s say that Sechin hid in a closet and told another company official to sign. That’s a service too. In fact, there is no way to imagine a scenario where a top official of a company does not ultimately approve a major contract, which is also a service, meaning that OFAC’s effort to maintain a distinction between sanctioning Rosneft and sanctioning its officers falls completely apart.

The FAQ relied on by OFAC does not help its position either. Because OFAC has disappeared this crucial guidance (in fact the only guidance from OFAC anywhere on the signature issue) from its website, I’ve retrieved it from the Wayback Machine:

285. If a Burmese Government minister is an SDN, how does that impact the ministry he leads?

A government ministry is not blocked solely because the minister heading it is an SDN. U.S. persons should, however, be cautious in dealings with the ministry to ensure that they are not, for example, entering into any contracts that are signed by the SDN. [03-18-13]

Significantly, guidance on the minister of a government ministry is not necessarily relevant to a situation involving an official of a private company. Additionally, it is hard to justify punishing a company for violating the Ukraine sanctions because it did not read a web document about another set of sanctions.  Not to mention that this guidance no longer exists at all.

It’s easy to see what ExxonMobil sued. I’ll be watching the lawsuit closely. Pass the popcorn.

UPDATE:  FAQs 398 and 400 released after the Rosneft contracts that caution against entering into contract signed by SDNs.  Both of these concern OFAC’s 50-percent guidance and not the Ukraine sanctions.  Neither explains how an SDN signing a contract in his or her official capacity actually violates a rule that OFAC has promulgated and published in the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations.

 

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