On May 18, 2018, CBP issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) banning the importation of all Turkmenistan cotton or products produced in whole or in part with Turkmenistan cotton. The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (TFTEA) was signed into law P.L. 114-125 on February 24, 2016. It was created to ensure a fair and competitive trade environment. TFTEA prohibits all products made by forced labor, including child labor, from being imported into the United States.

On April 6, 2016, members of the U.S. Cotton Campaign, Alternative Turkmenistan News, and International Labor Rights Forum had submitted a petition to CBP requesting the agency ban the importation of all goods made with Turkmen cotton produced with forced labor under 19 U.S.C. § 1307.  Merchandise made with forced labor is subject to exclusion and/or seizure, and may lead to criminal investigation of the importer(s).

These three groups alleged that the Turkmen government forces public sector employees under threat of punishment, including loss of wages and termination of employment, to pick cotton. Further, the groups claimed that “[i]n the 2017 cotton harvest, in addition to forced mobilization of adults, the government of Turkmenistan forced children 10-15 years old to pick cotton in violation of international and domestic laws,” he added. When information reasonably but not conclusively indicates that merchandise made with forced labor is being imported, CBP may issue a WRO pursuant to 19 C.F.R. § 12.42(e).

CBP’s ban means retailers and brands need to move quickly to identify and eliminate Turkmen cotton from their supply chains.

On Valentine’s Day, two subcommittees of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a joint hearing on the potential application of blockchain technology beyond cryptocurrency and financial technology. This hearing highlights the U.S. Government’s growing interest in blockchain, a Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) that has powered platforms for secure and decentralized transactions. While its most visible exponent, Bitcoin, has been a hot topic, blockchain is gaining traction among some federal agencies as a tool of the future.

Given the sheer data demands on modern government, blockchain, which would enable what some call “democratized trust,” shows promise to cut red tape without compromising the security and integrity of government transactions. The potential use cases for blockchain are many—just to name a few: identity management, supply chain management, smart contracts, patents, and foreign aid delivery. Federal government agencies are making their own forays into this area:

  • Department of Homeland Security: prove the integrity of captured data from border devices to help secure the Internet of Things (IoT);
  • GSA: automating the FASt Lane process for IT Schedule 70 contracts to give end-user agencies quicker access to innovative suppliers;
  • Navy: secure sharing of data within the Naval Additive Manufacturing process.

But, the government is still cautious. With a view towards cybersecurity vulnerabilities, Section 1646 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act requires DoD to brief on the offensive and defensive cyber applications of blockchain by the early half of this year. In practice, the government has been experimenting mostly through vehicles such as proofs of concepts and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) projects. These initiatives, while distinct from traditional procurements, provide low-cost opportunities for entry. Industry should be on the lookout for ways to engage the government and articulate viable uses of blockchain for particular mission requirements.

If importers did not have enough to worry about in the new trade protectionist environment – higher duties from dumping, subsidy, section 201 and section 232 cases and increased enforcement – now they also may have to contend with the increased risks of whistleblower cases brought under the False Claims Act (FCA).  31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-33.  The FCA has been around for more than 150 years, but recently, has been successfully used to allege underpayment of duties.  Actions under the FCA can be brought directly by the Department of Justice (DOJ) or by a private party, known as a relator, seeking recovery on behalf of the U.S. government in a qui tam action. There are strong incentives for relators to file qui tam suits in light of the statute’s treble damages and penalties and its provision allowing relators to receive a share of up to 30 percent of any recovery. Qui tam actions are filed under seal, and before the case is unsealed to the public, the government is given an opportunity to investigate and determine whether or not it will intervene in the action.  In some cases, the government’s investigation can last not just months but years, often involving extensive one-sided discovery that DOJ is granted under the FCA.  And, even when the government declines to intervene, a relator can still independently proceed with the litigation.  Only if the government affirmatively moves to dismiss the qui tam could the relator not proceed, something that DOJ has historically been extremely reluctant to do.

Traditionally, FCA suits have been based on allegations that a party improperly received payment from the government, but importers must also be aware of the potential exposure associated with the “reverse” FCA provision of the statute, which imposes liability on any person who “knowingly conceals or knowingly and improperly avoids or decreases an obligation to pay or transmit money or property to the Government.”  31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(G).  Under the statute, the knowledge element can be established by (1) actual knowledge (2) deliberate ignorance; or (3) reckless disregard.  See § 3729(b)(1).

Importers have become targets of reverse FCA claims associated with duty evasion in part because a recent case from the Third Circuit.  United States ex rel. Customs Fraud Investigations, LLC v. Victaulic Co. The Third Circuit held that a failure to mark country of origin could be actionable under a reverse FCA theory of liability if a company knowingly imported unmarked products in an effort to evade custom duties.  839 F.3d 242 (3d Cir. 2016).  The court found that Victaulic had an established obligation under 19 U.S.C. § 1484(a)(1) to disclose to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) the fact that its goods were unmarked or improperly marked and if Victaulic knowingly failed to notify the CBP of its pipe fittings’ non-conforming status, this could give rise to reverse false claims liability for the unpaid marking duties.  In May 2017, Victaulic filed a petition for a writ of certiorari but the Supreme Court denied the petition this past October, leaving Victaulic to defend itself in the district court. While that case has not reached a judgment, the concern for importers is clear given the court of appeals’ validation of such a theory under the FCA.

Other recent cases have targeted companies importing goods that are subject to antidumping and countervailing duties. In 2016, Z Gallerie LLC paid $15 million to settle whistleblower FCA allegations that it masked the type of furniture it imported from China in order to avoid extra dumping duties. Basset Mirror Company paid $10.5 million to settle a similar case on furniture from China just this past month.  The rise in FCA cases related to import duties was highlighted in the recent Wall Street Journal article, in which it stated that the DOJ collected $4.7 billion in fiscal 2016 and $3.7 billion as a result of False Claims suits brought by whistleblowers in fiscal 2017.

These cases, combined with increased duties as a result of numerous unfair trade proceedings, create a perfect storm – encouraging both FCA plaintiffs’ lawyers and whistleblowers alike to cash in on a company’s failure to comply with import laws.  FCA claims are not limited to marking or dumping matters.  Cases may be brought if importers incorrectly value or classify imported goods, or make incorrect duty free claims based on a free trade agreement.

With all this troubling news, there are steps that importers may take to mitigate the risks or defend against an FCA claim. First, importers should establish strong internal compliance programs. Even if internal controls fall short of ensuring 100% compliance with import laws, a strong compliance program can be important evidence if an importer is forced to defend an FCA suit because the plaintiff (whether DOJ or a relator) must establish that an importer acted with the requisite knowledge—i.e., the plaintiff must show that the noncompliance occurred because the importer acted with actual knowledge or at least reckless disregard.  The existence of robust internal controls could be essential in helping an importer overcome a finding of reckless disregard.  Second, and related to having a strong compliance program, taking steps to investigate, identify, and disclose to the government any errors made could foreclose FCA liability in other ways, too.  For instance, if a company makes a disclosure concerning a potentially improper practice and the agency response is to take no formal action, that may show that the practice is not material to the government’s decision to pay or the potential obligation for the company to pay (in the case of import duties).

The materiality of alleged false statements or claims has been receiving enormous scrutiny recently in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark FCA decision in 2016 in Universal Health Services v. Escobar, 136 S. Ct. 1989 (2016), with agency approval or failure to disapprove of allegedly fraudulent conduct repeatedly being cited in dismissing actions for failing to show materiality.  Moreover, if a company discloses to the government their practices or interpretations with respect to regulations they are subject to, what is known as the government knowledge bar can also foreclose a finding of FCA liability.  In short, while there is often no sure-fire way to avoid mistakes in transactions involving government dollars, there are various proactive measures a company can take to help prevent mistakes from turning into a case of alleged fraud.

On January 22nd, President Trump imposed new “safeguard” tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, which will be in place for the next three years before tapering downward.  For the renewable energy industry, this is another major blow from this administration. Solar panels, most of which currently come from China will have an additional tariff rate of 30% imposed. Notably, there are already more than 150 other U.S. trade measures in place against various Chinese products. This new measure threatens to handicap a $28 billion industry that relies on parts made abroad for 80 percent of its supply chain.

Trump has also imposed a tariff of 20% on imported washing machines.  This is the first use of safeguard tariffs by the United States since 2002 when President Bush used them to restrict steel imports.  This decision comes on the heels of a determination by the International Trade Commission (ITC) that imports of these goods had injured domestic producers.

While many have seen the action as a necessary means of protecting American manufacturers, members of the South Korean government have harshly criticized the move and signaled a willingness to formally air their grievances before the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Significantly, the 2002 safeguard tariffs imposed by the Bush Administration were ultimately withdrawn after an adverse ruling at the WTO put the United States under the threat of retaliation.

Blockchains and distributed ledger technology (‘DLT’) are becoming increasingly prevalent in industry. A recent Juniper Research survey found that 56% of companies with more than 20,000 employees were either considering deploying, or were in the process of deploying, blockchain solutions.

At its core, blockchain technology is essentially an engine for processing exchanges of information. It is not a static record. A blockchain is a type of distributed database that tracks transactions in assets and exchanges of information. It is a chronological sequence of verified transactions within a certain network. A ‘transaction’ can be the transfer of an asset, the creation of a new medical record, or the entry into a swap transaction. There is not just one blockchain, just like there is not one database. Different blockchains can be created for different needs, with different operating rules.

A distributed ledger is a distributed database that tracks transactions. Multiple participants have access to the same ‘golden record’ – there is no single official copy. The ledger automatically updates when new transactions take place, and so there is prompt verification of completed transactions across the system. Blockchain is an example of a distributed ledger, but distributed ledgers don’t have to be based on blockchain.

Application to Supply Chains

Supply chain management has long sought an efficient, accurate, and paperless process. A system that records each event, is transparent when it needs to be, confidential at other times, designed to meet the regulatory obligations around government filings, commercial demands, insurance claims, and on and on.

One of the touted merits of a DLT supply chain is that it would solve challenges such as provenance (diamonds), sourcing (origin claims), important admissibility issues (forced labor), and even emerging issues such as conflict minerals.

Role of DLT in Tackling Modern Slavery

Modern slavery is a complex crime and it is estimated that 46 million people worldwide are in some form of slavery. DLT could be a powerful tool to address gaps in supply chain data and increase the efficiency of data sharing helping to improve traceability and transparency of supply chain labor standards. For example, DLT could assist companies to verify the working conditions of people involved in production. Increased collection, analysis, and sharing of data would help companies to identify and prevent slavery and could assist law enforcement agencies in tackling this insidious crime.

In circumstances where there is greater focus than ever before on corporate transparency, tracking supply chains and ensuring human rights are protected is increasingly important. The UK Government released new guidance in October 2017 on the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) which suggests that even companies that do not reach the £36 million turnover threshold should consider voluntarily producing MSA statements and there has also been increased NGO oversight particularly of large UK companies. Blockchains and DLT could provide the traceability and trust that companies need to combat modern slavery while at the same time improving corporate transparency.

What’s next?

In 2018, you can expect to see more implementations, so now is the time to develop a blockchain strategy and to develop a risk profile so that you will be ready to take advantage of the benefits of this new technology.

Crowell & Moring Can Help

Exploring Blockchain

We provide in-house CLE programs and information sessions on blockchain and DLT, helping clients understand both the technology and the regulatory issues of implementing a blockchain or DLT solution, as well as promising use cases in specific industries.

Creating a Blockchain Strategy

We offer in-depth workshop sessions for companies considering implementing a blockchain or DLT network, including identifying regulatory hurdles to adoption, assisting with network diligence, negotiating network agreements, and addressing the full range of issues relating to joining a network.

Ready to Join a Network

And, once you are ready to join a network, our team works to negotiate the legal agreements and provide a deep-dive review of operating procedures, cybersecurity and privacy concerns, and regulatory issues that will impact your success.

Despite increased pressure from the U.S. and the UN Security Council, human rights groups estimate about 16 countries still host North Korean laborers. A recent estimate by the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul puts the number of North Korean workers overseas at around 147,000. Most work in China and Russia, but reports continue to surface of North Korean workers even in EU countries.

In Poland for instance, a recent New York Times report found North Korean workers in a number of industries, including agriculture, the manufacture of shipping containers, and even ship construction. The report also includes the names of companies – Armex (reportedly linked to a UN sanctioned company called Rungrado General Trading) and Wonye – that have allegedly been involved in supplying such workers.

It was not until October 2017 that the EU agreed to stop renewing work permits for North Korean labor. However, media reports indicate local governments in Poland continued to approve such permits after the EU’s decision. New legislation took effect in Poland on January 1, 2018, barring new foreign worker permits in Poland, but there is reportedly little coordination between provincial governments and the national government on these permits.

The increased focus on imports produced by North Korean labor in third countries – now subject to exclusion from the United States, as well as exposing U.S. persons to OFAC sanctions – creates a need for enhanced due diligence in supply chain operations. Reports like these can help companies identify such products and transactions, something that is generally very difficult to do.

CBP has revised its informed compliance publication regarding Reasonable Care to include a section regarding forced labor. Additionally, seafood and apparel industries appear to be recent targets of CBP Requests for Information CF28’s regarding forced labor in their supply chain. Although admittedly, the CF28s may also be as a consequence of the passage of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAASA). P.L. 115-44. CAASA created a presumption that “significant goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part by the labor of North Korean nationals or citizens” are forced labor goods and prohibited from entry into the United States.

The seven fact sheets available on CBP’s website are:

Companies should evaluate their supply chains to insure that they are not at risk. For more information please contact Jeff Snyder or Frances Hadfield.