As head of the DOJ's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement unit, Mark Mendelsohn transformed the FCPA from a legal backwater to a headline practice. He's leaving the Justice Department Friday after a dozen years, and leaving behind the most aggressive overseas anti-bribery regime in the world.
In November last year, Mendelsohn's boss, Assistant AG Lanny Breuer, called him an "exceptional public servant and a visionary steward of the FCPA program." In private practice, he's expected to earn between $2.5 and $3 million a year.
Mendelsohn's view of the FCPA and American anti-corruption policy wasn't complicated. He pushed enforcement against corporations of any size and from any country -- including U.S.-government contractor KBR, German industrial giants Siemens and Daimler AG, British-based BAE Systems, and France's Alcatel-Lucent. Financial penalties ballooned during Mendelsohn's time, topped by Siemens' $800 million payment to the DOJ and SEC in December 2008.
He also led the government's charge against individual FCPA defendants -- among them KBR's Jack Stanley, entrepreneur Frederic Bourke, and the 22 shot-show defendants.
During his term, no corporations mounted a courtroom defense against FCPA charges; instead all made deals with the DOJ to settle their cases. That gave Mendelsohn extraordinary power -- in the FCPA realm, he and the DOJ became prosecutor, judge, and jury. That's more power than most mortals can handle, but he did just fine.
Like all top cops, he was criticized from every direction. Some said he was overzealous, that his expansive view of the FCPA went far beyond Congress' original intent. Others complained that corporations enjoyed easy settlements, based not on bribery charges but only related offenses, and never resulting in debarment from U.S. government business. But his fans cheered because nearly all corporate defendants were given second chances.
Above all, Mendelsohn was an honest advocate for compliance, not only at home but abroad. That may be his most important contribution. His steady hand encouraged prosecutors in other countries to fight public sleaze. And his FCPA team partnered with counterparts in England and Germany, Italy and France, Switzerland, Hungary, Costa Rica, Nigeria and elsewhere, forging ties that led to the first real global enforcement actions. Those cases helped change attitudes everywhere.
His boss was right. Mark Mendelsohn was an extraordinary public servant and an FCPA visionary.