After the 2009 special enforcement initiative, called Operation Mirage, CBP compiled statistical data proved that the undervaluation of imported goods from China had risen to the level of significant risk in some product categories. Supported by the Administration’s direction to level the trade playing field, addressing undervaluation will continue to be part of CBP’s comprehensive trade enforcement strategy.
While working for CBP, an in-house counsel remarked that you would know you are on the right enforcement track when case law supports your theory of risk.
An example of this observation recently surfaced. In a press release dated October 3, Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported that, as alleged in a False Claims Act complaint, a company called Notations, acting as a wholesaler, repeatedly ignored warning signs that its business partner, which imported garments from China, was engaged in a scheme to underpay customs duties on the imported garments it sold to Notations. Pursuant to the settlement, Notations admitted and accepted responsibility for failing to act in response to indications of fraudulent conduct. The company agreed to pay $1 million in damages, and implement measures designed to prevent future fraud in its business and supply chain operations.
The importer of women’s apparel manufactured in China presented false and fraudulent invoices to CBP, showing prices that were discounted by 75 percent, or more, to avoid customs duties. The wholesaler, Notations, which was the importer’s biggest customer, admitted that it aided this scheme by repeatedly ignoring warning signs that the importer’s irregular business practices were highly suggestive of fraud.
Notations has also agreed to implement a written compliance policy that will include measures to educate its employees on identifying red flags for fraud in import transactions, to monitor the conduct of its business partners who act as importers, and to report all potentially fraudulent conduct to CBP.
To be noted in this example, the court was successful in pursuing a case against a company that was not the importer of record, and that is in a foreign location.
This should be a warning to all companies. It is recommended that your written compliance plan include steps to monitor the players in your supply chain. If your suppliers are buying overseas, your procurement team needs to remember that caveat emptor can save them a world of trouble.
Recently, President Trump sent a memo directing Secretary of Commerce, Wilber Ross, to initiate an investigation of steel and aluminum products. The rarely used investigative authority found under section 232(b)(1)(A) of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 (19 U.S.C. 1862(b)(1) determines any detrimental trade activity affecting U.S. national security.
In addition, the Presidential memo lists other “core industries such as…vehicles, aircraft, shipbuilding, and semiconductors. The administration considers these as “critical elements of our manufacturing and defense industrial bases, which we must defend against unfair trade practices and other abuses.”
The Secretary of Commerce reports to the President, within 270 days of initiating the investigation and focuses on whether the importation of the article in question is in such quantities or under such circumstances as to threaten to impair the national security. The President can concur, or not, with the Secretary’s recommendations, and take action to “adjust the imports of an article and its derivatives,” or other non-trade related actions as deemed necessary.
Another trade remedy is found in Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974. This law provides the United States with the authority to enforce trade agreements, resolve trade disputes, and open foreign markets to U.S. goods and services. It is the principal statutory authority under which the United States may impose trade sanctions on foreign countries that either violate trade agreements or engage in other unfair trade practices. When negotiations to remove the offending trade practice fail, the United States may take action to raise import duties on the foreign country’s products as a means to address the trade imbalance.
Under section 332 of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1332), the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) conducts investigations into trade and tariff matters upon request of the President, the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means, the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, either branch of the Congress, or upon the Commission’s own initiative. The USITC has broad authority to investigate matters pertaining to the customs laws of the United States, foreign competition with domestic industries, and international trade relations.
The USITC can also conduct investigations using section 337, to determine whether there is unfair competition in the importation of products into, or their subsequent sale in, the United States. Section 337 declares the infringement of a U.S. patent, copyright, registered trademark, or mask work to be an unlawful practice in import trade. It also declares unlawful other unfair methods of competition and unfair acts in the importation and subsequent sale of products in the United States, the threat or effect of which is to destroy or substantially injure a domestic industry, prevent the establishment of such an industry, or restrain or monopolize trade and commerce in the United States.
Section 337 investigations require formal hearings held before an administrative law judge. If a violation is found, the USITC may issue orders barring the importation of certain products into the United States. In addition to requesting long-term relief, complainants also may move for temporary relief pending final resolution of the investigation based on a showing of, among other things, irreparable harm in the absence of such temporary relief.
Subtitle A of title VII of the Tariff Act of 1930, as added by the Trade Agreements Act of 1979 (19 U.S.C. § 1671 et seq.) and subsequently amended, provides that countervailing duties will be imposed when two conditions are met: (a) the U.S. Department of Commerce (Commerce) determines that the government of a country, or any public entity within the territory of a country, is providing, directly or indirectly, a countervailable subsidy with respect to the manufacture, production, or export of the subject merchandise that is imported or sold (or likely to be sold) for importation into the United States and (b), in the case of merchandise imported from a Subsidies Agreement country, the USITC determines that an industry in the United States is materially injured or threatened with material injury, or that the establishment of an industry is materially retarded, by reason of imports of that merchandise.
If Commerce determines that a countervailable subsidy is being bestowed upon merchandise imported from a country that is not a Subsidies Agreement country, a countervailing duty can be levied on the merchandise in the amount of the net countervailable subsidy without a USITC determination of material injury.
In addition, Subtitle B provides that antidumping duties will be imposed when two conditions are met: (a) Commerce determines that the foreign subject merchandise is being, or is likely to be, sold in the United States at less than fair value, and (b) the USITC determines that an industry in the United States is materially injured or threatened with material injury, or that the establishment of an industry is materially retarded, by reason of imports of that merchandise.
Sections 201 to 204 of the Trade Act of 1974 (19 U.S.C. 2251 to 2254) concern investigations conducted by the USITC to determine if a product is being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury, or the threat thereof, to a domestic industry.
If the USITC makes an affirmative determination, it recommends to the President the action that will address the serious injury or threat and facilitate positive adjustment by the industry to import competition. The President makes the final decision on remedy, including the form, amount, and duration.
There is no doubt that the current administration will use every available tool to initiate investigations and take action where such investigations determine injury to U.S. domestic industry by foreign imports. Continue to keep track of the announcements by the White House, Commerce, the USITC and CBP, and don’t get tripped up on the numbers.
Over the last few weeks, I have written a series of short articles discussing the need for developing a compliance-based approach to transacting international trade. This will help to prepare your organization to effectively deal with the risks inherent in importing.
What are these risks that continue to be the focus of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)? There are various operational policies and programs that give insight into the agency’s concerns. The most important is the identification of Priority Trade Issues (PTIs). Currently, CBP considers the agency’s trade enforcement priorities to be:
Antidumping and Countervailing Duty case administration and enforcement;
Intellectual Property Rights protection;
In CBP’s own words “Priority Trade Issues (PTIs) represent high-risk areas that can cause significant revenue loss, harm the U.S. economy, or threaten the health and safety of the American people. They drive risk-informed investment of CBP resources and enforcement and facilitation efforts, including the selection of audit candidates, special enforcement operations, outreach, and regulatory initiatives.”
I worked in Customs for over thirty years and met regularly with importers to discuss trade risk, compliance, and enforcement. Often, companies would express their concerns about the cost of compliance–the proverbial cost benefit analysis. If money is spent to create a compliance department, what will the benefits be? Do the risks of possibly getting caught by Customs outweigh the investment in corporate trade compliance? How can there be an effective response to risk without the associated high costs?
Just as with most things, there are rules that govern our behavior. When we drive to work there are lane markings on major thoroughfares, and traffic light systems, and posted speed limits to guide us in an orderly fashion. The same can be said for international trade rules. They are meant to make order out of potential chaos. No person or company can operate successfully in an atmosphere of chaos. Business seeks out predictability, and stability. The rules and regulations governing trade provide a needed stable structure that can help companies weather shifts in the global economy or changes to the legal or regulatory framework.
More importantly, the rules help to level the playing field, and enhance and improve the competitive business dynamic. When companies fail to operate using these rules the underpinnings of trade policy collapse. Trade preference program become endangered, national economies become threatened, sourcing models get upended, business relationships are uprooted.
In addition, companies can get swept up in enforcement actions. Customs assesses risk using somewhat broad parameters. It could be driven by product, country of origin, manufacturer, preferential trade program usage, or combinations of these elements. There are also those instances when very specific information reaches the agency.
The better question to ask is what price is paid if my company does not invest in a culture of compliance? Getting enmeshed in Customs or other regulatory enforcement actions can tarnish your brand, lead to expensive law suits and penalty actions, and divert your resources away from your corporate mission and goals.
Ensuring a strong compliance structure in your organization ensures greater facilitation of product entering the commerce which supports just in time inventory practices. Costs are reduced for both government and business by focusing limited resources to enhancing productivity. A compliance driven operation is a win-win.
Traditionally, Customs Services have been tasked with the collection and protection of revenues generated from the importation of goods into their respective countries. Declared valuation of the imported goods is the basis for the collection of duties and value added tax for the national budgets. However, as the global economy is gravitating toward various free trade and duty-free preference partnerships and regional economic integration the traditional role of Customs is evolving.
Most Customs Services will readily admit that the growth of import trade and resulting complexities are often overwhelming for current personnel numbers, training, and abilities. The World Customs Organization has advocated the use of various risk management programs to identify the highest risk transactions, and therefore direct limited resources to addressing only these risks, while absorbing lower risk situations. Various countries have also established trusted partnerships with members of the supply chain using the business community as a force multiplier for compliance. Modern Customs Services must be on the leading edge of building a culture of compliance within the global trade community.
The international trade community has embraced the concept of just in time inventory procedures and Customs must embrace a just in time response to the needs of business. The lack of timeliness in regulatory decisions, and addressing legal issues, e.g., protests, the inability to create clear and concise regulations to elucidate new legal requirements, and failure to understand the business of business has a detrimental effect on corporate prosperity and subsequently a nation’s economic growth. Customs must see itself as an economic growth engine and compliance partnerships need to be expanded to include economic growth partnerships.
Generally, companies that reach out to Customs are seeking to enhance their compliance footprint, not to engage in questionable trade practices. There is no doubt that there are those in the trade community who engage in undervaluation, circumvention of anti-dumping duties, the introduction of goods that violate intellectual property rights, and in introducing products that adversely affect the health and safety of consumers. In these situations, Customs should take swift and effective enforcement action. Violations such as these also have a dampening effect on economic growth. However, for those companies seeking to be compliant players in the global economy, Customs Services need to step up and engage in collaborative solutions and ways forward.
Customs has a duty to remove unnecessary roadblocks affecting international trade transactions. Creating policies that are the antithesis of global economic partnerships is unacceptable. Customs Services should recognize their role in national economic growth by taking steps to ensure that Customs officials are trained in the complexities of international trade and the legal requirements necessary for a seamless facilitation of legitimate trade. Customs needs to develop programs that enable the highest level of integrity among Customs human resources and to develop strong risk management programs that address serious violations, rather than just seeking to pluck low hanging fruit which have little risk to compliance or which impede the flow of compliant trade. Of course, it is critical to ensure that adequate resources are in place to quickly address requests from the trade community regarding legal advice and rulings. Mutually developed compliance programs must take into account business needs, and provide quick and effective communication with the trade community. Customs must guarantee consistent and uniform treatment of issues across various ports and government agency offices to ensure predictability.