Saturday, April 01, 2017

Executive Order on Customs Enforcement

Apparently, the administration has pivoted to its trade agenda. Yesterday, we saw the draft letter to Congress outlining the modest goals for NAFTA renegotiations. I also tweeted the announcement that Kevin McAleenan would be nominated to Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. The last recent action is the Executive Order issued yesterday "Establishing Enhanced Collection and Enforcement of Antidumping and Countervailing Duties and Violations of Trade and Customs Laws."

What's this about?

The Executive Order notes that as of May 2015, the United States has failed to collected $2.3 billion in antidumping and countervailing duties. Often, the liable importer is a foreign entity without assets in the U.S. or is insufficiently capitalized to pay the duties. Either way, the duties are uncollectable. To address this, Customs imposes bond requirements and, in certain cases, Commerce requires cash deposits of duties. As is, the bonding requirements can be onerous. In some cases, the surety requires cash collateral to issue the bond, meaning the surety is taking no risk and the importer may as well pay the duties up front (if it can). I have personally seen companies put out of business because they could not secure sufficient bonds. That, of course, is the nature of doing business in merchandise that is allegedly unfairly traded and, as they say, a risk of doing business.



What the Executive Order does is require that the Secretary of Homeland Security must develop a plan to require certain importers of merchandise subject to an antidumping or countervailing duty order and who pose a risk to the revenue of the United States to provide security through a bond or other legal measure. The plan must be developed within 90 days of the date of the order.

The new part of this might turn out to be the risk assessment for certain importers. The Order specifies that it applies to "covered importers." These are defined as new importers or importers for which Customs and Border Protection has a record of incomplete or late payment of antidumping or countervailing duties. One obvious concern this raises is that an honest importer who discovers a failure to deposit antidumping or countervailing duties might be penalized for making a disclosure and voluntary tender. The penalty would come in the form of increased bond requirements. The reasonable response to that might be that the importer benefitted from an artificially low bond during the time it was withholding the duties. For similar reasons, this will raise the stakes in post-entry audits where unpaid dumping and countervailing duties are discovered. Clearly, the biggest burden will fall on new importers who will likely see increased bonding requirements.

Also within 90 days, the Secretary must develop a plan "for combatting violations of United States trade and customs laws for goods and for enabling interdiction and disposal, including through methods other than seizure, of inadmissible merchandise . . . ." I am curious what interdiction and disposal methods the government might deploy other than seizure (and the forfeiture that generally follows). There is exclusion and re-exportation, but that does not lead to "disposal."

Regarding the protection of intellectual property rights at the border, the Executive Order requires that the government share, to the extent permitted by law, with rights holders information necessary to determine whether there has been an IPR rights infringement and information regarding merchandise that has been abandoned before seizure. Right now, that information is withheld because CBP treats it as commercial proprietary information. The impact of this might be to allow the rights holders to sue infringers in U.S. courts or to seek exclusion orders from the International Trade Commission.

Finally, the order tells the Attorney General to recommend prosecution practices and allocate appropriate resources to "ensure that Federal prosecutors accord a high priority to prosecuting significant offenses related to violations of the trade laws." This is interesting in that is appears to be focused on criminal violations. I say this because the trade enforcement lawyers who deal with penalty cases are not "prosecutors;" they are in the Civil Division at Justice. Even the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who handle seizures do so in civil matters. Does that mean we can expect more prosecutions of individuals for trade-related fraud and false statements? It seems so.

Keeping in mind that the collection of antidumping and countervailing duties has been a priority enforcement issue for years and that the United States has put significant resources toward the interdiction of products violating U.S. intellectual property rights, this Order seems to be telling CBP: "Keep at it." There is some specific instructions to apply risk assessments to importers of goods subject to antidumping and countervailing duty orders. I suspect, but can't prove, that people at CBP would tell you that the agency was already doing that.

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