Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Dennis Rodman Investigated for Violating U.S. Sanctions

Decorum-guru Miss Manners advises that when you’re invited to somebody’s home, presenting a gift to your host is considered good etiquette.

Perhaps former NBA player Dennis Rodman had Miss Manners in mind when he was a recent guest in North Korea.

The U.S. State and Treasury departments are investigating whether Rodman broke any OFAC compliance laws on his latest trip to the troubled nation. In addition to playing an exhibition basketball game with other thrill-seeking American teammates, he helped dictator Kim Jong-Un celebrate his 31st birthday.  Rodman reportedly gave gifts worth more than $10,000 to Jong-Un and his wife, Ri Sol-ju. Among the swag were bottles of Irish Jameson whiskey, European crystal, an Italian suit, a fur coat and an English Mulberry handbag – all slightly more extravagant than the chocolate-covered almonds or potted plant you may have received the last time you hosted a party.

U.S. sanctions against North Korea have existed in one form or another since 1950, but Rodman may not have been aware that bringing luxury goods into the country is illegal. It is a violation of the 2010 International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Eugene Cottilli, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) explains, “Our regulations require a license for the export or re-export to North Korea of all U.S.-origin items except food and certain medicines.”  It has not been revealed whether or not Rodman applied for an export license for any of Jong-Un’s gifts. If they were in fact brought to the country illegally, Rodman could face a fine of up to $1 million and twenty years imprisonment.  Maybe he should have just baked a cake?

Compounding Rodman’s potential woes is the possibility he may have also committed an anti-bribery offense under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The law prohibits “giving or promising to give anything of value to a foreign official for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business or gaining an unfair advantage”.  Under FCPA, anti-bribery violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. But what could Rodman possibly have done to violate this law? His trip was not meant to be business-related. It was hyped as an effort to improve relations with North Korea through the shared joy of sports – an altruistic bid for diplomacy and goodwill (and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lead an auditorium of 14,000 in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”).  Unfortunately, among the goodies Rodman carried over the North Korean border were several bottles of his own liquor brand, “Bad Ass Vodka”.  It’s unclear as to whether or not the unfortunately-named libation was also intended as a gift or if Rodman, donning his entrepreneurial hat, intended to do business in the country.

There aren’t many etiquette books offering advice on visiting the dictator of an embargoed country on his birthday (it’s one of those niche markets). So anyone planning to do so should read up on U.S. sanction laws instead. Understand the fundamentals of OFAC compliance, know against whom the United States has imposed sanctions (and what that means in terms of what you pack in your suitcase), and recognize when – in lieu of gifts – a simple “Happy Birthday” would be sufficient.