Justice Department, SEC cracking down on U.S. companies engaging in bribery abroad

Mar 24, 2011. In pursuit of Nigerian construction contracts, Halliburton and its international business partners allegedly routed illicit payments through bank accounts in Switzerland and Monaco.

And a middleman for a middleman of the Italian energy company ENI allegedly made repeated trips to a Niger­ian hotel room and handed over briefcases containing millions of dollars in U.S. currency to a government official. But paying the balance of the alleged $5 million bribe in the local currency was more problematic, the local bills were so bulky that the bagman allegedly had to deliver them by the carload.

These alleged schemes have come to light as part of an escalating effort by U.S. law enforcement officials against companies that engage in bribery abroad. Just last week, federal authorities announced they had charged IBM with corruptly pursuing contracts in Asia.

In recent years, the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission have filed an increasing number of foreign corruption cases, charging companies such as Tyson Foods, General Electric, Alcatel-Lucent and Daimler, the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars and the former parent of Chrysler.

The cases reach from Latin America to Africa, Asia and the Middle East, involving contracts worth billions of dollars. Together, they suggest that illicit payments often tip the scales of global business — sometimes with the blessing of top corporate executives.

Corruption imposes “an enormous tax” on international business, said Lanny A. Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, referring to the added costs companies must bear. “And because of that tax, jobs are lost” and “honest businesses lose business opportunities,” Breuer said.

The law also applies to foreign companies whose securities are traded in the United States.

The Justice Department took 48 enforcement actions under the FCPA in 2010, up from two in 2004, and the SEC took 26, up from three in 2004, according to a study by the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

The Justice Department ratcheted up its offensive with an FBI sting that led to 22 arrests early last year. The defendants, executives and employees of companies that sell military and law enforcement equipment, were led to think they were bribing the minister of defense of an African nation for a deal to equip the presidential guard, the Justice Department said.

As of last year, the Justice Department was conducting more than 150 criminal investigations under the FCPA, according to an international law enforcement report.

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