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The 1981 GAO Report

The year was 1981.

The FCPA was a mere infant – approximately 3.5 years old. Those living with it were concerned with its ambiguities and complying with it.

In March 1981, the “investigative arm” of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, “Impact of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act on U.S. Business.” (See here and here).

The report was based, in part, on a GAO questionnaire survey of 250 companies randomly selected from the Fortune 1000 list of the largest industrial firms in the U.S.

The questionnaire addressed the FCPA’s relationship to the following four areas: (1) corporate policies and/or codes of conduct, (2) corporate systems of accountability, (3) cost burdens, if any, incurred by management to comply with the act, and (4) corporate opinions regarding the (i) acts effect on U.S. corporate foreign sales, (ii) the clarity of the act’s provisions, (iii) the potential effectiveness of an international antibribery agreement, and (iv) perceived effectiveness of the act in reducing questionable payments.

The GAO also discussed the FCPA’s impact with leading public accounting firms, professional accounting and auditing organizations, professional legal associations and business and public interest groups. In addition, the GAO discussed enforcement of the FCPA with DOJ and SEC officials and examined documentation relating to enforcement activities. Also interviewed by the GAO were officials from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Department of Commerce, Treasury, and State.

The GAO report covers all the topics listed above. However, this post relates to the clarity of the FCPA’s provisions.

Chapter 4 of the Report is titled “Issues Surrounding the Act’s Antibribery Provisions.”

The chapter begins by noting that there is “confusion over what constitutes compliance with the act’s antibribery provisions.”

The report notes that “corporate and governmental officials have criticized the anti-bribery provisions as being ambiguous about what constitutes compliance.”

The ambiguities include confusion or uncertainty about a host of issues, including the “definition of ‘foreign official.””

At the time, the term “foreign official” specifically excluded any employee whose duties are essentially ministerial or clerical.” This exclusion was eliminated in the 1988 amendments to the FCPA. Otherwise the definition of “foreign official” the GAO report found to be ambiguous is same today – “any officer or employee of a foreign government or one of its departments, agencies or instrumentalties.” [Note -the public international organization prong was added in 1998].

The report notes:

“This definition has been criticized as unclear. Lawyers we contacted questioned whether employees of public corporations, such as national airlines or nationalized companies, are considered foreign officials. Similar questions have surfaced in countries – particularly developing countries – where there are small and frequently closely related groups, including both business and government relationships as well as families. Individuals within these groups frequently move between the private and public sectors, often without a clear distinction.”

The report then discusses the DOJ’s guidance program and begins by noting that “President Carter expressed concern over the potential effect of the act’s alleged ambiguities in September 1978 – only 9 months after its passage.” “To reduce this uncertainty, he directed the Department of Justice to give the business community guidance concerning its enforcement intentions under the act.”

The report notes that in March 1980, the DOJ implemented its “long awaited guidance program” but that the “program has yet to effectively address the ambiguities, and it is doubtful it will.”

In concluding Chapter 4 of the Report, the GAO notes:

“the act is an expression of congressional policy, and rigorously defined and completely unambiguous requirements may be impractical and could provide a roadmap for corporate bribery. On other hand, companies, whether registered with SEC or domestic concerns under Department of Justice jurisdiction, should be subject to clear and consistent demands by the Government agencies responsible for enforcing the act.”

An option the GAO recommends is that “the Justice Department, SEC, and other interested agencies […] offer legislative proposals which would amend the act to more explicitly define the antibribery provisions and [such an amendment] could cover concepts such as the definition of “foreign official.”

GAO notes “because of the importance of the act and the questions and concerns about the antibribery provisions, close congressional oversight is needed.”

Not surprsingly, both DOJ and SEC disagreed with the GAO’s findings. In its responses, the agencies attack, not the substance of the findings, but the GAO’s methodology.

The GAO report states:

“Both SEC and Justice disagree with our recommendations that they develop alternative ways to address the antibribery provisions. They contend that our statistics suggest that ambiguities in the act are not a sigifnicaint problem.”

In 1981, the investigative arm of Congress found, based on extensive study, that the FCPA’s “foreign official” element was ambiguous.

Here we are some thirty years later having the same discussion.

[Here is another interesting nugget. In June 1981, John Fedders was named to be the SEC’s Director of Enforcement, replacing Stanley Sporkin who left to become general counsel at the CIA. During a news conference, Fedders “pledged to enforce, with discretion, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which he criticized as being ambiguous.” See Owen Ullmann, “Corporate Lawyer Gets SEC Enforcement Post,” Associated Press, June 29, 1981.]

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